Holy Hunger – Margaret Bullitt-Jonas


The next couple of weeks or so, I’m going to be doing a series of three book reviews. There may be some other posts mixed in there, but the three books I’m writing about are: Holy Hunger: A Woman’s Journey from Food Addiction to Spiritual Fulfillment, by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas. Hunger: A Memoir of My Body, by Roxane Gay. The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart, by Emily Nunn.

The last two books listed were both published last year. Holy Hunger was originally published in 1998, but Bullitt-Jonas’s story dovetails nicely with the stories by Gay, and Nunn.

Holy Hunger Cover
Cover from the original hardcover edition of Holy Hunger

All three stories came to my attention as a result of my relatively new found focus on visiting my local library for reading material. I found The Comfort Food Diaries in the new and noted section of the Winnipeg Public Library. Reading it made me think of Hunger, which I had heard a great deal about in the last few months, and while reserving a copy of that book, Holy Hunger popped up in my search feed. 

I’m going to go through the books in the order I’ve listed them above. Even though I read them in reverse order. In part because Holy Hunger is the oldest of the three books it makes sense to me to start there. I also think that The Comfort Food Diaries makes the best conclusion.

I won’t be looking forward in this post to the other two books, but as I continue posting I will be looking back to what I have already written.

Holy Hunger

This book came as a bit of a surprise to me. I didn’t really pay close attention to the description when I looked this book up, and was expecting it to be something related to the practice of religious fasting. Instead, the book is about Bullitt-Jonas’s relationship with food and her relationship with her family, and the way in which the two were tangled up together.

Bullitt-Jonas’s story begins with growing up in a family where the expression of emotions was actively discouraged. Her father was an alcoholic, and here mother dealt with depression. Added to this was a major trauma involving a family pet, and later, the dissolution of her parent’s marriage.  Along the way, she found herself constantly striving to find ways to win her parents affection and attention, without much success.

In the opening chapter she writes: So much was unspeakable when I was growing up.(9). A silent mother, and a talkative but caustic father, intent on keeping a public face that insisted that all was well, left the author without a way to express her emotions and desires.

One of those desires, and the one that is reflected in the book’s title, is her desire for the Holy. She saw the connection with God and the Holy in her mother, but she was unable to find a way to break through to her mother, and learn from her how this connection might work in her own life.

Early on she states that she wasn’t hungry for food, but she was unable to articulate what it was she actually hungered for(11). As time went by it was food that was always there. This became particularly true when she was sent off to school and the loneliness of boarding school and the availability of food helped her to numb the pain and loneliness.

This pattern continued for many years. She admits, at the beginning of the book, that she was aware of her addiction, but that because of the nature of it, everybody eats, she found it was one that was easy to conceal from others around her. However, it continued to take it’s toll on her life. Eventually she reached the point where she realized that she had to quit overeating or she would kill herself.

For Bullitt-Jonas the journey out of overeating began when she started to attend Overeaters Anonymous. Overeaters Anonymous (OA) is a twelve-step program based on the same principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The first thing she learned from OA was that she had to quit eating. As she explains, in OA, quit eating means quit overeating. One of the difficulties with an eating addiction is, you can’t simply stop eating. We all need food, so to quit eating in this sense means to quit overeating. (110)

The next thing OA did for her, was that it brought connection back to her life. Having been raised not to talk about problems, the presence and need for an OA sponsor, meant that to succeed in stopping overeating, she needed to reach out and talk to people when she found herself struggling with the desire to eat.

One of the effects of becoming involved in Overeaters Anonymous was, that over time, the unspeakable began to become speakable. This is an offshoot of the insistence of refusing to use food and eating as a response to your emotions.

If you can’t eat a response to feeling angry, you need to take the time and effort to determine what is causing you to feel angry. As a result, Bullitt-Jonas began to realize more of what her real desires in life were. It also opened up communications between her and her parents.

This also meant she had to open herself up to pain and sorrow. Her decision to confront her father about his alcoholism didn’t end up the way she had hoped. On the other hand, there was some healing in that relationship, and even more healing in her relationship with here mother.

Along with that, she learned more of her mother’s own story. One that in many ways was remarkably similar to her own. The lesson of the author’s childhood, of keeping up appearances, of not creating a scene, or allowing messy emotions to overflow, were lessons that here mother had internalized and passed on to her.

Something I found interesting about the book is that even thought OA works on the idea of addiction as disease model, I find that Bullit-Jonas expresses a lot of ideas that are in keeping with more recent work that loneliness and isolation are at the root of much addiction.

One idea that Bullitt-Jonas brings up towards the end of the book is the idea of learning to tell stories that are loving and true. About her father she says this:

Tell a story about my father that was both loving and true? That would take me years. It’s a slow process sometimes, learning to see with a wider vision, a more generous heart.

A wider vision, a more generous heart, suggests something important about learning to tell stories that are loving and true. We need to learn to tell those stories about and to ourselves.

One of the last events mentioned in the book is the author’s decision to renew her baptismal vows. Her for Bullitt-Jonas was that connection with the Holy that she had been seeking ever since she was a child. I recommend that If you check the above links for Bullitt-Jonas, so you can find out how some of that desire has played out. You will see that the ending of the book is really only the beginning of the rest of her journey, one in which she has seen her hunger satisfied and her desires grow.

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