Tyranny: I Keep You Thin
Written and drawn by Lesley Fairfield
Walker Books, paperback, 121 pages, black & white
[Content note for post: extensive discussion of eating disorders]
[Content note for book: graphic depiction of eating disorders (with numbers), death]
Lesley Fairfield’s 2011 graphic novel, Tyranny, was inspired by her 30 year struggle with anorexia and bulimia. We follow the main character Anna through her descent into disordered eating during adolescence, the daily realities of having an eating disorder, the death of her friend from anorexia, her hospitalisation, and eventual recovery.
The depiction of Anna’s developing anorexia is – based on my experience – accurate: the secrecy, the bossiness, the horror of food. For people without experiences of eating disorders themselves or direct experience of living with someone with an eating disorder, I suspect this will be horrifying and revealing. For those with these experiences, I feel they’ll probably be familiar, perhaps triggering, but maybe slightly bland, which isn’t a criticism of the author, just more that the similarities with experiences of developing an eating disorder meant what was shown wasn’t really that shocking or surprising. I’m sure for some readers with experience of eating disorders it might be reassuring to see someone depict their experiences or experiences similar to their own, but if you’ve read enough accounts of eating disorders don’t really expect anything new here.
Anna’s first experience of binging after a long period of restriction was for me one of the most poignant bits of the entire book. Fairfield shows this as a brain with a switch going between ‘control’ and ‘no control’, which was resonant with my experience and kind of got to some of the root of the issue, showing how much of Anna’s restriction was about control. Fairfield’s depiction of Anna’s conflict between the two halves of her brain – “I have a half-brain I didn’t know about and it contradicts the other half. There’s a switch between them, one half says “no” and the other half says “yes!”” – was eerily accurate. Even though at this point it is specifically about the conflict between binging and restriction, I felt that this really got to one of the big things about my experience of eating disorders – the idea of having two sides of your mind in conflict, in fact “half-brain” is actually a term I’ve used myself to try and explain the internal conflict to other people. So, yeah, I liked that bit in particular.
There is some discussion of initial causes – puberty, relationship pressures, and the influence of the exclusive celebration of thin bodies – but at times feels like being depicted as almost a supernatural force external to the main character that just overtakes her. The character, named Tyranny, is depicted as essentially a skeletal figure who is almost always taller and more physically imposing than Anna (despite being a skeleton). She leers over Anna. Tyranny has her own character and motivation (which comprises of making Anna thinner.) There is some recognition, particularly at the end, that Anna and Tyranny are actually (parts of) the same person, but this almost feels a bit tacked on, particularly after such a prolonged interaction between the two of them as distinct characters.
As Fairfield herself puts it:
Tyranny is the story of Anna and her friends, and Anna’s struggle with anorexia. Over time the direction of Anna’s life is compromised, she loses her boyfriend, drops out of school, while at the mercy of the character Tyranny, who is the embodiment of anorexia. Tyranny taunts and abuses Anna, forcing her into starvation, binge eating and bulimia, but Anna fights back, and in time overcomes her illness and vanquishes Tyranny.
So you might be wondering why I’m emphasising the way in which Tyranny is depicted as a separate entity from Anna. Well, in my experience it is not unusual for people experiencing eating disorders to be encouraged to think of their disorder as an external force, or even to use art therapy to depict it as a separate character. Tyranny: I Keep You Thin falls squarely within this approach. I’m not saying Fairfield was necessarily influenced by these ideas, perhaps it’s just coincidental. As far as I can tell, this way of approaching eating disorders derives in a large part from Narrative Therapy. A key idea in Narrative Therapy seems to be that it “views problems as separate from people”, or what’s known as “externalising the problem”. As such, depicting an eating disorder – the problem – as separate or external to the person experiencing it seems to chime well with this approach.
I have a few misgivings about this based on my experience. (Note: I am not saying this is all down to a Narrative Therapy approach, I’m specifically talking about the trend towards people with EDs being encouraged to see their ED as a separate, external, and controlling force.)
One of my main concerns with this approach is that it can obscure causes. This sort of rings true for Tyranny: I Keep You Thin as not much space is devoted to discussing the reasons that may have influenced Anna’s development of anorexia. The emphasis on an eating disorder as an external force that hijacks someone – almost akin to a demonic possession – makes it seem like all eating disorders are something that apparently spontaneously develop. While I’m sure this is true for some people and that for some there are no clear causes, this just does not ring true based on my experience. My eating disorder developed as a (bad) coping mechanism when I was unable to cope with a series of situations in which I lacked any other control. I don’t think mine is a particularly unusual story in this respect. This approach – the external hijack idea – also seems to feed into a very individualised account of eating disorders that obscures the wider social factors that can incline someone towards developing an eating disorder (which is ironic as Narrative Therapy seems to place a lot of emphasis on social factors). This isn’t to say that there isn’t a biochemical/medical model account of eating disorders to be given – there definitely is – but ignoring the wider context in which eating disorders develop probably doesn’t help anybody.
For me, a further issue with the externalising approach is that it makes it seem more difficult to recover/even less controllable – if it’s a separate character how are you meant to start ‘battling’ it? For me it is better to see it as part of myself – albeit a destructive and unhelpful part – than to view it as an external entity. Maybe I misunderstood the task but when I was asked to draw the problem in therapy I drew me as that’s where the problem was/is. I did not believe and still do not believe that viewing my eating disorder as a separate entity would be useful for me. It is me and mine and viewing it as such makes it feel slightly more within my grasp to overcome.
The encouragement of this approach to the exclusion of other approaches and ideas also bothers me. I felt that my experiences and perception of the problem as internal wasn’t ‘right’, as if I were thinking of the problem ‘wrong’ in addition to all the other ways I was thinking wrong. This wasn’t very helpful…As a side note, I’m still personally not keen on the idea of ‘battling’ my eating disorder. My eating disorder is a part of me that developed for completely understandable reasons and working to reconcile those parts of me based on what I want has been the most successful approach for me.
A final point is about the potential ramifications of depicting eating disorders as almost supernatural forces is the development of collectively constructed characters such as ‘Ana’, ‘Mia’, or ‘Ed’ as seen frequently on pro-ana/-mia spaces online and their worship, demands for sacrifices, and the almost religious devotion people in those spaces can feel towards these characters. This seems to have partially derived from the encouragement of externalising eating disorders, though I’m certainly not laying the blame for this at the door of Narrative Therapy.
Overall, I think Tyranny: I Keep You Thin is a fairly decent account of one character’s experience of anorexia and bulimia and it would probably be an informative read for those who do not have experiences with eating disorders. For those who do have such experiences perhaps it would be a comfort to see a similar story depicted, particularly one with a hopeful ending. My misgivings about the approach of depicting EDs as separate forces external to the person experiencing them stretch beyond this particular graphic novel and I don’t think the approach Fairfield takes is necessarily a bad one, just that for me the similarities with a type of thinking about EDs that I find unhelpful was rather off-putting. For those who have found ‘externalising the problem’ to be useful I think this would probably be a reassuring read, I just worry about the overall trend towards this type of depiction and approach.