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Nicole Johns offers unvarnished, unromanticized memoir in ‘Purge: Rehab Diaries’

One hates to ever side with book bans, but consider the weird category of eating-disorder literature: According to writer Nicole Johns, certain titles romanticize the illness and actually encourage readers to develop or deepen an illness.

One hates to ever side with book bans, but consider the weird category of eating-disorder literature: According to writer Nicole Johns, certain titles romanticize the illness and actually encourage readers to develop or deepen an illness. In her own contribution to the genre, “Purge: Rehab Diaries,” Johns singles out Marya Hornbacher’s “Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia” as a problem book.

” ‘Wasted’ is rife with suggestions on how to develop an eating disorder and stay sick. It was obviously written while the author was in a disordered state of mind. During treatment, counselors confiscated worn copies of ‘Wasted’ from patients, because many patients were using it to trigger themselves and stay sick,” says Johns, who admits she herself used “Wasted” to “further my eating disorder.”

These are fighting words — especially considering that Johns and Hornbacher are both graduates of the University of Minnesota’s MFA program, and Hornbacher lectured at the U while Johns was a student. “When I tried to discuss this with Ms. Hornbacher after her lecture, she claimed that ‘Wasted’ helped more people than it hurt,” says Johns. “Maybe it did. No one really knows.”

Hornbacher is well aware of the fact that her book is often banned on eating-disorder units. “The book contains graphic depictions of eating-disordered behavior and outcomes, and can be what they call ‘triggering,’ ” says Hornbacher. “I’ve gotten literally tens of thousands of letters from people telling me that [‘Wasted’] helped people make the decision to recover or get treatment, and some letters as well that let me know the book was triggering for them. My goal was not to cure eating disorders, but to raise awareness about them and help as many people as I could; that necessarily came with the risk of triggering some people in an unhealthy state of mind. I expect that ‘Purge’ will be equally helpful, and equally triggering.”

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Johns wrote with that fear in mind, making calculated decisions as she crafted her own memoir. “I tried to stay away from giving ‘tips and tricks’ or anything of the sort. I tried to show that eating disorders are about so much more than just weight, and that people can suffer from an eating disorder at any size and shape, and that one doesn’t have to be 52 pounds [Hornbacher’s low weight] to deserve help. I tried to take the focus of my book off of weight and instead show what was going on emotionally for me and those around me.”

As a result, “Purge” often heads into purely clinical territory. As she tells the story of her illness and hospitalization, Johns makes frequent use of her actual medical records as stark illustrations — a sobering permanent record the writer, who now considers herself recovered, can’t escape.

The field of eating-disorder literature is surprisingly crowded, ranging from cautionary tales directed at young girls to memoirs and self-help books directed at parents and people in recovery. Most of these books reveal in full, horrifying detail the impact of the illness, making it incomprehensible that one would use them as how-to manuals. “I hope that my book provides solace to those in the eating disorder community, shows eating disordered individuals that they are not alone, and helps them move toward recovery,” Johns says.

Nicole Johns reading, 7 p.m. Sunday, July 12, Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Ave Minneapolis, 612-822-4611.