Susan Burton, EMPTY

Susan Burton, EMPTY

Zibby Owens: I interviewed Susan Burton all the way at the beginning of the pandemic. It’s her first interview. I met her a while back at an event I went to, actually an event I was moderating at the Center for Fiction. I’m thrilled that now it’s finally time that I can release her episode. Susan Burton’s memoir, Empty, is really one of my favorite recent books. I’m really excited to bring it to all of you. She’s an editor at This American Life where the episodes she’s produced include Ten Sessions, Five Women, and Tell Me I’m Fat. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Slate, The New Yorker, and others. She is a former editor of Harper’s. Her radio documentaries have won numerous awards including an Overseas Press Club citation. She received a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to do stories about teenagers. The film Unaccompanied Minors, which was directed by Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig, is based on one of her personal essays. Susan graduated from Yale in 1995. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their two sons.

Welcome, Susan. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Susan Burton: Hi, Zibby. Thank you so much for having me. I’m really glad to be here.

Zibby: Me too. As you know, I’m obsessed with your book. I was so excited to get to meet you at the Center for Fiction a few months ago, which seems like a lifetime ago at this point.

Susan: I know. We were shaking hands.

Zibby: That was so nice. I miss shaking hands. Your book is coming out in June, which is when this will air. I’m hoping that by the time people are listening to this we are all out and about. At the time of recording, we are still in quarantine. We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, can you please tell listeners what Empty: A Memoir is about?

Susan: Empty tell the story of the eating disorders, both anorexia and binge eating disorder, that defined my adolescence and really my adulthood too, though I wasn’t able to admit that until I was in my forties. What happened was, almost a decade ago I signed a contract to write a book that was meant to intertwine the story of my adolescence with a cultural history of teenage girlhood. I’d always been really drawn to mythology of the teenage years ever since I was a Seventeen magazine-obsessed middle schooler in 1980s Michigan. I started writing that book, marching along through the cultural history. Midway through the first draft, my eating disorders just took over the narrative. I was paralyzed. I’d never told anybody about the binge eating. It was a secret I’d been keeping since my adolescence. I’d kept it even from my husband. We met when we were seventeen. I didn’t know what to do. For years, literally for years, I kept trying to write the book I’d committed to, the cultural history. I was too scared to write about eating disorders for a bunch of reasons, but in large part because to do honestly would force me to admit that they’d never really gone away, that my obsession with food still defined my life. I was no longer bingeing, but my life was definitely still organized around food. The thing was, I really wanted to write about them. It felt urgent and unresolved. There was part of me that knew it was the story that I needed to tell. Eventually, with the encouragement of my editor who’s really wonderful, I was able to just embrace that desire and stop denying what I wanted and write the book I wanted to write, which in a way is like a metaphor for eating disorder recovery itself.

Zibby: Wow. Essentially, your editor was the first person to hear about all this? Is that right?

Susan: Yes. When I turned in the first draft of the manuscript, my editor and my agent were the ones who were the recipients of this secret that I’d been keeping. The editor whom I began with is no longer at the publishing house, so I have a different editor. She’s actually the one who years down the road gave me the push I needed to write the story I needed to tell.

Zibby: After keeping it a secret for so long, why do you think you trusted them? Why did you feel okay to finally write it and to share it with them first? What do you think it was?

Susan: I had this urge to confess. I had this urge to tell. I had so much shame about my own story that I think it was helpful to have somebody say to me, “Look, I see what’s happening on the page. I recognize that this is your story. This is the one you should tell. This is the one that feels most alive to me too.” There was that element of it. Also, over time as I started writing, the urge to confess shifted to an urge to connect. At some point, I understood how much habits of secrecy had been holding me back. I was very guarded. I was very distant. I had some curiosity about, what would happen if I did tell? What possibilities would open up to me if I was no longer hiding?

Zibby: Now you’re telling the whole world.

Susan: Now I’m telling the whole world. I will be totally honest with you. This is the first interview I’m doing. I’m still really learning how to talk about this stuff. It’s still very new to me. It’s very different. We met a couple months ago, but we don’t know each other. It’s much easier for me to say these things to you than it is, for instance, to say these things to my friend with whom I went to the event that night because it’s difficult to have had a secret from all the people around you and then to figure out how to have that conversation once one is ready to tell.

Zibby: That makes sense. I know shame is part of the motivation, but when you — first of all, in the book, your issues surrounding food started basically when you were born. You had very strong food preferences and food aversions. There was always something around food for you. I found myself wondering as I was reading, maybe now she would’ve been diagnosed with some sort of, not an eating disorder like anorexia, bulimia as we would define it now, but you know how there are all these new childhood disorder — do you know what I’m talking about?

