Susan Burton is editor at This American Life and her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Slate, The New Yorker, and others, and she is a former editor of Harper's. Burton’s memoir, Empty, reveals the searing story of the secret binge-eating that dominated her adolescence and shapes her still. Susan graduated from Yale in 1995. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their two sons (one of whom she wrote about in Labor Day: True Birth Stories by America’s Best Women Writers).
Susan Burton is an editor of the podcast This American Life. She has also written numerous fascinating articles, one of which inspired the movie Unaccompanied Minors in 2006. Susan’s book Empty was published in June of this year.
Kate Bowler: Hi, I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. Look, the world loves us when we are good, better, best. But this is a podcast for when you want to stop feeling guilty that you’re not living your best life now. We’re not always having the juicing spree of our lives. I used to have my own delusion of living my best life now. I’m a Duke professor, wine and cheese enthusiast, wife and mom. Instagram gold. Then I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. That was four years ago. And I’m still here. And now I get it. Life is a chronic condition. The self-help and wellness industry will try to tell you that you can always fix your life. Eat this and you won’t get sick. Lose this weight and you’ll never be lonely. Believe with your whole heart and God will provide. Keep this attitude and the money is yours. But I’m here to look into your gorgeous eyes and say, hey, there are some things you can fix and some things you can’t. And it’s OK that life isn’t always better. We can find beauty and meaning and truth, but there’s no cure to being human. So let’s be friends on that journey. Let’s be human together.
Kate Bowler: There are some secrets we’d rather not tell, but that eat us alive. The affair, the lump we’ve been trying to ignore, but we know it’s probably not nothing. The addiction that has slowly crept its way back into our lives. The sinking loneliness we feel. That reason for the estrangement that keeps us from picking up the phone. And then, our problems compound. One pain begets another. Our unsolved problem becomes the breeding ground for a different kind of separation. Shame. Shame keeps us separate. Shame keeps us without words. Shame keeps us trapped in the lie that no one will understand and that it will never get better. Shame whispers, you should do more and you’re nothing until you finally, finally get over this. Shame is quite certain that we are stuck forever. My guest today knows a lot about shame as she realized she was trapped in an eating disorder that had very little popular awareness, a problem with no good name. Her name is Susan Burton and she is lovely and fancy. Susan is an editor at This American Life, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times magazine, Slate and The New Yorker. And she has a gorgeous new memoir called Empty. It’s a book about a secret and how this secret threatened to swallow up all the beautiful parts of her life that she had planned on keeping. I know a lot of people will relate to the all consuming fears and desires that she’ll be talking about today. Today is a tender conversation because it’s not a victory story. Issues with our bodies are not ones we overcome because our bodies are, you know, living things. We have to keep feeding them. We have to keep knowing how to love them as they change. So I think what you’ll hear today is about how we struggle against our hungers and oh, geez, do we need compassion for that. Susan, I’m so glad to finally meet you. We are book siblings. We both have the same editor. And I feel like we obviously then share the same brain. Welcome to my brain.
Susan Burton: Hi, Kate. I’m so glad to be here because I likewise have been having the same feeling about you.
K.B.: Oh, well, right now, just for you, I’m wearing my Yale sweatshirt. This is a story that in some ways has a beginning at Yale. When you started undergrad at Yale, you noticed that the bathrooms were locked during lunch. And like, what a strange moment, I imagine, to realize that there was some kind of hidden story going on under the surface about young women who seem to have it all together and their hungers. So if you don’t mind starting with something so hard. Tell me about your relationship to food at that time.
S.B.: Let’s see. So at that time, I was I was a freshman, I was 18 years old, and my life was organized around binge eating and had been at that point for a couple years. I think that sometimes people don’t know what binge eating is. We’re more familiar with anorexia and bulimia. That was certainly the case for me at 18, in nineteen ninety one. So binge eating is not just, you know, eating a pint of ice cream when when you’re upset or eating too many cookies off the sheet when they come out of the oven. It’s a compulsion. At that point, you know, I would wake up in my dorm room. I would swear I was going to eat well, eat good, was the phrase that I always used in my head. I would, you know, shower, get dressed, purposefully, walk across the courtyard to the dining hall. And they had, I remember they had these chocolate chip muffins. I was just gonna have one chocolate chip muffin. But inevitably, one chocolate chip muffin would lead to another, maybe another. And, you know, it would be eight thirty in the morning and I’d leave the dining hall feeling already wrecked, already like I’d ruined something. And, you know, this was, this was a couple of muffins right? This wasn’t the end of the world. But to me, it really was the end of the world. And it sort of set the pattern for a whole day where I’d be, you know, alternating between going to class, trying to focus, but thinking, constantly thinking, I’m not going to eat, I’m not going to eat. But as soon as I was sort of, you know, loosed, free of the classroom and back out on the street, I would be sort of haunting these food shops that were kind of my regular haunts. I would be going to these food shops that were my regular haunts, buying food and eating until I felt sick. And it was like that day, after day during that stage of my life.
