Elena Vanishing: A Memoir by Elena and Clare B. Dunkle
SECOND BEST WASN’T AN OPTION.
Topics of Interest: identity, eating disorders, survival, will power, family, abuse
Curriculum Connections: English, Health and Physical Education
Blurb: It used to be that I woke up in the morning with my hair styled exactly as it was the day before. Thanks to Extra-Super Hold Aqua Net Hairspray (white can, pink stripes), my bleached, teased hair wouldn’t budge an inch in a hurricane. I could have stuck my head out the window of a jet plane and the sheer speed of it wouldn’t have displaced a single over-processed strand. It was the 80s and I was gorgeous. Or so I thought.
Looking back at pictures of myself with mile-high bangs and crayon-thick eyeliner, I shake my head with bewilderment over my previous self. As sure as I am now that my teenage look was ridiculous, I was equally as positive at the time that I was rocking the established standards of beauty. To venture out of the house without at least an hour of prep time just wasn’t an option for me. My entire identity was wound tightly around a look that made me feel not only attractive, but acceptable.
Elena, in her memoir Elena Vanishing, connects her identity to a number. Diagnosed at 17 with anorexia nervosa, Elena’s standard of beauty was determined by a number on a scale. Every day was a battle to consume fewer and fewer calories, and every hour was wrought with brutal and abusive thoughts of self-loathing.
After suffering a violent sexual attack at age 13, Elena spiralled into a vicious, years-long quest for perfection. Food became her enemy, and starving herself provided her with a sense of control and superiority. She refused to be second best: every ounce of energy she had went toward appearing perfect to the outside world. Despite facing constant physical pain, she earned top marks, worked three jobs, and recorded how many people told her she was beautiful. She absolutely refused to let fear and hatred come in first.
But powerful emotions can only be held at bay for so long. Elena Vanishing is the first-hand account of Elena Dunkle’s battle with the fear and hatred—and anorexia—that nearly consumed her. She wanted people to see perfection, yet, for a time, all that was left in the mirror was a damaged shell of a once lively, spirited girl.
Flavour: “I liked this nurse. Yesterday he yelled at me, but I could tell that he only did it because he was worried. Now he huffs, ‘Anorexia! You and my niece. Two beautiful girls, destroying your lives over a diet!’ I take careful note of the comment: beautiful. This nurse is the fifth person in the last four days to call me beautiful. But worry poisons my belief. What do I weigh now? I need to know the number that’s made me beautiful.” (6)
“Every hour needs an activity. Every activity keeps me strong. Every hour I am forcing myself to do things that don’t come easy is an hour when I’m building perfection. No slacking. No laziness. There is no room in my life for failure.” (129)
“Soreness radiates from every cracked, malnourished tendon and shrunken muscle in my body. A net of pain surrounds my parched, hungry bones…. I thought I’d hidden the rape deep inside myself where no one would ever find it. But that’s not what happened. The rape hid me. I can’t even remember who I was anymore.” (248)
“Recovery is a path, not a destination.” (287)