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Food and Loathing

Reading Group Guide

    Food and Loathing
    Reading Group Guide
    1. In Food and Loathing, Betsy Lerner copes with her fear of rejection by compromising her integrity with hopes that others will befriend her, like her, or not subject her to verbal abuse. "I was funny, I was generous, I was reliable...I was becoming your standard-issue fat friend." How does that coping mechanism prevent her from learning how to define her boundaries? Recall moments when she finds herself mute or succumbs to peer pressure out of fear of rejection. How does that coping mechanism undermine her ability to gain control over her eating disorder?
    2. When visiting Dr. Mizner, Betsy felt as though Bob the Doorman should remember her. Betsy says, "it irritated me beyond reason that he refused to recognize me." What was Dr. Mizner's interpretation of why Betsy was so frustrated by Bob's lack of recognition? Why do you think Betsy felt so strongly about her interactions with Bob the Doorman?
    3. Betsy found it difficult to hide her depression from her mother. She says, "She knew from the first syllable I muttered over the phone whether I was up or down." What is it about Betsy's relationship with her mother that makes it difficult for her to be of help to Betsy? What kind of mother does Betsy seem to desire?"
    4. Throughout the book she continuously creates metaphors that compare her body to food. "I imagined myself a piece of meat at the butcher's, ready to be weighed and wrapped up." How has her figurative detachment from her body allowed her to be treated like a piece of meat? Compare the situations that trigger Betsy's binging. How has food consumed her?
    5. Throughout her therapy with Dr. Mizner, he accuses her of being "the boy who cried wolf." Give examples of how Betsy internalizes that view of herself. How does it affect her ability to heal? Is there any way Dr. Mizner could be right in his interpretation?
    6. When Betsy was into making pottery she began to smash every pot that she deemed imperfect, justifying her actions by telling herself that she cared only about the process and saving pieces were of no interest to her. How does her obsessive-compulsive behavior interfere with her ability to produce, whether it is pottery or schoolwork? What is she afraid of?
    7. "It [binging] became a highly clandestine and shame-filled act, including destroying the "evidence." Betsy's binging spells alternated with short periods of abstinence; describe the concept of abstinence within Judeo-Christian beliefs. How does this paradigm of self-control and notion of purity help or harm Betsy as she copes with her disorder? Is it unrealistic to abstain from food? How are the situations that trigger her "fall from grace" similar?
    8. Why was Betsy's admittance into New York State Psychiatric a mark of her independence? Why was this moment monumental in her ability to gain control over her own life?
    9. Betsy felt sorry for Dr. Benedict because of his apparent inability to demand respect from his patients. How was this observation a sign of progress? Compare and contrast her sessions with Dr. Benedict and Dr. Mizner. What was it about Dr. Benedict's methods that allowed her to make progress in therapy?
    10. Why do you think Betsy's escape from the hospital to go to the movies with Mona Lisa was rewarded with more freedom? What does that say about Betsy's progress and her place in the group dynamic of the institution?
    11. Why was Betsy afraid of being "clinically depressed"? Why do you think she stopped treatment after such a long period of success? At the time of her last relapse, she couldn't understand it saying, "I had what I wanted most." How did this relapse compare with the others? What factors ensured that this relapse would be her last?
    12. Eating disorders are often overlooked as being less serious or are dismissed as an issue of the privileged. Give examples from the book on how members of AA viewed Betsy and how that contributed to her interpretation of her own illness. How has Food and Loathing contributed to your understanding of eating disorders and how depression manifests itself in a variety of illnesses? How has Food and Loathing contributed to your self-awareness?

About the Author

Betsy Lerner
Photo Credit:

Betsy Lerner

Betsy Lerner holds an MFA in poetry from Columbia University. She is the recipient of the Thomas Wolfe Poetry Prize and an Academy of American Poets Poetry Prize, and was selected as one of PEN's Emerging Writers in 1987. She is the author of The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.