K.B.: That sounds like it, sounds like it was, it felt very involuntary and like it really just had like a full life of its own.
S.B.: It’s funny what I was about to say. It felt like something that I couldn’t fix alone, which is true. I couldn’t. But but I was too scared and to get help for it.
K.B.: I imagine it must have been really hard to be living without the language. It’s such a testimony to the power of like how much labels and diagnoses are so clarifying and formalizing. I think you write that binge eating wasn’t formalized as a diagnosis until 2013.
S.B.: Exactly. Exactly. And that was something that was hard for me I think during those years, because by the time I was in college, I really wanted to understand what I had. I was also reading psychology texts and and trying to align my symptoms with the ones described there. With binge eating disorder, you don’t purge like you do in bulimia and I was sort of, you know, most of the literature about that time was about anorexia or bulimia. And so I didn’t you know, I felt I didn’t do this like second step. I binged, but I didn’t purge. And obviously, there was writing about this, you know, elsewhere, just not the Internet didn’t exist yet. Or in a limited way it did. And I felt certain that what I had was a problem, a real problem. But I also felt even more isolated because I couldn’t find, you know, a narrative that described exactly what I did.
K.B.: Yeah. We’re creatures of stories and it’s so painful when we can’t live inside one that makes sense of things, especially one that’s so all consuming.
S.B.: Yeah, but it’s funny because even when I did, you know, when I did finally have the language when binge eating disorder became part of the lexicon, at that point I was in my adulthood and I still had so much shame about it. It was really hard for me to use the word binge. In the first draft of the book, I avoided it and I told myself it was because it had not been a word that I’d used in my adolescence and early 20s when I was bingeing. I’d always thought of it as episode. So I used episode. But eventually I realized that it was still like my residual shame somehow, about that word. So it’s interesting, even though I so longed for a name for what I did. I didn’t like the one it was given. Which is interesting too.
K.B.: No, that makes sense to me. Now that we’re talking about it, I think I have actually hated almost all the words that have been given to me. I don’t know. I mean, I’m just thinking of cancer words, but like cancer survivors, triumphalistic of course. And it pretends that we know when we don’t have cancer, which we, you know, tend not to actually know or patient. Yeah. I think I hated all the words so that that makes sense. I always just wanted the language that would help me get the next step. Like, OK. But am I gonna have to be like this forever? Or when will this feeling go away? Or, I think that’s what I was looking for when I wanted more language.
S.B.: Oh, interesting. Well, I mean, so much of your book is about learning to live with uncertainty. So it sort of makes sense.
K.B.: What? No, that doesn’t sound ike me. No, no, no. (laughter).
S.B.: You wanted language for it.
K.B.: I did. I wanted my language, I don’t know that I wanted other peoples.
K.B.: You have this really beautiful and brave way of talking about reckoning with our bodies and with food. And you write, I never forgot about food in the way that you never forget anything you fear. And that sounds so right to me, like no matter what it is that scares us, there are realities in our lives that deeply change the way we think and exist in the world. But for people who don’t know, like how is being haunted by food different maybe than other things?
S.B.: It’s so destructive and counterintuitive, right? To fear this thing that nourishes and and gives us gives us life and pleasure. We need it to survive. And so one can’t just get rid of it or eliminate it from a physiological perspective. And I think I would have told you, I just didn’t like a lot of foods. But looking back, you know, I understand that I was trying to control food and, you know, maybe too, because my family life felt so out of control. My parents had a tumultuous marriage. But part of recovery for me has been learning to be less anxious about food. About not making it ritualized and safe. In terms of uncertainty about both with anorexia, which I also have struggled with and with bingeing, it’s very ritualized. Even with bingeing, even though I would eat so much that I felt bad, I sort of knew what feeling was at the other end of a binge. With anorexia and eating very little, you know, I knew what it was to feel hungry. Also knew what it was to know what I would feel like after I ate, you know, half a yogurt or something. And part of moving through that anxiety is, is learning to eat and not knowing how I’ll feel when I’m finished and being okay with with that uncertainty. And that’s been a way through the anxiety for me.
K.B.: Yeah, that makes sense. Well, we think of as pickiness sometimes can actually just be a desire for control. And so much of your book, which is just so beautiful, it details your childhood and adolescence and your parents divorce. Looking back, what kind of message did you get from your home? Do you think about whether your body was good?