Susan: Totally.

Zibby: Eating aversions. I feel like you had something like that with even your choices of the foods you were eating.

Susan: There is a diagnosis. I’m going to get it wrong. It’s something called like avoidant resistive food — AFRID or ARFID or something. It’s beyond picky eater. I sometimes do wonder, yes, if I would have been diagnosed with a version of that. As a kid, I never had a healthy relationship with food. I was really scared of food. I was the weird kid at the birthday party who wouldn’t want pizza or I wanted milk instead of Coke. At the time, I think I would’ve told you that I just didn’t like a lot of foods. Looking back, controlling what I ate was a really early way to control what felt really out of control at home. My parents had a really troubled marriage. They divorced when I was thirteen. I moved to Colorado with my mother and my sister. It was a couple years after that that the anorexia kicked in. I think the groundwork had been laid. There was something in me. There was a predilection for this.

Zibby: I feel like in other eating disorder memoir things, somebody usually sees it and acknowledges and tries to encourage the person to seek treatment. There’s an intervention and this whole narrative around it. Why do you think that this persisted for so long? That you could even hide it is so impressive. It’s one thing when you’re an adult, but when you’re still essentially under the roof of your mother and in a school setting, for instance, what do you think? Did everybody miss it?

Susan: I don’t know. It’s a good question. One, I think I was really good at hiding. I was really invested in hiding. On the one hand, my life was organized around the eating behaviors. On the other hand, it was organized around keeping them secret. I was really good at hiding. Anorexia is visible. I was anorexic in my mid-teens and then later in my early twenties. People did say things then. For the largest part of those years of my adolescence and very early adulthood, I was binge eating. That’s not something that people can necessarily see. Could my mother have noticed missing food? Maybe. I would scoop granola from this jar we had. We were living in Boulder, Colorado. We would buy this maple nut granola in bulk from the health food store in a glass canister. I would scoop it out with my hand. The oats would sprinkle out through my fingers onto the floor. For whatever reason, that, I felt, was my tell. That, I felt, was my giveaway. How could my mother not notice when she swept the floor that these oats were there? I think binge eating is invisible, and not only to loved ones, but even to medical practitioners. If a person is overweight, the size isn’t necessarily ascribed to the behavior. A person might not even be — their weight might be unremarkable and still have this disorder.

Zibby: Aside from the scene with the granola which I could totally picture now — grabbing a handful of granola is, for me, a snack. What are some of the moments where, and you describe in the book, but give one example of a moment where you were just out of control bingeing and in a way that you were ashamed and then hid afterwards? Give us one scene.

Susan: Totally. That’s a super important distinction because I do think that binge — even the way we use the word as binge-watching TV or I binged on a batch of cookies. That’s a lighthearted one-off. Binge eating disorder, when you’re inside it, it’s a compulsion. For example, in high school, a typical night, I’d be up in my room. I’d be waiting to hear my mother leave the kitchen. I hear her feet on the stairs. I hear the door to her room shut. I hear her sink turn on. I’d wait for all these steps to happen. Then I’d open the door of my bedroom. I’d creep back down the stairs. I’d flick on the light in the kitchen. I’d open the freezer. I’d take out a pint of ice cream. I’d eat the ice cream down to the bottom of the pint, scrape the spoon around the rim, throw the pint away. Go back to the freezer. There’d be a Ziploc bag of frozen muffins. Take out a muffin. Eat it still frozen. There’s some things you could pull out of your freezer that taste really good frozen. These would be like oat bran muffins because it was the eighties. They were not good frozen. It wasn’t about seeking pleasure. It would continue. Opening the freezer, closing the freezer. Opening the cupboard, closing the cupboard. I remember eating blue corn chips and the points of the chips scraping the inside of my mouth.

There was sort of a ferocity to it. I’d start to feel sick. I’d start to feel my body expanding inside my clothes. I was always going all out because it was always the last time I was going to do it. It sounds so unpleasant that you wonder why someone would do it. For me, in that kitchen on a weekday night my junior year of high school, as long as I was eating, I didn’t have to think. As long as there was food in my mouth, I didn’t have to think about anything. I didn’t have to think about any loss or any pain or the friend who hadn’t called or the party at which I’d stood on the sidelines. There was nothing but this. I’d finish. I’d go upstairs to my room. I’d be hating myself. I’d be swearing I’d never do it again. I’d get in the bed. In the morning, I would wake up. My body would often feel sore. The explanation I had in my head was that it was like the work of the skin having to expand to accommodate all the food I’d stuffed in. I have no idea if that’s true, but that was how it felt. I’d wake up and I’d swear I wasn’t going to do it. Within hours, I’d be doing it again. It organized my life and did for years.

