The Dallas Morning News

The Dallas Morning News

Lighting a dark corner
Filmmaker pulls no punches in eating-disorders exhibit at The Women's Museum
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
By Darla Atlas

In the HBO documentary Thin, Polly Williams, an anorexic and bulimic, lets a camera film one of the most hopeless moments of her life. She's just been kicked out of the Renfrew Center, an inpatient eating-disorder treatment facility in Florida, for breaking the rules. She cries and pleads with the staff for another chance, but they refuse. She returns to her room, bends over the toilet and makes herself vomit, over and over. The camera remains fixed on her.

Three years later, Ms. Williams, 32, sits in a room at The Women's Museum in Dallas, which is hosting a traveling exhibit based on the film and book by the same name.

Watching that scene "brought the whole day back," she says. "The thought of going back and having to look my family in the eye - all that shame and all that disappointment was right here again. I felt like a failure, and I was going to kill myself that night."

Her plan was to break the glass in her mirror and use it. Instead, Thin filmmaker Lauren Greenfield spent the night, partially out of worry - she knew Ms. Williams had been suicidal before, and she knew she was devastated - and partially to document the purging.

"That's the reality, and that's what's kept secret," Ms. Greenfield says. "This is an illness fueled by secrets and lies. You kind of have to see it, warts and all."

Not recovered, but recovering

The exhibit, which is on display through April 22, features the stories of several women and girls who have been treated at Renfrew, which has multiple locations around the country. The subjects are of varying ages and ethnicities, but they share the same sad eyes. Their journal entries attempt to explain what they're feeling.

"Anorexia is your best friend and your worst nightmare. It's a person who lives inside of you."

"It's weird to be suicidal and planning a wedding. It's like, couldn't you make up your mind?"

"This time, I came in at 70 pounds. They said I didn't have more than a week."

"I don't think I'm good at anything, but I know that I'm a good anorexic."

"I just want to be thin. If it takes dying to get there, so be it. At least I'll get there."

Ms. Greenfield shot the documentary over six months. She chose four patients to focus on, including Shelly Guillory, a psychiatric nurse who'd been force-fed through a tube for five years before arriving at Renfrew; Alisa Williams, a divorced mother of two; Brittany Robinson, a teenager whose mom taught her destructive eating habits; and Polly, the outspoken ringleader, who was kicked out for getting a tattoo during her stay.

Looking back, Ms. Williams thinks her eviction "is actually the best thing that has ever happened to me." She moved from Johnson City, Tenn., to Nashville and found an intensive outpatient program "that saw through that tough-girl façade and didn't give up on me. I completely credit them for saving my life."

It's been a long road. Before she got help, Ms. Williams worked as a sales rep for a national food distributor, which required her to stop by restaurants every day. But her focus, every minute, was to stay thin.

"The number on the scale would make or break my day," she says. Between sales calls, she'd go back to her house several times to weigh herself. One day, she had a thought: "Why not put the scale in the car?"

"I didn't care who saw me," she says. "I'd get out at these restaurants, go to the back of my car, take the scale out, put it on the ground, weigh myself, put it back and walk into the restaurant. When I came out, I'd do it again."

Even after customers started calling her boss out of concern, she refused to believe she had a problem. It took a suicide attempt, spurred by eating two slices of pizza, to convince her to get help.

Today, she says she's "not recovered, but I'm recovering. My anorexic voice, whatever you want to call it, it's still there. But I can ignore it. I'd be lying if I said I can always ignore it."

Still, since November, she's helped seven girls get into treatment facilities. For that reason, "I really feel like God had a plan all along."

Raising awareness

Although Ms. Greenfield has been told by medical professionals that the Thin project is helpful for some patients to watch, she knows that, for others, the explicit details about anorexia and bulimia can be triggers to relapse.

But the triggers are everywhere these days, particularly on the Internet, she says.

"What I saw with the women is, if you want to be sick, there's a lot out there to help you be sick," she adds. "So I felt like that could not be my guide, that I really had to put it out there in a very honest way."

The purpose of the project "is to raise public awareness of eating disorders and what they're like for parents, or for women that may not have one yet and may see that it's not a desirable thing at all," Ms. Greenfield says. "It's not meant to be a therapeutic work for women with eating disorders."

Part of what she hopes viewers will learn from the project is that anorexia and bulimia are mental illnesses: "We all think it's normative to want to be thin; in our culture, that's a normal goal. But when somebody says they're willing to die for it, you realize how crazy this is."

Does she have hope that the eating-disorders epidemic will decrease over time?

"I don't know," Ms. Greenfield says. "I feel like the reasons the numbers are so high is that the body has become the expression of our identity. The body is what we use as our voice. And I see a culture that is becoming more and more body-centric."

But there is hope for the victims to recover. Dr. Michael Strober, a psychologist, notes in Thin that "the majority who develop anorexia nervosa will, over time, grow healthier, both emotionally and physically." It takes an average of four to seven years to recover, Ms. Greenfield adds.

Varied progress

The women in the documentary now are at varying levels of success. Brittany has had ups and downs but is living with her father and is enrolled in an outpatient program. Alisa Williams relapsed after leaving Renfrew but "has been in very solid recovery for over a year," Ms. Greenfield says.

Ms. Guillory hasn't fared as well. After leaving the facility weighing 103 pounds, she was back down to about 84 pounds six months later. She underwent electric shock therapy and was put back on the feeding tube.

"She's happily married," Ms. Greenfield says, "but, nevertheless, a week after her honeymoon, she was in the hospital."

Ms. Guillory writes in her journal that her family has spent $600,000 to $700,000 to treat her.

Polly Williams, who is pursuing her passion of photography, is dating again and can think about having children someday. "My biological clock's ticking," she says with a smile.

That attitude is a million miles from the anorexic prison that had her shunning family and friends.

"The night I tried to kill myself, I was thinking of how unhappy I was," she says. "I wasn't thinking about who was going to find me. I wasn't thinking about my mother having to bury her daughter. Or about my six nieces and nephews, who are the light of my life, having to be told. Or my grandparents, who are my heroes. I wasn't thinking about any of that."

Last week, her friend's 6-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer. "His big thing was, 'I can't go to kindergarten.' That, right there, really brought it home. Finally, I can look and see what a selfish person I was."

But, at the time, she was ruled by her "anorexic voice." The voice that started quietly and just kept building.

"I went on a diet," she says. "I still don't know when it went from a diet to so much more."