Caroline Knapp was a beloved member of the Harris Center's family. She died of lung cancer in 2002 at the age of 42. Among Ms. Knapp's many fine qualities, we will always remember her courage, her compassion, her strong intellect and talent for writing. Below is a review of her fourth book: Appetites: Why Women Want (New York, Counterpoint/Perseus Books Group, 2003).
This lucid account contributes to Caroline Knapp's strong legacy. Drawing upon her personal struggle with anorexia nervosa, she addresses a whole range of hungers, the realm of food being only one; others include our deep and often hidden desires for joy, "connection with significant others," spontaneity, sensuality and inner peace. Introduced early in the book and supported throughout, her major tenet is that, for a variety of reasons, and with a variety of consequences, women have profound difficulty recognizing and satisfying their appetites.
Whether she is tracking cultural trends, analyzing family dynamics, or reporting an interview, Knapp's voice is honest and true. This authenticity is particularly noticeable when she is recounting how it felt to deprive herself of food. Traveling back two decades to her college days, she illuminates how she "spen[t] a long time dabbling" in self-starvation before landing in the throes of the disorder. Overwhelmed by the wide range of opportunities that were open - "at least in theory" - to her generation, she "would compensate by making [herself] small, fragile, and non-threatening as a wren." As for her hunger, she "conquered it, mastered it, roped it like a steer." These powerful images are characteristic of Knapp.
On one level, given that Knapp is the author of two earlier best-sellers - Drinking: a Love Story and Pack of Two: The Intimate Bond Between People and Dogs - the clarity of expression in "Appetites" is not surprising. Yet, on another level, Knapp's ability to articulate her feelings is quite remarkable. Her eating disorder, she points out, channeled her many anxieties into one obsession, leaving underlying emotions and conflicts unaddressed. The fact that she gradually learned to identify her inner feelings, recovered from anorexia and went on to write about it so eloquently is a tribute to her courage and tenacity, offering encouragement and inspiration to others.
Knapp probes her childhood and adolescence with a sophistication that stems, in part, from being a psychoanalyst's daughter. Ironically, and to her credit, her discussion of recovery describes insight as helpful, but as ultimately less important than "willingness to experiment, to take risks." Likening her healing to the process of "chipp[ing] away at [a] rock," she elucidates how, under the guidance of a therapist, she took "baby steps" - such as finishing a meal or not "call[ing] the boyfriend" - that resulted in "victories." Nuanced, yet readable and infinitely respectful, her account demystifies psychotherapy, portraying it as a life-altering experience.
Knapp's exploration of how our appearance- and consumer-driven culture contributes to body hatred validates what many of us have heard before. What makes these sections original is that, without sensationalizing, Knapp highlights, and thereby exposes, the bombarding effect of society's painful messages: "…if you're a woman who came of age in the latter half of the twentieth century, you've no doubt heard them in one form or another: Don't eat too much, don't get too big, don't reach too far, don't climb too high, don't want too much. No, no, no." These negatives send chills of recognition up and down our spines.
Woven into this account are the voices of women Knapp interviewed on the topic of appetites. There is Lisa, a comedy writer, who describes her inability to allow herself new clothes and vacations as "an almost consumerist version of anorexia." There is a recovered binge-eater with an MBA, who believes that she over-ate to distance herself from her sexuality. There are other high achievers who felt that they had to pay for their career successes by denying themselves in other spheres. And there is Leslie, a large twenty-four-year-old, who represented to Knapp "the embodiment of a paradigm shift, one that many women could learn from."
From the outset, Knapp acknowledges that her interviewees are white, well-educated and well-to-do and that females from other backgrounds may have profoundly different, and highly valuable, perspectives on appetite. The Harris Center reviewer feels that portraits of women from various ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic settings would have been extremely helpful. The absence of diversity from Knapp's sample is disappointing but, at the same time, realistic. The topic of female appetites is complex and multi-dimensional, requiring more exploration than this author apparently felt that she could contain in one book.
Knapp's outlook on the future of women's appetite-related struggles is cautious but ultimately hopeful. She discusses a variety of ways through which her interviewees find a measure of peace. One has transformed her life by adopting a Chinese baby girl; another seeks solace in the natural environment; a third reaches "serenity" and "satiety" through prayer. A turning point in Knapp's journey came when she developed an interest in rowing. Her description of this "exhilarating and deeply calming experience" is gratifying, and her epilogue, which recounts the birth of her niece, connects with women far and wide.
This page was reviewed and updated on January 16, 2008.