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The Boy Who Loved Apples

November 16, 2012

By Alice Robinson

 

When Amanda Webster’s memoir The Boy Who Loved Apples: a mother’s battle with her son’s anorexia was published this year, I came across it in a bookshop and read the first couple of chapters standing in the aisle. What caught my attention was Webster’s offering of an unusual perspective on an (unfortunately) common story: the fact that it was her son, not daughter, who had suffered from the disease. As Webster articulates time and time again in the book as she tries to find adequate care and treatment for her son, anorexia is more commonly perceived as a “women’s illness”, even though boys and men do suffer from it. In line with this, I’ve read several memoirs written by women about their battles with anorexia, but none by or about men. And certainly none about a sufferer as young as Webster’s son, Riche, who was still only a child when his anorexia manifested. I was intrigued to uncover the ways in which Riche experienced the illness similarly, or not, to those women I had read about. Equally as interesting to me was the fact that it was the perspective of the mother, Webster, and not the anorexic himself, who commanded the narrative. In all, The Boy Who Loved Apples promised quite a different take on starvation, family, mental health and body image than the other narratives of anorexia that I was familiar with.

There is no doubt that Webster has provided a gripping read, the central tension of which revolves around the increasing stress Riche’s illness places on his frail and failing body, on his mother as sole carer, and on the fractured family unit. Desperate to keep Riche out of hospital, Webster moves away from their idyllic home in Mullumbimby in Northern New South Wales. Taking Riche to Brisbane in search of treatment, Webster is forced to leave her two younger, healthier children, host of animals and her elderly parents in the hands of friends and carers. Coming under the strain of distance, her marriage to Kevin (drawn rather unsympathetically as a kind of workaholic man-child) also suffers, as do their finances, stretched by the formidable cost of Riche’s outpatient care. While undoubtedly deeply touching, this is definitely a story deeply situated in the upper middle-class experience. As Webster points out, the courses of action she takes to keep Riche alive and improve his health, costing thousands each week, are only available to the lucky few, Webster among them, for whom money is no object.

Still, there is no doubt that Webster’s dedication to her son, her attempts to save his life, are heroic. Riche’s illness in its combination of obsessive-compulsive behaviour and refusal to eat are ghastly to watch, even vicariously, and Webster’s portrayal of that dark time and its effect on her own mental and physical health are deeply troubling. That she and Kevin make many mistakes in the course of Riche’s recovery, that they are flawed, often cruel to one another, fearful and weak, only makes them appear more human and sympathetic. If at times they appear unlikeable, I accepted their foibles, not the least because Webster is almost self-flaggelatingly honest about her own shortcomings. At the same time, Webster demonstrates pervasively the ways in which darkness can descend on the most ordinary and unsuspecting of families without any solid, identifiable justification. She demonstrates the lengths a mother will go to in order to secure the wellbeing of her child, the great, inexorable scope of maternal love.

The unresolved puzzle in the book – and indeed, in Webster’s experience it seems – is what set Riche’s anorexia in motion. While she spends a great deal of time blaming Kevin and herself and is unflinching in her account of their many parental failings, ultimately no one event or cause can ever be identified. That question, Why did this happen? haunts Webster throughout. It is ultimately unanswerable.

While I certainly found The Boy Who Loved Apples compelling for all the reasons I had hoped it might be, the fact that we never see the illness through Riche’s eyes means that the ins and outs of his experience – and eventual recovery – remain a little distant and perplexing. The internal logic driving his refusal to eat, the way he experiences his obsessive-compulsive routines and failing health, along with any real insight into the many sessions with healthcare professionals he endures, all remain at arms length to the reader. We can only know what Webster knows, after all, and I’m not convinced that hers is the most interesting or illuminating perspective in the story.

This is a mother’s story though, not a sufferer’s, and in this context it is beautifully told. It is a story of redemption, not only of Riche from the depths of his illness, but of his mother, who works so admirably hard to bring him back from the brink.

Amanda Webster will be appearing at this year’s NonfictioNow conference, presenting on a panel titled Memoir, the Self and the Face-blanket on Friday 23rd of November alongside Patrick Madden and Ira Sukrungruang.

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