Food and anorexia and The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite by Laura Freeman


How one woman read her way to recovery from anorexia

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In the grips of anorexia, writer Laura Freeman found solace in literature – and eventually, her appetite. Kate Leaver meets her

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By Kate Leaver on

Laura Freeman used to love eating soft-boiled eggs with soldier toast as a little girl. Used to crack open the tops with a spoon and feel the heat on her thumb as she peeled back shell to reveal yolk. Then, as a teenager, she became anorexic. She started a regime of starvation and the humble egg became one of her first forbidden foods. There was a bit of a panic about the cholesterol in egg yolk at the time and it was enough to put her off them. It would be a decade until she would eat an egg again – and when she did it was thanks to war memoirist Siegried Sassoon.

“I read Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoir of a Fox Hunting Man, the first in his war trilogy. He describes this rapture of waking early in the morning before a hunt and there’s frost on the ground and it will be physically very arduous so for breakfast he has two boiled eggs, toast and hot milk and this sustains him. There’s this wonderful phrase about having a ‘zestful’ morning and I thought if eggs can make you feel zest, then I want some of that. So I learned belatedly at 24 or 25 to boil an egg and now I think they’re a great comfort food and don’t know why you’d want to deny yourself them.”

Laura had a similar epiphany about hot tea with milk. During her anorexia years, she became a connoisseur of herbal teas, but she feared the splash of milk for its calories. “Reading these first world war memoirs and seeing the importance the men put on the cup of char at the end of a march or bombardment and how comforting that was for them, I thought what am I so frightened of? A half inch of milk in your tea won’t do any harm. I had my first cup of tea in the newspaper office where I used to work in a Styrofoam cup with a tea bag and it wasn’t very special but I’ve been doing it every day since.”

When we meet in a little café in London, Laura sips at a milky English Breakfast tea. She has just released her first book, The Reading Cure, which rather elegantly chronicles her recovery from anorexia via the works of people like Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth David. It took her many years to achieve recovery and it wasn’t done entirely through literature – she also had the help of specialists, doctors and a saintly mother with a meal plan. But reading seems to have taught her to eat again, freed from the fear and painful discipline of anorexia.  

Laura had the help of specialists, doctors and a saintly mother with a meal plan. But reading seems to have taught her to eat again, freed from the fear and painful discipline of anorexia


“Recovery for me was a gradual thing; an accretion of smaller victories, whether it’s eating a boiled egg or having a spoonful of pudding,” she says. “Really, recovery is a series of very private steps forward, and then of course sometimes an enormous leap or tumble back. There’s that cliché of taking it a day at a time, but I almost think a day is too long. It’s got to be one step at a time, one spoonful at a time, one page at a time.”

And that is how Laura has recovered: one mouthful at a time, often inspired by the books she read. When she was ill, she repressed her physical appetite and indulged another sort of hunger: her insatiable interest in books. She gorged on literature, discarding books almost daily by her bed. She started to notice the meals each of the characters ate and how beautifully or morbidly her beloved authors wrote about food or, for example, starvation as punishment in something like Oliver Twist. She read all the Dickens novels in a year, one after the other until she’d consumed his whole catalogue of meals by reading. It was he who emboldened Laura to eat her first spoonful of pudding in a long time – partly because she could taste-test it in a book before she felt its texture on her own tongue.

“There’s this great thing for me where I can try the food through words before I can attempt it with my knife and fork,” she tells me. She read about the crumbling of a biscuit, the joy of blackberrying and the sustenance of a ham sandwich at a time when she had long lost the joy of eating herself. Anorexia is a cold, lonely illness, but Laura ultimately found company and solace in literature – and, at last, an appetite. Hers is a story of salvation and picnics, ravioli and freedom, Dickens and survival. Laura’s recovery is testament to the power of literature, the love of a concerned family and the tenacity of a woman on a mission.  

The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite by Laura Freeman is out in hardback from W&N on 22 February.


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