Your memoir Appetites saved my life. I first read it four years ago, at 18, the summer after my freshman year of college. You see, I had anorexia too, several years ago in my early adolescence. I starved myself for many of the same reasons you did. I wanted control over my life and didn’t have it, so I starved. I wanted to erase all the emotions I felt but I couldn’t, so I starved. I learned from my mother and the media and so many other sources that I could and should change my body, so I starved.
But I didn’t truly understand why I starved until I read Appetites. Reading your memoir felt like seeing myself – every shameful emotion, every hidden desire, every thought process gone awry – except ten times more self-aware, more eloquent, and more powerful. I read your book and I felt seen. I read your book and I felt so completely, whole-heartedly understood. I’m a man and I have male privilege, but through your book, I learned that because of my femininity, I had been taught to whittle myself away, all my hungers and wants and my very own body. Through your vulnerable writing, about your therapy process and your learning how to row and your overall journey to know yourself, I learned so much.
I learned that life is not about getting a man to love me, it’s about knowing how to love myself. I learned that instead of changing my body or how much I eat or what I look like, I should change this patriarchal world that teaches us to care so much about our outsides and so little about our insides. I learned that the truest and deepest satisfaction doesn’t come from awards or titles, rather, it comes from connecting with the people and communities I care most about.
I had a pretty rocky relationship with the first therapist I saw long-term. His name was L, and he was a man, and because of my trauma, I didn’t trust men (I still struggle with that.) I remember I would have these horrible sessions with him, where I would accuse him of not caring about me enough, of not even liking me. But over time, my relationship with him got better, to the point where we would laugh a lot together and feel so comfortable and cared for by one another. You played a big part in this, because when I most wanted him to understand me, I would read him passages from Appetites. I got L to read the whole book eventually, and he called it beautiful, which made me feel so much pride on your behalf. You wrote how I felt better than I could say how I felt, at least until I learned – and I’m still learning this – how to use my own voice. You taught me the importance of that, too.
I remember during the last semester of my undergraduate education, just over a year and a half ago, I sat in the library’s Writing Resources Center and watched a YouTube video of Gail Caldwell reading from her memoir, the one where she writes about her best friendship with you. I had been teary-eyed the whole time, because she expressed how much she loved and missed you so clearly. Halfway through the video, she mentioned that people still left you messages on an obituary webpage, legacy.com. With some anticipation and also self-protection – the website is probably already down, I won’t be able to find the link – I googled your legacy.com page.
I burst into tears within just a few minutes of reading the messages on that website. Dozens of people wrote about how you had saved their lives with your first memoir, Drinking: A Love Story, and others mentioned Appetites too. They wrote about how you so courageously bared your entire soul on the page, your piercing intelligence and unrelenting search for truth, your humor and how at 42, you had died way, way too young. I cried so fiercely then because I had been sad for other reasons, for leaving my therapist who I had learned to love and the college I had learned to call home, but mostly because I missed you and felt so, so happy that your words had touched so many other people’s lives too. They loved you as much as I loved you.
In my last session with L, I told him about how I found your legacy.com page and how it made me feel so inspired and bittersweet.
“You found your tribe,” he said. He had the smallest of smiles on his face. “Your community.”
Look what you inspired, Caroline: a community. You taught me, and so many others, the best versions of ourselves. You taught me that instead of running away from my feelings or my problems, I should dive straight into them, to understand my emotions and make friends with them. Through your own beautiful example, you taught me how to wield my vulnerability and my voice for good, how to heal myself and help others along that process too. And I’m so, so sad that you’re no longer here to share your lessons with the world.
Some days I still struggle. A man hurts or disappoints me, a friendship feels strained, or I get impatient with myself, and I want to starve. There are still those days you wrote about, the ones where the world just feels so overwhelming and my life feels rather bleak so I might as well count calories, or fantasize about some attractive man I could maybe count on to save me. I will probably always have some of those days, or some of those feelings. Thanks to you, though, I know that I will survive them, make peace with them. I know that honoring my truth and maintaining my recovery and healing are two of my greatest, most powerful strengths.
I’m still so sad you’re not here anymore, and I’m so angry with this patriarchal society for all you went through, though I know you’d rather me remember your resilience than your suffering. I mention you all the time, when people ask for my favorite book or when I get asked to share what inspires me, what drives me. I suggested Appetites to one of my feminist book clubs and they read it and loved it, which made me so happy. I’ve reread Appetites so many times and I always turn to it when I feel lost or confused or hopeless. This past semester, a group of students and I introduced ourselves with one of our cultural treasures, an artifact of utmost importance to us. I, of course, chose to share my copy of Appetites. I called it my bible.
You aren’t here anymore. But your legacy lives on in me and all the others inspired by your writing. I don’t have the power to bring you back, but I’ll do everything in my power – through my therapy, my teaching, my research and my writing – to make sure your legacy lives on.
Thank you, Caroline, for teaching me how to save myself. Wherever you are, I hope you know or feel, somehow, how many lives you’ve changed, including mine. Thank you for everything.