S.B.: I was never criticized, my body was never criticized by anyone in my family, really. But the women in my family especially were very self-critical. So my mother was always talking about her stomach. My aunt was also very invested in size of her stomach. My you know, my grandmother once sort of famously, famously within our family said, you know, oh, I’m so glad I have thin grandchildren. So it wasn’t you know, it wasn’t a critique, but it was it was something that I remembered like, oh, it’s you know, it’s good to be thin. It’s better to be thin. And, you know, we always had scales like my grandparents would always order, kind of like the latest scale from the Sharper Image catalog. And then they would send it to us, and I remember weighing myself on all those scales through my whole childhood, all of which is to say there was never anything wrong with my body, but I did internalize the message that being thin mattered.
K.B.: Yes, that makes so much sense to me. And for all parents who are like, why I never said anything, but the indirectness with which we communicate, we accidentally express are our self criticism, our fears about our bodies, and especially, I think for women, this this feeling like we need to shrink, that we are reducible somehow that we should be reducible.
S.B.: Yeah, no, I think that’s really true, and I think that there was also so much unsaid. I hit puberty early. I was 10 when I got my period, and by then I had, you know, hips and breasts and a waist, and I really I didn’t like this new body. I wanted to be the little girl I’d been, like with a flat chest in a tank suit. I didn’t hate my body, but it didn’t feel like mine. And a lot of my early issues with with anorexia in my mid teens, I was really trying to get back to this kind of pre-teen body. And it would have been helpful to be able to talk about, you know, just puberty and my changing shape with my mother, you know, as I think that’s as equally connected to the issues I had with food as the idea that being thin was, you know, was somehow this mandate.
K.B.: I thought you described the like the ideal so vividly. It reminded me of, like in my worst moments with cancer. I remember how much I was being praised for being skinnier.
K.B.: Of course, the great irony was that, like, I wasn’t healthier. I was, I was dying. And then with chemo I got really puffy, and it was really hard not to be self-loathing when it felt like there was really only two choices that I could be. Trying to move toward health and being in a body that felt and looked uncomfortable to me or being this unhealthy version which looked decorative but was actually, I don’t know, deaf. So it was it felt very odd. And I’ve heard so many other people describe like, it’s hard to find that place when sometimes we’re praised in our worst moments.
S.B.: Yeah. And so, I mean, just so telling that even as you’re in the midst of chemo and cancer, that people are still commenting on your body. And it’s just bonkers.
K.B.: I don’t know. I really enjoyed, I really enjoyed the language you’re giving in your book because it did make me think like. I think there just needs to be a richer, fuller picture, especially for women, about what it feels like to want to nourish ourselves instead of always be sort of scaffolded from the outside in.
S.B.: No, that’s true. That’s really true. I’ve really had to learn how to nourish myself. I’m still, I’m still learning what that feels like. Because for so long, I believed that emptiness and hunger was the nourishing thing. I wouldn’t have used the word nourishing, but it was my equivalent because I believed that being empty and hungry, that meant possibility to me. And, you know, I also believed it gave me energy, which it didn’t. But just my whole concept of nourishment was so inverted and out of whack.
K.B.: Oh, man. That sounds so right. Like, I just think that there aren’t enough, there aren’t a lot of images or categories that feel, I don’t know. Like whenever I look at magazines, I just think do I really want a body at war with itself? You know, like win the war against, you know, fat. Etc.. So I study the self-help industry and its best friend, the wellness industry. Man, diet is such a dangerous and pervasive word. And you talk about how wanting to, like, fix your eating, led to a very intense perfectionism. So, can you describe a bit like what’s the relationship here between perfection and eating or perhaps even like being loved and eating? Like, what were the, what was the framework you are working with?
S.B.: So to me, eating perfectly meant never really feeling full. Because I was scared of feeling full. As long as I was still hungry, as long as I still had, some desire, really, I felt I could have desire for everything. It felt to me like the only way that I could be a good parent, a good worker, a good spouse, a good friend was to be empty, because if I didn’t eat perfectly, that meant I would be so distracted by food, by, you know, by not only the sation of food in my body, but by the self-loathing that would accompany having eaten too much that I couldn’t function. Saying this all out loud sounds, you know, it sounds ridiculous, but these were really the operating principles of most of my adulthood.
K.B.: We have this criteria of what it means to be good, and to manage just to like manage our lives. So that makes so much sense to me. And that there’s like a logic by which we, like, run the show, and then when we fail our own logic, there’s just so much shame. There’s so much shame around our experience of food, shame that follows us as kids and then pops up in relationships. And so often we can’t even shake it when we’re adults, even when we’re supposed to, like, magically have it all together by then. How did you sort of name and then try to, like, uncover these experiences of shame?