Zibby: I feel like it’s also, how can you become really close to someone when you’re hiding something so big? It’s almost like a self-distancing tool that you used to keep people at arm’s length, right?

Susan: It’s really true. There was a point in my early forties when I realized that the reverberations of the eating disorders — I lived on the edge of anorexia for years during my adulthood. I recognized that those behaviors around food were still really limiting me, but I don’t think I recognized how much the secrecy was limiting me until I started to open up a little bit about it, until I started to tell it and realize how guarded I’d become about everything, not just this one particular thing. You just develop habits of not saying the truest thing. There’s a distance from you in the world. That has been really transformative. I had to tell my husband. We met, like I said, when we were seventeen. We’ve been together since we were twenty. I didn’t tell him about the binge eating disorder until I had a finished manuscript. I was really scared because if he’d been keeping a secret from me for twenty-five years, I would have a lot of complicated feelings about that. What pain he must have been in. Why was he keeping this from me? It has been really transformative. Once you say the thing you think can never be said, it opens up the possibility of saying so many other kinds of things.

Zibby: Did you feel like there was something behind that secret that you really wanted to — was that a front for something else?

Susan: That’s such a good question. I didn’t feel that then. I was so literal about what I needed to tell, so concrete. I think that’s the thing about an eating disorder or any kind of addiction or compulsion. You focus on the thing itself rather than the underlying reasons for it. It’s, in a way, why I never really got better. I stopped bingeing midway through college, but not because I got help or got healthy. I just decided to sort of quit food. I became anorexic, which was just the same thing. It was just another way of using food to manage feeling, and then just existed on its edge for many years.

Zibby: What happened when you told your husband?

Susan: At first, he didn’t understand. He’s like, “I knew that already. I knew that.” I was like, “No, you didn’t. You literally did not. That’s not possible. You didn’t know it.” We’d been together, so he was there for anorexia. He got eating disorder in a vague way. I was like, “No, honey, this is what binge eating disorder.” I had to explain it to him. I think I was probably inarticulate. The conversation itself felt intense. I think it wasn’t until he read the manuscript that he really understood.

Zibby: Then what happened?

Susan: He actually stopped reading the manuscript midway through. That was hard. It was just a lot to take in. I understood. I wanted to give him that space. Then he returned to it. What happened next is I just felt like of all the people I want to know about this, I want him to know. I want Mike to know. It just felt so liberating to not have this thing in this little box inside of me, like I’d unlocked that. I think it helped him open up about stuff too.

Zibby: Interesting. I feel like as soon as you start sharing, what you get back is always a big surprise.

Susan: It’s true.

Zibby: Probably for you, if you were keeping so much secret, there was probably more stuff that other people were keeping than most with all your defenses up and everything.

Susan: Hiding is really isolating too, is the thing. It disconnects you from the world.

Zibby: It makes me sad. It’s true. You were just so handicapping yourself. You seem like such a nice person. That you were going through all this internal suffering and hiding it for the world, it’s heartbreaking, really. I’m really happy that you’ve written your book about it. I’m sure people will tell you a million times, you’re so brave, but it’s really amazing. I get that you are doing this in a place of, it sounds like you have to. You’ve gotten to a point where this is the only next step for you. Still, it’s incredibly brave to come out and face all of this now.

Susan: Thank you. That’s really nice to hear. Writing the book is really, I see it as the first step in my recovery. Recovery is an ongoing process for me. At one point when I was still in the stage when I wanted to write about it but couldn’t yet, I went to a therapist. I’d gone to therapists over the years and really literally did not mention eating and always left after the initial consultation because even if I understood that if I wasn’t going to talk about eating, it probably wasn’t worth it. I went to a psychiatrist who specialized in eating disorders to force myself to say it. I could not get the words out. I had habits of isolation that had been built up over so many years. I felt like to understand my story I needed to understand it alone first. I needed to write about it. Writing had always been the way I’d made sense of my life. I felt I needed to do that first. As soon as I finished the manuscript, I went back to therapy. That has really been the most transformative part of the process for me. Now I see that the most important thing that writing did was to get me to start talking, which is exciting.

Zibby: Give me a visual on what it was like when you were actually writing the book and you were tapping into all of these complicated emotional feelings. Are you in Starbucks at this moment? Where were you? How did it feel to have it all come out onto the page?

