In this second book by J.J. Johnson (This Girl is Different, 2011), readers catapult through time to a world where things are upside down, nothing seems solid, and things are strictly regimented for your own safety. No one believed that Jennifer needed help, even when she asked for it- they all thought that when she was attention seeking. Yet when she finally was admitted for being bulimarexic (a combination of bulimia and anorexia), her treatment isn’t anywhere near what the afterschool specials lead her to believe. Slowly, Jennifer finds herself, but only through an incredible struggle that gives hope to those who deal with the very issues Jennifer overcomes.
In 1988, when she was fifteen, JJ Johnson was hospitalized for treatment of bulimarexia, a combination of bulimia and anorexia. During her ten-week stay, JJ had to eat everything on her tray, and took classes like “Assertiveness Training,” “Depression Management,” and “Body Image Workshop.” She gained weight, but her path toward health was a constant struggle. In her heart, JJ knew-she knew-that she would be a happy, healthy adult one day. But how? Instead of a clear path, there was a black abyss. She needed a guide, a mentor, someone who knew her inside and out. So, one morning, just before weigh-in, JJ closed her eyes and made a deal with herself: I promise myself that when I’m grown up, and happy, I will come back here, to these months. Healthy me will guide bulimarexic me through this. This book is that promise, kept.
First, I fell in love with a lot of the subtly that JJ uses throughout the book. In the beginning, Jennifer’s story is told in third-person, in verse, and a different, almost tentative typeface- like Jennifer herself, her writing needs to not rock the boat within herself in order to maintain order. As Jennifer’s story progresses, the narration shifts ever-so-slightly, until finally Jennifer is talking in first-person narration and the typeface is as strong as Jennifer is herself.
Second, I am a sucker for complex characterizations, and Believarexic does not disappoint. The nurses, nurses aides, fellow inpatients, and the family issues that started Jennifer’s eating disorders are fleshed out oh-so-carefully throughout the book, making a reader tear through the pages in order to find out the motivations behind what is going on, or what will happen to the characters.
I know that it’s semi-autobiographical, but I really admire the attention to detail in order to make everything really FIT into the 1980’s. The music, the dates at the top, the proper medications, the cigarettes everywhere all add to the atmosphere and make it realistic- unlike a lot of *cough* historical *cough* 80’s fiction, there wasn’t anything that pulled a reader out of the suspensions of disbelief that you were in the 80’s.
I also really liked the fact that – as far as I know – there weren’t any harsh triggers for anyone suffering from eating disorders. Yes, there were weigh-ins and treatment discussions, discussions about how the facility made them eat foods they hated, and gave and took away privileges, but the entire subject was treated with respect and a gentleness that I wasn’t expecting.
I also liked the reality that the disorders were being treated on the same floor, not separated as they are in a lot of other works- often times you’ll get “anorexic wards” and “bulimia wards” in fiction; not so in Believarexic– everyone being treated for an eating disorder is on that floor- much more realistic.
One thing that threw me completely off was how no one dealt with a clearly abusive staff member. Jennifer reports incidents to the main therapist, yet that accomplishes nothing but having him think that she’s complaining about the treatment as a whole- a treatment that Jennifer had to beg her parents for in the first place. When the minor twist with this staff member comes near the end of the book, it’s one of the few things I couldn’t get my head around- that no one could see what was going on, and that they would cover up her issues, especially in light of this workplace.
There are so many throughout the book, but if I have to pick one it has to be at the front of the book. You would think that parents WANT to get their kids treatment, and that they would be at least marginally aware that something is wrong with their teens, especially if the have a major eating disorder. Yet Jennifer is having to BEG her mom to take her to a clinic that Jennifer has researched, and Jennifer has to be brave enough to admit that she has a disorder in front of her mother and a complete stranger. Jennifer has to stand up to her mother in the face of denials and accusations of attention grabbing and basically YELL, “I HAVE A DISORDER” in order to be hospitalized.
The publisher and other review journals put Belivarexic at grades 8 and up, for teens 12 and up, and I agree with them. In a public library I would place in it a teen/YA collection as I feel it’s a little too much for a juvenile/tween collection, but I can see where middle school libraries would have it accessible for their older grades. Librarian Notes: While there aren’t specific triggers within the book, there is frank discussion about the entire spectrum of eating disorders, and there is interaction with the drug abuse treatment floor. There is discussion of alcohol, sex, drugs, and verbal abuse. There’s nothing there that would go against giving it to a youth that I know, or one that would ask for it. Other teen fiction works that would be awesome pairings would be Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, Butter by Erin Jade Lange, Just Listen by Sarah Dressen, and Clean by Amy Reed.
You know as a reader it’s based off of the author’s teenage years so you know that she’s gotten through it and is OK, so it’s like YEA everything turned out OK, but as you’re reading you get lost in the journey and wonder whether she gets through. You also get invested in the friends that she makes within the therapy, and wonder whether they’re OK afterwards as well. And if you’re like me, you know people who are going through this struggle, and you wonder how you can support them, and if you’re doing the right things- so it’s just up and down and around.