Extreme Dieting

Michelle Stacey. The Fasting Girl: a True Victorian Medical Mystery. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2002.
In June 1865 a 19-year-old Brooklyn girl, Mollie Fancher was crossing the street, laden with parcels and her mind on her forthcoming marriage, when she was knocked down by a horse drawn streetcar. From then on she took to her bed, her injuries developing into a mysterious affliction which caused convulsions and paralysis, She claimed to go blind, but could still read and sew, allegedly seeing through her skin. Soon she was to make more extraordinary claims still; that she could exist without eating anything at all, that she could separate from her bedridden body and roam the town. For years she seemed to be in a trace like state, from which she emerged without memory of the previous eight years.

These wild talents made Mollie a media sensation, and soon believers and sceptics were arguing over claims, often in the most vitriolic terms. She became a focal point in the cultural wars of the post Darwinian period, as the new sciences of neurology and psychology battled with religious and mystical world views. Mollies wild talents were used as ammunition against 'materialism', while 19th century ancestors of James Randi proclaimed her a fraud.

Michelle Stacey sees Molly as a link in the line that led from the holy anorexia of medieval saints such as Catherine of Siena, through early modern fasting girls to today's anorexia nervosa, though in Mollie's case it is clear she was far from starving herself to death. Was she a conscious fraud, or did she eat in a dissociated state, and what was the role of her maiden aunt nurse and guardian? No conclusions are reached.

Molly's strange symptoms lie in the nexus of hysteria and neurasthenia, the psychogenic diseases par excellence of the Victorian age. Grand hysteria has now largely vanished, though it can still be seen in the strange performances in 'electro-allergy' clinics, but neurasthenia lives on as ME, chronic fatigue syndrome and the like, protean diseases with vast lists of symptoms.

Mollie lies at the centre of three modern concerns anorexia, fatigue and multiple personality disorder which may or may not exist, depending which 'authority' you listen to. To these, considered by Stacey, we should also add Munchausen's syndrome. Like many Munchauseners Mollie starts with a real illness, and we can hypothesize that the solicitous attention she received became something she was loath to give up.

All of these syndromes are perhaps not separate things but symbols and strategies of something deeper, desperate attempts to gain control of the world by those who feel themselves powerless, (Molly's mother died when she was a child, her father remarried and dumped her on the aunt), attempts to escape from social roles and the human condition itself. The claims of clairvoyance and the like come in here surely. Her pseudo anorexia and clairvoyant claims are messages of transcendence, an escape from the body, often seen as a burden, especially for women in the days before effective medicines and contraceptives. Today in the age of the perfect body it is not surprising that psychogenic illnesses seem to be taking on the form of very more extreme and radical body dismorphias, to be 'cured' by therapies and surgery, and soon by genetic engineering.

There is another story of alienation in this book, Michelle Stacey, a bright thoroughly modern New Yorker cannot grasp the world of her ancestors, the past to her is a very foreign country indeed, and she finds herself baffled by how intelligent rational people could believe that Molly lived on air. Her story seems to be a tale from an ancient past filled with signs and wonders. But out beyond the bourgeois areas of the big cities that pre-modern world lives on; and not all that far away from Molly's home will be the apartment block from where it was claimed that Linda Neapolitano was abducted through a closed window into a spaceship. What would the Victorians have made of her story?  -- Peter Rogerson

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