Susan: I was in various places. The consistent thing is I was usually — I write very early. I was usually in the dark at dawn. I had this particular green spiral notebook that had been my high school journal. Often after a binge, I would write. I’d write what I’d eaten. I’d write how I felt. I write and write and write, which was in a way sort of a purge, I think. There was something ritualistic about it. Often, I’d have that journal next to me. I’d read an entry. It was evocative. Then I’d put it aside. I would try and re-inhabit the scene that I’d just read. That was part of it. There was a lot of fear in starting to write about it because I think anybody, whenever we’re writing — hopefully, we’re writing about things that mean something to us. This meant so much to me. I felt that writing about it was the only way I could be understood. I felt if I couldn’t set it down the way I wanted to, there was no hope. I had this extreme, apocalyptic — it was really fraught for me. Once I was able to set that aside and just channel it, it was okay.

Zibby: Do you have fears about this coming out at work or in your professional life?

Susan: I did for a long time. There was a particular scene that was fixed in my mind. I’m an editor at This American Life. Every Wednesday, we have a story meeting. We all sit around the room. We all eat together. There’s twenty-five or thirty of us. For whatever reason, I fixated on that Wednesday story meeting, that as soon as my book came out everybody would be watching what I ate and how I ate in a way that they hadn’t before. I don’t think that’s crazy. I think people will be more attuned to what they say about food, to watching me eat. I’m very close to my coworkers. I feel about them as I do about others. I feel excited to be able to talk about this and strip away the layers that maybe have been impeding relationships.

Zibby: Do you have any aspirations to become the person who goes around to schools and talks about your experience? Is that part of your hope to bring your message to more people to spare them what you’ve been through? Or is this your first step and you’re just going to get through this and then reassess? What’s coming next? What are your goals after this?

Susan: For sure. Even when I was a teenager struggling with this stuff, I always imagined — well, when I was a teenager, I imagined helping other teenagers. Now that I’m a woman in middle age, I do think that there are a lot of women in middle age who have eating disorders, whether they’re things that have endured since adolescence or that have developed later. I would like to become an effective enough spokesperson for my own story that I can do that. I don’t know that I’m ready today, but I would love to be ready to do that.

Zibby: I was a psychology major. I did my whole senior thesis on eating disorders. I’ve always been really interested. I’ve had very close people in my life with eating disorders. It’s been a huge topic of interest to me, which is probably why I just adored your book so much. I even recently wrote this article for Redbook, it was probably in the last five years, because I noticed that so many of my grandmother’s friends — my grandmother is ninety-six. They’re still having issues around food. I found myself wondering, wow, if you don’t resolve it at some point, it does not just go away. There’s a woman in her old folk’s home who still weighs herself every day and beats herself up. I did all these measures of who had eating disorders in the past and how they felt about food. Anyway, all to say it doesn’t go away. Even the fact that you did it in middle age is better than, say, people who are in old age who have not conquered this yet. I just couldn’t believe. I had this belief that once you got old enough people would just be like, whatever, but it’s not true at all.

Susan: I know. I remember being at my grandmother’s assisted living facility in Florida and going to the dining room and seeing women in their nineties with gnarled fingers scooping out the insides of bagels. That thing was still happening. My own grandmother, when I visited her during the last weeks of her life, she was in bed. At one point she said to me, “I wish I could get out of bed and weigh myself.” She knew she’d lost so much weight. She just wished she could get on the scale one last time. You’re right. It doesn’t go away.

Zibby: Wow. That’s a haunting image.

Susan: I know. She was a wonderful baker and cook. Food was very important in our family, which I also think is not uncommon. When there’s attention to food in one way, there becomes a pathology in another.

Zibby: Just two more last questions. I’m wondering what you would want to tell anybody out there who might be hiding something similar. Maybe this is their time where they’re finally confronting it and thinking, wow, if she could do this, maybe I could do it. What would you say to somebody in that situation? Then I want to just know if you have any advice to writers in general having just published this beautiful manuscript.

Susan: I do. A message a resisted for a long time was reach out to another person. Get help. I do think that that is the most important thing that somebody struggling with an eating disorder or any kind of addiction or compulsion can do. It’s not something that you can solve on your own. Whether that person you reach out to is a friend or a therapist or a mentor, that’s the advice that I would offer. Then as far as for writers?

Zibby: Yeah, aspiring authors, somebody who says, I want to write a memoir. I’m ready. What advice would you have?

Susan: I might crib a piece of advice that a novelist friend gave to me that she in turn had cribbed from somebody who was a writing mentor to her, which is, what do you know that no one else knows? Write about that. It’s not that you have to have some experience that is so unusual, but just what is deepest in you? Write from that place. Just trust that if you embrace your deepest self, that will be interesting to other people too.

Zibby: I love that advice. That is so good. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming on this podcast. I hope, as your first interview, it was okay and not too intimidating or anything. I’m so excited for Empty to come out in June. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me in quarantine now.

Susan: Thanks, Zibby. I really appreciated it. It was really nice to talk to you.

Zibby: You too. Bye.

Susan: Bye.

Susan Burton, EMPTY