Given the deeply traumatic nature of this book’s subject, this word seems entirely incongruous. But I can’t it out of my head as I try to sum up Emma Scrivener’s new book. And that’s the word beautiful. This is not because of a superficial orwhite-washed treatment. Far from it. In fact at times Emma is searingly, wincingly honest. And as she writes, we weep.
Nor is it simply because the quality of writing is so good. It certainly is that – in fact from the first page, this memoir is written with a beautiful poetic flair, occasional wit (e.g. describing her first attempts at putting on makeup as making her like ‘a Fraggle drawn with crayons’ p45) and very striking turns of phrase that linger in the mind. How many Christian books can one say that of? Far too few. In fact, at times, I’d go so far as to say that the writing reminded me of Frederic Buechner’s own memoir Telling Secrets (from which she even quotes).
But my primary reason is the sheer beauty of this deeply personal story of redemption; redemption as a process, that is; painful, achingly slow, confusing, a struggle – but redemptive none the less. There is some light in this darkness – sometimes muffled, sometimes blazing.
There are various aspects of this book which mark it out from the crowd, not least of which are the deeply theological lens for this testimony of pain. I must confess that I was nervous before reading this book. I’ve not met Emma, but have mutual friends (and she spent some years at our church before my time). I’ve read a fair few ‘testimony’ books in which people with this or that or another ‘issue’ describe how Jesus is the answer. (NB glib, gross caricature alert.) Too often they can feel a bit shallow, a little attention-seeking (in the order of celebrities indulging in talk-show confessions), and tritely victorious.
A New Name, I’m very pleased to say, is nothing like that. It is the product of deep wrestling, a sacrificial altruism towards other sufferers, and hope-filled realism. In fact, to my mind, this is now a benchmark for how to do this sort of book.
Cultures, Complexities and Cruel Ironies
How do such agonies occur? The impossible question. When it comes to mental health issues, as I know all too well, all one can do is remember, analyse and ponder – seek threads and patterns, triggers and vulnerabilities. We need others to help with that (professional and otherwise). But we are all products of our upbringing to some extent. Emma grew up in a loving home in Northern Ireland. So it was heartbreaking to see how in some ways her pain and suffering was exacerbated by and echoed the culture of the so-called ‘troubles’ going on at the time (on which there were some very perceptive passing insights which reminded me of what I’ve witnessed when in Sarajevo, but that is quite another story).
We were familiar with hunger strikes, but they were mentioned in hushed tones. How could such violence have smashed into the sanctuary of our home? It was impossible, a nightmare from which we would surely awake. (p71)
Every evening we retreated, bloodied and exhausted, to the blessed oblivion of sleep. But the morning brought with it breakfast – and a new day of conflict. Nothing would change. I was made of steel: I would not eat. But my parents were immovable too. Iron met iron, and neither fork, nor will, would concede. (p77)
The cruellest aspect of Emma’s experiences, though, was the chasm between promise and reality. Anorexia impels the sufferer down the path of self-destruction, all in the name of self-deliverance. So as a young teenager, Emma felt: “My body was mine and mine alone. It made me powerful and untouchable. The more I shrank it, the stronger I became.” (p62) Then a decadelater, when it returned with a vengeance, despite marrying Glen and spending time at a seminary: “I had never been more enslaved. Yet I was never more certain of my own strength.” (p123)
Anorexia is based on lies – and forces its sufferers to drown in lies.
This is where Emma’s openness is at its most bravely searing. She is prepared to describe her deepest thought processes, as she plummeted into the anorexic chasm. This is far-removed from self-indulgence, but is crucial for non-sufferers to grapple with. For outsiders, (whether family or friends, they’re still outsiders) it can seem so alien. This is a book that will really help to understand and walk alongside. But Emma’s story raises a very important factor which the world is reluctant to confront. For after her dangerous bout as a young girl, she seemed ‘cured’. As she comments, ‘perhaps the way we in which we ‘recover’ is as important as the fact that we do.’ (p87)
From the outside, it looked like recovery. I was a good girl again. I worked hard and even won a place at a top university. In the glossy magazines, this is where the story would end. But my so-called recovery sowed the seeds for a relapse, ten years later. (p86)
And the worst thing was that her improvements only deepened the crisis.
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 was clear. Nothing less than a heart-transplant was required. But this is the sobering thing: this happened years after she had professed faith, been actively involved in ministry and done some theological training. A salutary reminder that we are rarely the people our masks suggest we are.
And as she grappled with what she faced in the mirror, she had to confront her own heart. And perhaps the most painful realisation was that her heart was set on the wrong things, and that this was the root cause of her deepest problems. She was worshipping the wrong things. So one of book’s most impressive sections (and which must have been agonising to write) was the 3-page scalpel-sharp analysis of the idolatrous gospel of anorexia (pp 83-85). Here are a few extracts:
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.
… 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.
… 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. (pp83-85)
Those familiar with Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods will recognise this powerful and important approach.
At one or two points in Emma’s story, she was severely let down by those who should have helped (including some Christians). I wanted to shout at them. Either her symptoms weren’t acute ‘enough’ to be treated, or their expertise wasn’t sufficient for an ‘extreme’ case. But she testifies wonderfully to a number of ordinary Christian friends who helped her – and above all to the wonderful power of the risen Christ whom she encounters through the pages of Revelation. It is an exceptionally moving moment – and it changed her life. Because this encounter gave her the gospel-promised heart-surgery she so desperately needed. And with her new heart, comes the new name and identity, so far removed from the countless new leaves that she’d turned to try to be better.
And that has to be right ultimately. Our deepest heart-sickness can only be dealt with by the only true heart-physician. I wouldn’t want people to take from Emma’s testimony, however, that health professionals are irrelevant or even detrimental. That’s certainly not been my experience (albeit in facing a different mental health issue). And we don’t want to get reductionistic in any direction about how to tackle complex problems. Medication will rarely be the only help if that’s what’s needed, but nor should we ignore the expertise where it is appropriate. What we must always do, though, is to come, on our knees to the true life-giver. And this is what Emma wonderfully did. And she found the deepest solace and the path for recovery.
Of course, we must take care not to dogmatise from any individual’s experiences. Emma certainly doesn’t do this, thankfully. And as several of the book’s blurb-writers note, this really is one of the best books on the subject. But we mustn’t assume that every mental health issue is always at heart caused entirely by rampant idolatry. It might be – as Emma so honestly admits. But it might not. To assume it always is will lead us to resemble Job’s ‘comforters’ more than Job’s Christ. As I say, this book doesn’t do this. But readers might.
Emma’s not clearly perfectly healed – whatever that means. The long-term physical consequences of her anorexia are heart-rending in themselves. But her greatest discovery, and thus her greatest gift to us all through this book, is this:
The grace of Jesus gives me the strength to be weak. He gives me permission to speak as someone who struggles, not someone who pretends. (p140)
To that, I want to say Amen 100 times over. And for that reason alone, I commend this astonishing book without reservation. It has gripped me, reduced me to tears, but above all, renewed my own fragile faith.