Recovery Memoir Experiment: Call for Participants

Help shape the future of an unpublished book about recovery from anorexia.

A new study investigates the effects of reading a book about recovery from anorexia designed specifically to encourage positive therapeutic effects and discourage harmful responses.

I’m excited to announce an opportunity to take part in an experiment investigating how reading habits and eating disorders intersect. As I outlined in my post on “Consuming fictions”, when it comes to narrative reading and eating disorders (or illness in general) the assumptions far outweigh the known facts. There’s quite a bit of evidence on the benefits of self-help bibliotherapy (reading a relevant self-help book with or without professional guidance), but we know very little about books in other genres, like novels, short stories, or memoirs. This feels to me like a gap that needs filling (Troscianko, 2018a).

Previous research

The empirical eating disorder-specific research that’s been done so far has, to my knowledge, mainly been conducted by me and by my colleague Rocío Riestra Camacho. In a large-scale survey study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders in 2018 (Troscianko, 2018b), I found that fiction about eating disorders (which in practice our respondents, most of whom had personal experience of an eating disorder, also took to include memoir) was perceived to have had almost universally negative effects on all the dimensions we investigated, sometimes thanks to deliberate self-triggering. By contrast, fiction that has nothing to do with eating disorders was generally perceived as having been neutral or positive in its effects. 

In a more recent study conducted as part of her PhD, Rocío presented her cohort of healthy volunteers with two works of young adult sports fiction by Miranda Kenneally: one group read both as published, the other group with a reading guide (presented via pop-up messages in the margin) specially designed to help readers draw out positive lessons from the texts with respect to eating, the body, and exercise. The choice of genre was an interesting one: Sports fiction obviously thematizes food, exercise, and the body, but in a context quite different from an eating disorder. The study found a significant difference between groups on level of espousal of gendered body stereotypes, which reduced for the group reading with the guide. There were also statistically nonsignificant trends towards improved results on the EAT-26 (a standard measure of eating disorder susceptibility) in the reading-guide group and towards worsened results in the control group who read the books in their standard form. You can hear more about how Rocío designed the experiment and what she learned in a recent Textual Therapies podcast episode.

Thus the little evidence we have highlights the real potential for reading to have eating disorder-relevant effects, in both desired and undesired ways. As far as I know, however, no experimental research has been conducted involving participants with an active eating disorder reading an entire book that isn’t a self-help book. Memoirs are a troublesome genre: They may often or usually be written with the professed aim of being useful to readers, yet the same authors often also remark that reading other people’s memoirs about eating disorders exacerbated their illness (Jones, 2020). Memoirs may of course be written with “usefulness” aims that aren’t therapeutic—most often, with a vague “awareness raising” intention (which may or may ever get meaningfully furthered). Or the intent may be explicitly or implicitly self-therapeutic, or “cathartic”: more about what the writing process does for the writer than about what the finished product may or may not do for its readers. In any case, most authors don’t attempt to systematically find out, before or after publication, what uses readers put their books to, or what responses they may have elicited in readers, inadvertently or otherwise.

This experiment

This study, on which Rocío and I are collaborating, will be the first to assess the effects of reading a book about recovery from anorexia versus the effects of reading a book with no relation to eating disorders (though with structural and thematic similarities in other respects). The book about recovery is called The Hungry Anorexic. The book hasn’t yet been published, and the experiment will determine whether it gets published—in its current form, in an edited form, or not at all. Precise statistical cutoffs have been specified in advance, and if the book “fails” these tests, it will not be released. If specific elements turn out to be significantly problematic, they will be revised. 

This project invites a new kind of readerly involvement in the authorial process, and I’m excited to find out what happens when readers get to shape the publication trajectory of a text.

The experiment involves reading one of the books (you’ll be assigned randomly to one group or the other) within a roughly 2-week period, and completing some questionnaires and open-ended questions 1 week before, at intervals during, and 2 weeks after. You’ll be asked not to read any other books about eating disorders during the 5 weeks of the study. If you’re interested in taking part, and you’re 18 or over, currently have a restrictive eating disorder or are recovering from it, have a BMI of 15 or over, and are fluent in English, as well as identifying as female, you’re warmly invited to read more and consider signing up to take part. Everyone who completes the study can choose to be entered into a prize draw to win one of four prizes of GPB 100 (roughly USD 140).

You can read more and sign up for the study here: https://oxford.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/eating-disorder-narrative-study. Do get in touch with me via the contact form if you have any questions not addressed by the information sheet.

And if you’re interested in reading in the recovery context, but don’t want or aren’t able to take part in this experiment, you might like to check out the final section of the post I mentioned earlier for some recommendations on how to read in recovery. Tldr: Read things you love that have nothing to do with eating disorders, and keep eating!

References

Jones, K. (2020). Representing young men’s experience of anorexia nervosa: A French-language case study. Medical Humanities. Direct PDF download (preprint) here.

Troscianko, E.T. (2018a). Fiction-reading for good or ill: Eating disorders, interpretation and the case for creative-bibliotherapy research. Medical Humanities, online first 21 April. Direct PDF download here.

Troscianko, E.T. (2018b). Literary reading and eating disorders: Survey evidence of therapeutic help and harm. Journal of Eating Disorders, 6, 8. Open access here