By Love Possessed

Holy Anorexia

by Rudolph M. Bell, epilogue by William N. Davis
University of Chicago Press, 248 pp., $22.50

Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy

by Judith C. Brown
Oxford University Press, 214 pp., $14.95

It was only around 1870 that anorexia nervosa came to be recognized as a specific disorder and was given the name by which it is known today. Yet according to the psychiatrist William N. Davis, who has supplied an epilogue to Holy Anorexia, it has now reached such proportions that throughout the United States and Western Europe there are countless organizations devoted to assisting anorectics and their families. The psychiatric profession struggles with the disorder—by psychoanalysis, by behavior therapy, by group psychotherapy, by family therapy, by various medications, even by forced feeding regimens. The struggle is often in vain: although many anorectics do partially recover, and some recover completely, many others either lapse into a chronic and desperate condition or else simply die. Reported mortality rates range from 10 to 20 percent—which is higher than for any other psychiatric disorder.

The one essential feature of the disorder is of course a persistent, long-term refusal to eat enough to sustain life: the anorectic practices gradual self-starvation. Other common symptoms are vomiting, episodes of binge eating, periods of hyperactivity, and a low pulse rate at rest. Sufferers are much more often female than male (by a ratio of ten or even twenty to one), and more often well-to-do than poor. The most frequent time of onset is adolescence.

In the past Rudolph M. Bell, of Rutgers University, has explored diverse fields of history; his books range from Party and Faction in American Politics to Saints and Society. In the latter work he and Donald Weinstein, of the University of Arizona, examined the lives of hundreds of saints, and used what they found there to illuminate changing patterns of piety and notions of saintliness in Western Christendom between 1000 and 1700. Holy Anorexia continues that enterprise in a more specialized subject. It is concerned with a number of Italian women who are officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as saints, blesseds, venerables, or servants of God, and who in their lifetimes demonstrated their holiness by starving themselves to death, or almost. It also tries to explain how these women came to follow so drastic a course.

According to the statistical tables included in the book the women studied by Bell number no fewer than 261, while the time span covered runs from the twelfth to the twentieth century. The text is, fortunately, far less intimidating than this suggests: it outlines the life stories of only a dozen women, and does not carry the story beyond the seventeenth century. That is quite enough to convey the essence of the phenomenon of “holy anorexia.” Quite enough, too, to upset the appetites of all but the toughest readers.

A glance at two of the life stories will give a fair notion of the historical material that Bell has assembled. One of those lives was lived in the late fourteenth century, the other in the late seventeenth; one was lived in a private house, the other in a convent; one ended in premature death …

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Letters

Holy Anorexia’ March 27, 1986