Last month, I wrote about the death of anti-anorexia activist Isabelle Caro. This morning, I learned that her mother Marie had committed suicide over the death of her child. Grief, guilt, and despair are painful, if normal, responses to loss. I'm not faulting her mother for these seemingly intolerable feelings. What I am wondering is how our habit of subtly blaming the parents for their child's eating disorder contributed to Marie's death.
In basically all of the news stories on Isabelle's death, there were comments about her mother, who was portrayed as a sort of Cruella de Ville of anorexigenic mothers. An AOL story today said that:
Isabelle often spoke about her mother's phobia about Isabelle growing up and gaining weight, as well as her mother's depression. She had a lonely, difficult childhood as a result and had been anorexic since the age of 13. She wrote a 2008 memoir titled "The Little Girl Who Didn't Want to Get Fat."This story also noted that Marie was especially devastated after a particularly critical article was posted about her in the wake of Isabelle's death.
Was Marie a perfect mother? Nope.
Did she cause her daughter's eating disorder? Nope.
A susceptibility to anorexia was part of Marie's genetic legacy that she bequeathed to Isabelle. Did she comment on her daughter's weight and size? I don't know. Even if she did, that couldn't cause Isabelle's anorexia.
Writes Dr. Julie O'Toole of the Kartini Clinic in a comment on her blog:
Even the most neurotic, dysfunctional, abusive parenting will not cause AN, much less what you have described above. AN is a brain disorder. Such parenting might, however, cause severe disordered eating, a neurotic obsession with appearance, or misplaced values.
In my years of practice I have had two mothers who actively tried to give their daughters anorexia nervosa. Why? Because they were mentally ill themselves. It is called Munchausen-by-proxy, and of course it didn't work. You can't give someone anorexia nervosa, even if you want to, and certainly not inadvertently.It is likely that Marie was never told she could help her daughter recover, imperfections and all. She clearly loved her daughter. And if Marie herself had a subclinical eating disorder (I have no evidence that she did), it could have contributed to her alleged fears of Isabelle's gaining weight.
I remember discussing contributing factors with my mom in therapy. At first, I believed that all of the unhelpful things she did were a direct cause of my eating disorder. Anorexia was a rebellion! A way of getting back! A way of control! Now I realize that these unhelpful things were a) inadvertent (how was she to know that getting good grades could be a bad omen?) and b) totally unrelated to my eating disorder.
Marie's death shows that the blame game is deadly--not just for sufferers, but also for loved ones.