S.B.: So what happened was 10 years ago, I signed a contract to write a book that was a very different book than the one I ended up writing. The book I was meant to write was a cultural history of teenage girlhood intertwined with the story of my own adolescence. I’d been really invested in the mythology of the teenage girl ever since I was like a middle schooler myself. But when I wrote the first draft, you know, sort of marching through the cultural history and midway through I found myself writing about my eating disorders. And the book became something very different, very raw. And I was paralyzed because this was a secret I’d kept my whole life. Not even my husband, whom I met when I was 17, knew about my experience with bingeing. But I was too scared because of shame, and also because writing about it would require me to acknowledge that, you know, I was writing about them in terms of my adolescence, but would require me to acknowledge they’d never really gone away. And the first time I told my husband was last January, January 2019. We were both 45 then we’ve been together since we were 20. So it was a long time coming. And I suppose that I told the, you know, the secret in therapy not long before then, and even to be talking about it with you is really kind of radical for even where I was, you know, a year ago. Two years ago.
K.B.: Amazing. But that makes so much sense. I think people imagine that writing a book is like a public act, but it sounds like for both of us, it was a very private act. Like, it was the things we weren’t saying yet, that crystallized in a different way before it was allowed to be other things.
S.B.: Yeah. How did that process work for you?
K.B.: I didn’t imagine it was anything except I felt like I’d been lying for such a long time about what the experience of illness felt like and what the the lead up to it felt like. And so I wrote it down because I felt like these were, I was well, I was much angrier and much more hurt than I realized. And I was much more scared, and it felt like it was culturally unacceptable. And unacceptable to my family to say most of the things. Not that they didn’t want to understand, but because almost everything I could think of saying was going to hurt somebody.
K.B.: Something this community talks about a lot is how we react to uncertainty, like how we live inside the things that we can’t control, and listening to you, it sounds like you’ve developed a very high tolerance or like resilience for for sitting in the in-between. Where we don’t get the binaries of, like, perfectly healthy or perfectly cured. How have you made a place to live inside that ambiguity with like a little more generosity for yourself?
S.B.: Part of me wishes I could be a more sort of effective spokesperson for my own story that I could say to somebody here is, you know, with an eating disorder, here’s how you get from A to B, and here’s what it looks like to be fully recovered. I can tell you it’s like to be in the middle. But I can’t tell you what it’s like to be at the end. All I can say is I’m still learning to do exactly the thing you said, which is to have that generosity for myself, for not being exactly, you know, where I hope to be, to have compassion for myself. And even just using, to talk about language, like even just, using those words like compassion and generosity. Now, those are meaningful words.
S.B.: And reminding oneself to to apply them is really important.
K.B.: Well cause there’s, I mean, there’s so many people that I’ve met in the last few years who have either been sort of personally overcome by like a really uncertain circumstances or then all those who are in, really intense caregiving professions or they’re caring for, you know, fragile dependents. And they are managing so much fear. And what I hear in your book and in your, I don’t want his ministry words, but I wont say like testimony, but like your account is that like you’re trying to open up a place where if we can ask more questions of ourselves, of the roles we’ve played, then maybe control isn’t a place we ever, ever get to, but that we that we can be more forgiving of the not quite getting there yet. And I just think that like everything you’re describing encourages people not to feel trapped by their own needs. And that is such a beautiful example.
S.B.: Yeah, Oh good. Well I’m glad.
K.B.: This flesh and bone. These cages. These places of freedom and constraint. We want our bodies to be perfect, but instead they’re reminders of what we can’t master, what we cannot perfect. What we have to do is gently nudge them along with food and sleep and movement and life itself. So let’s give up the myth of perfection. Perfection in what we eat. Perfection in what we assume our bodies should look like or feel like. Perfection in imagining you’d be over this weird body stuff by now. Because blessed is the body that offers soft hugs on hard days. Whose curves fit our pets and our kids and our partners. Whose hands hold another alongside hospital beds and in nursing homes and at the altar and on the first day of school. Whose breasts nurse and legs run to chase littles and toes balance us on the earth. Whose wrinkles tell stories of laughs and tears and worries. Blessed are these imperfect, fragile bodies. This flesh and bone. These cells that sometimes duplicate for no reason whatsoever. This skin that is stitched together with scars and stretch marks and fine lines. Blessed is the body because it is a home. Not just for us, but for those who love us. And as my friend Barbara Brown Taylor says, sometimes you just need to stand in front of the mirror and take off all your clothes, and remember that this body, your body, is God’s home address.
K.B.: This podcast wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of the Lilly Endowment. Huge thank you to my team. Jessica Richie, Keith Weston, Harriet Putman and J.J. Dickinson. Don’t miss an episode, be sure to subscribe to Everything Happens wherever you listen to podcasts. And I’d love to hear from you. Find me online at KateCBowler or at Katebowler.com. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.