In 2012, just as Alexandra Ballard was getting ready to leave her job as a language arts teacher at Bentley, a private Oakland school, she asked her students for advice. Ballard loved teaching but had two small children at home and a husband who traveled frequently for his job as a Sports Illustrated reporter. Her life was growing too complicated for a full-time job, yet she didn’t know what the future held.
“I was leaving my job and I asked them, ‘guys, what should I do next?’” said Ballard, who lives in Berkeley. “My kids were like, ‘you need to write a book!’”
Ballard had a degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and over the years had written stories with her students and read stories she had written on her own out loud to them, which they enjoyed. Still, she felt self-conscious. The kids’ response broke something free in her.
“For some reason, having 40 8th graders tell me I should write a book was all the permission I needed to actually think could do it,” said Ballard.
The result, five years later, is What I Lost, a YA book that deals with the difficult subject of eating disorders. Ballard will be talking about the book Saturday at 1:00 p.m. at the Litquake literary festival as well as on Oct. 10 at 7:00 p.m. at Books, Inc. in Berkeley as part of the one-year anniversary celebration for Left Margin Lit, a writing school in Berkeley.
The novel, published in June, centers on 16-year-old, 90-pound, size 0, Elizabeth, a smart and insightful girl whose parents put her in a treatment center after she loses forty pounds and four jeans sizes in a few months. Kirkus Reviews called What I Lost an “engrossing and heartfelt novel,” and said readers “would root for the novel’s likable main character,” which the review said was “well-developed.”
The opening lines give a sense of Elizabeth’s wry humor, which makes reading about anorexia and bulimia easier than one might expect.
“No one told me that when I got skinny I’d grow fur. Tiny, translucent hairs, fine like white mink, appeared on my arms, my legs, and even, to my horror, my face, giving me downy blond sideburns no girl should have. When I looked it up, the fur had a name – lanugo. Babies are born with it. Anorexics grow it.
My first thought? What a pain in the butt.
My second thought? So far, so good.
After all, you had to suffer to be beautiful.”
When Ballard’s agent first went out to pitch the book, he didn’t mention to publishers that his client had suffered from an eating disorder from the age of 17 until she was 30. But by the time What I Lost came out, Ballard was ready to be public about her past.
“I wanted to show that you can recover from an eating disorder,” said Ballard, who is now healthy. “When you are in the middle of it, you think you are never going to get over it. …It’s hard to imagine yourself eating-disorder-free, but recovery is possible.”
Prior to writing the book, Ballard, who grew up in Massachusetts, had not talked to many people about the years she had battled anorexia and bulimia. But when she sat down to write and the character Elizabeth came to her, the words unexpectedly flowed freely.
“It was waiting to come out,” said Ballard. “I don’t know why it came out in the voice of a 16-year-old girl, but it just came out.”
Ballard is quick to point out that her personal history differs from that of her main character, so the book is not autobiographical. Elizabeth has different kind of parents than Ballard has and is in high school, not in college, as Ballard was when she developed her eating disorder. But Elizabeth shares the feelings and emotions around food and her body, that Ballard experienced for 13 years, she said.
Ballard sets much of the book at the Wallingford Psychiatric Facility Residential Treatment Center on the North Shore of Massachusetts. So the group setting allows her to introduce many different characters and show how each responds to their eating issues. Ballard’s description of how the girls count calories, of how much they hate eating certain calorie-rich foods, how they surreptitiously drop food on the floor so they don’t have to eat it, and how they love their emaciated bodies, is both forthright and moving. The most emotionally satisfying part of the book is watching the clients at Wallingford bond and stand up for one another, despite their setbacks.
And the book is about more than anorexia, as Elizabeth wrestles with her mother, who is oblivious to the fact that she, too, has some eating issues. There are boys involved and a series of secret packages to Elizabeth.
Now that Ballard’s book is launched, she hopes to take the novel and the issues it raises to talk to school groups and to people with eating issues. Anorexia is a serious mental illness but all too often people joke about it, Ballard said at her book launch in June. Just that week Ballard said she had seen a skit on Saturday Night Live and heard a joke by Amy Schumer making light of eating disorders.
“These are legitimate mental illnesses,” Ballard said at her book launch. “Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness yet only 30% of all people get treatment.”