Words change us. Stories challenge us. And none more than those of hardship, pain, redemption and grace. And so as I sat down with Emma Scrivener’s new book, A New Name, I have to admit I was both nervous and excited.
Emma tells a gripping story. Unlike many books of its genre, this is a well-written book. Emma’s writing is simple but lovely, poignant and hard-hitting, with sparks of wit.
It starts out simply enough. Raised in a comfortable, safe, Northern Irish home, Emma was the good girl. She got the grades, obeyed the rules and did well. But the good girl eventually became controlled by her desire to be in control. Control comes in different forms for different people. For Emma, it came as anorexia. At thirteen, she began to fall into the trap.
I’m not familiar with anorexia. With the painful physical consequences Emma describes. With the sense of guilt that threatens to tear a person apart for thinking about eating a morsel of food. But I am familiar with some things. With the feeling of control when you are most out of control. With the false promises of an idol, whatever they may be. And with the realisation that there is only one way out. Perhaps that’s why I was drawn into the story. Because the spiritual story of anorexia is repeated in my own life.
But that’s not to lessen the physical and emotional story. Even reading it felt like a punch in the stomach. I’m not familiar with anorexia. But I understand it a little more now. I understand that anorexics don’t just ‘need to snap out of it.’ I understand that what looks like self-destruction to the outside world actually looks like self-deliverance to the inside person. And I understand that it’s a trap of lies upon lies. Hard. Painful. Enclosing.
After her first time/spell/bout (all of those words sound patronising but I really don’t mean to be that) of anorexia, Emma seemed recovered. But years later, after becoming a Christian, working for a church and doing theological training, she relapses.
My ‘quick-fix’ recovery only confirmed the fears that had triggered my anorexia. It taught me this: my identity did depend on my weight. I was disgusting, and my mess was too much for others to handle. If I wanted to fit in, I had to bury my feelings. I had to perform. (p89)
It’s clear now. This isn’t just a body problem. It’s a heart problem too. Pages 82-85 hold a gem. Emma de-constructs the ‘gospel of anorexia’.
This may sound archaic, especially if you’re not a churchgoer. But we’re all worshippers. The question is not if we worship; it’s what.
… As my eating disorder took hold, I was just as ‘religious’ as I’d always been. I was still trusting in God. The difference was that this god had a small, rather than a capital ‘g’. And surprise, surprise, it was a god that looked just like me. The god of performance, hard work, externals and rituals. A god that gave nothing of itself, but demanded everything in return.
…In the Bible, worship takes place in the context of a wider body where we are free to be ourselves and speak the truth in love. With anorexia, the opposite is true. I retreat into myself and cut myself off from relationships. I hide and I lie. I turn my hatred against myself and against anyone who comes close.
…At the centre of the Christian faith is Christ’s body and blood, broken and poured out for us… At the centre of the anorexic faith is another body, also broken… It is mine. And it is punished by me and for me.
… The gospel of anorexia isn’t good news at all. It is a system of works, of slavery, of self-salvation and self-destruction. It feels like heaven, but leads to hell. It is a religion, as powerful and addictive as any cult. (p83-85)
Those are my favourite bits but they are only part of a very impressive whole. I’d almost say that the book is worth buying for those 4 pages alone.
Emma is brutally honest. Sometimes I wanted to look away. There’s heart-rending descriptions of what pain and suffering looks like from the inside. Emma talks us through her deep emotions and thoughts as she falls further into anorexia. And we rejoice with her in her real account of her ‘revelation’ as she encounters the Lord Jesus and as he changes her, her marriage and her life.
One of the things that struck me most, was the way that God used ‘normal’ Christians, including Glen, her husband, to help and influence Emma. Walking through hard times with people is one of the most powerful and life-changing things you can do.
This is hard stuff. Don’t come expecting a happy, easy ride. Jesus isn’t the sugar dusting on the nicely-iced cupcake of life. He’s the one who wades into the bog and pulls a filthy, hurting person out. This book is Emma’s testimony. A story of the gut-wrenching reality of anorexia. And a testimony to the power of the risen Christ.
Words change us. Stories challenge us. And none more than those of hardship, pain, redemption and grace. I came to the end of ‘A New Name’ a different person. And for that, Emma, I thank you.