Sunday, September 05, 2010

The Passion of Alice, by Stephanie Grant

In her 1995 novel of self-acceptance, The Passion of Alice, Stephanie Grant paints a picture of a young woman stuck-not able to move forward with her life, and slowly fading away to nothingness.  Alice is a 25 year old librarian who is hospitalized at the eating disorders clinic at the well-known Seaview Hospital after a heart attack caused by her extreme thinness.  At 89 pounds and 5'10" tall, Alice feels that she is starving herself down to her very essence, shedding everything not about her that is not essential.  While at the hospital, she begins to gain weight while getting to know Gwen, a frail timid anorexic; Louise, a grossly overweight woman who is a compulsive eater; and finally Maeve, a risk-taking bulimic who forces Alice to confront her sexuality.  When Maeve escapes the hospital, Alice has her second brush with death, and when she gets a visit from an old friend, she finally realizes that in order for her to move forward with her life, she must accept all parts of herself.  She cannot starve away her feelings.

If this sounds a little bit like the gay version of Girl, Interrupted, you're not wrong.  It felt a bit like the gay version of Girl, Interrupted.  However, many of the things that made the book Girl, Interrupted powerful are also present in this story.  Grant focuses not so much on the disease of anorexia as the reasons for Alice's starvation.  When Alice goes to chapel on week, she shares with the nurse that escorts her that "passion" also means "suffering", and that becomes the major underlying theme of the book.  Anything that causes Alice to feel passionate also causes her suffering.  Trying to live up to her mother's expectations, her feelings about women and sex, her desire for food that she knows she won't eat.  Her anorexia becomes a way to control her passions, essentially trying to starve the feelings away until she is left with nothing but her most essential essence.  What she discovers is that her feelings, especially her feelings about women and sex, are an essential part of her. 

Loss of innocence and maturation is also a recurring theme throughout the book.  For Alice, that means coming out of a state of willful ignorance about herself-basically, she figures out it's time to put her big girl pants on and get on with things!  To some extent it feels as though most of the women on the unit are having a similarly hard time integrating into adulthood-even the ones who have been chronological adults for quite some time.  Their reactions to each other, their petty fights, their childish behavior when in public all lead to this sense of them being childlike.  The implication seems to be that perhaps the first step in being healthy was to grow up.  This can mean confronting some harsh realities-like when one of the doctors catches them off-grounds and offers to trade his silence for sex.

There is less accusation against the psychiatric community in this novel than in similar books, but as the example above shows not everyone in the hospital is portrayed in a positive light.  What the setting of the hospital did for me was provide a symbol of the way in which society tries to define what is healthy and normal, and how anyone outside of that definition is considered broken and in need of fixing.  It is my sincere hope that we are finally getting to a point in our country where gays and lesbians are no longer seen as broken, but are fully accepted for who we are.

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