MY NAME IS CAROLINE By Caroline Adams Miller Doubleday. 278 pp. $17.95
I feel awfully mean spirited for not liking "My Name Is Caroline" better than I do. Here is an engaging young woman -- pretty, hard-working, intelligent, privileged, earnest, sincere -- baring her soul in 278 carefully wrought pages. Her book describes her struggle with bulimia, the compulsive merry-go-round of food binging and purging (by self-induced vomiting or laxative abuse) that she started on when she was a 15-year-old sophomore at Washington's prestigious National Cathedral School. But despite her conscientious description of her long road to recovery, Miller has left out the oomph. The dispassionate details have the odd effect of making it harder, rather than easier, to understand the compulsive appeal of bulimia.
Maybe it's Miller's careful control in her authorial voice that makes her absolute lack of control over food so hard to fathom. She records in scrupulous detail what she ate on her binges, and we respond with fascination. While baby-sitting one evening during high school, for instance, she went through several bowls of cereal and bananas, gobs of peanut butter and marshmallows, a half-frozen container of beef stew and almost an entire rum cake. In college, she toured Harvard Square one night and consumed a coconut-chocolate sundae, a double-thick vanilla frappe', two pounds of cookies and a gallon of Pralines 'n' Cream and Jamoca Almond Fudge ice cream before vomiting it all up in her dorm. Later, after one year of "abstinence" from binging, she lapsed, downing a large frozen yogurt sundae, a whole bag of fig bars, cartons of cottage cheese, bowls of cereal, and crackers dipped in spaghetti sauce.
But as mesmerizing as these accounts are, and as graphic as the bathroom scenes are in the purges that follow, we're not really made to feel the compulsion that's driving her.
Miller is now a devotee of Overeaters Anonymous, and her foray through "the program" makes up the heart of the book. She is an engaging person, obviously sincere, willing to cast herself in a terrifically unflattering light, dedicated to the process that has made her overcome her eating disorder. So why does this book get on my nerves?
Any recovering compulsive probably must become rather egotistical to get better. That self-centeredness is magnified, of course, when she then writes a book about that very recovery process. But it can get irritating. When her 25-year-old husband, for instance, suffers his first grand mal seizure in their Baltimore apartment, Miller manages to turn even this horror into a chance to reflect on her bulimia. Terrified that her handsome, athletic man will be paralyzed for life, Miller supposedly muses about her marriage as she gathers things up for the ambulance ride to the hospital. Her husband is outside waiting on a stretcher, and there she is thinking that "perhaps the stress of having a wife with an eating disorder was too much to deal with, and I never should have confided in him ..."
The author's mind seems to wander a great deal, in fact, often at trying times like this. It's obviously a narrative device, and I blame the editor for not having gotten rid of it. The book is littered with poorly executed flashbacks, with awkward segues such as, "I pressed harder on the gas pedal as my mind wandered back to National Cathedral and my senior year." A chronological approach, I believe, would have been far more coherent.
Miller's long descriptions of OA meetings, which seem to have replaced food as the thing she's addicted to, will no doubt be a great help to people with similar problems. But for a noncompulsive reader, the slogans and the repetition can get a little tiresome.
A central part of many of these programs is reliance on a Higher Power, which becomes an answer for a lot of problems here. And sometimes, as an answer to some rather powerful problems, calling on a Higher Power seems a little glib.
So are some of OA's cliche's, catchy phrases repeated often as members egg each other on to stick with the program. Miller's book has more than its share of them: "Name it, claim it, and get rid of it"; "You can't keep what you don't give away"; "Let go and let God"; "First things first"; "Look back but don't stare"; and of course the familiar "One day at a time."
Maybe recovery from any kind of compulsion requires that the abstinent person become a little obnoxious. That's why I feel so nasty letting the tone of this book rankle me: Miller's sloganeering has worked beautifully for her, and for hundreds like her, so who am I to mind? For a bulimic or other compulsive, I think the blow-by-blow of meetings and OA chitchat will be enormously helpful. And those are the people, after all, whom Miller must have written this book to serve.
The reviewer is a Washington medical writer whose books include "How a Woman Ages."