Laura Freeman: “If you are unwell, you have to find the thing that motivates you”

When Laura Freeman was diagnosed with anorexia, literature saved her sanity. She tells Cara Nicholson that her new book may do the same for others

Journalist Laura Freeman’s biblio memoir The Reading Cure charts her voracious reading habits, and the recovery from a more dangerous obsession that accompanies it.

Since Freeman was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at the age of 14, a love of literature has provided a constant throughout the “for every two strides forward there was a lurch back” unpredictability of recovery.

In describing those initial days, Freeman is firm in her refusal to glamorise anorexia: “When I was told I must try some new food I behaved like a captured animal chained to the table leg, wild with distress.” Constructing a metaphor of her ideal mind as a library, with thoughts stacked neatly like books, Freeman sets about re-ordering the shelves torn down by illness. Steering this is the hunt for literature’s finest scenes of food, a preoccupation which encouraged her to break the cycle of repetitive and restrictive meals. First it is Mrs Cratchit’s plum pudding, next comes a hearty breakfast of “eggs for zest” with Siegfried Sassoon. Meanwhile, the recipe for Mesdame Poulard’s perfect omelette is a revelation. Laura stomps out the rhythm – “Break, beat, butter, shake” – re-learning to eat as if choreographed into dance.

Speaking to Cherwell, Freeman considers at what point she felt ready to write about her experience. It was not about reaching a significant milestone of recovery, but the realisation that younger girls might benefit from this kind of book. She thought that if she “could tell a story that’s actually positive, one that isn’t a misery memoir, then that would be a good thing.” Did she envision other people suffering with anorexia among her readership? “Not exclusively” she says. The book is “for anyone who loves books or is interested in food writing, who has struggled with anorexia or looking after someone with anorexia, or who has…felt that their mind has been against them.”

Even so, Freeman admits that certain scenes might be difficult for someone with the illness. Does this mean she advocates trigger warnings? She isn’t particularly set on their increasing usage, as such a protective move “rather patronises the individual and takes away the bit of agency of being able to say ‘I am strong enough to cope with this’”. Freeman expects her reader to be responsible. I inquire whether, given she attended Cambridge and then pursued a career in journalism, one might not consider Freeman responsible as well. She has repeatedly opened herself up to the risk of criticism, negotiating the draining presence of this illness while vulnerable and overworked. Freeman is characteristically unfussed by this, recalling how in finding student journalism, “the bustle and hum of a newsroom were so attractive that that outweighed any nervousness about going into that world.”

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Upon graduation, she completed nearly 80 job applications in the first eight months. When the opportunity arose to start at the Daily Mail, she admits “I was so relieved to have a job that I think worries about risk didn’t really come into it.” Notably, Freeman has thrived doing anything that takes her out of hr illness, finding solace in walking, art and her journalism.

Freeman is adamant that reading itself is not the prescription: “I think the message is that if you are very unwell and in despair you have to find the thing that motivates you that makes it worth getting better for, and for me that has been books and reading and writing.”

With so much to be positive about, do I dare tackle the oft contentious question of modern food politics? Flippant food trends can have serious repercussions, and Freeman attributes the emergence of the clean eating movement to a near relapse in 2014. Should bloggers be held responsible for misleading nutritional information? With punchy phrases like “kale saints and chocolate sirens,” Freeman uses her book to ridicule, rather than rail against the idiocy of our new discourse around food. She prefers not to be afraid, instead laughing at the inadequacy of courgetti as a replacement for pasta. Nevertheless, she laments the narrow definition of wellness proposed by an industry that advocates a vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free, and sugar-free lifestyle.

“If I look at what I eat I have porridge with milk, and tea with milk, and roast chicken and new potatoes, and tarte tatin, and rhubard crumble, and Greek yoghurt, and scrambled eggs, and poached eggs, and boiled eggs, and I feel well, I am well, and I feel strong and resilient, and that for me has to be what wellness is.”

Let us not forget that Freeman lost her teenage years to this illness. Having nearly been sent hurtling back to that former anguish, I find her outlook incredibly forgiving. Similarly, when I mention Doritos’ recent plans for a ‘female-friendly’ crisp, she laughs heartily at the gendering of food for supposedly dainty women.

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But Freeman is serious about the profound impact of attaching moral value to food. If restraint is virtue and indulgence is vice, both are equally harmful ideas. She regrets the way in which advertising of ‘guilt-free’ and ‘naughty’ foods is targeted at women. She suggests: “I do think we should be more bolshie than the advertisers would have us be.”

This word ‘bolshie’ sticks with me. Freeman is no stranger to unusual words, and her book is peppered with discoveries of novelty utensils (truckle, jorum, dixy, and pottle abound), all of which help to make the actual eating less daunting. Throughout these multifarious discoveries of words and characters, I find that it is the people in Freeman’s life who deserve the most credit.

Recovery is a solo-marathon, but their steady presence provides crucial support. Freeman concurs wholeheartedly, arguing that “the heroine of the book is not Virginia Woolf, and it’s not J.K. Rowling, it is my mum.” We cannot all have the infinite patience of her mother, but we can do our best to make an apparently vulnerable person feel welcome.

After a dismal freshers’ week, running solely on oat cakes eaten in isolation, Freeman describes how an invitation to share a stir-fry provided the turning point she so desperately needed.

Conjured from the electric hob and eaten crowded around a bedroom floor, she finds that “in company and with these strangers who would become friends, I could eat.” May we help each other to keep the minds-library in place.