French Fry Nation

“You know I want another doughnut, you fucking bitch.” A chubby, preteen Betsy Lerner imagines telling off a friend’s skinny mother when she superciliously offers a second one. Instead, the 12-year-old declines with a defiant “I’m not hungry.”

But Lerner, it turns out, is always hungry — for food, love, acceptance, self-esteem, more food — and her insatiable appetites are the subject of her gripping no-holds-barred memoir, Food and Loathing: A Lament. Now a New York City book editor–turned–agent, Lerner edited Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, the memoir that spawned the trendy “autopathography” literary genre. But Lerner’s own wrenching tale transcends Wurtzel’s by replacing narcissism and self-pity with insight and perspective.

Convinced from a young age that “the only thing between me and perfection was 30 pounds,” Lerner loses them with a cultlike devotion to Overeaters Anonymous, only to fall from the grace of her half-baked Higher Power and blow back up like an inflatable doll. Advised by a clueless shrink who likens her complaints to “the boy who cried wolf” and dragged on traumatic shopping missions with her well-meaning but misguided mother (“You don’t have a figure . . . You have a shape”), the 5-foot-2, 170-pound binging machine turns to sloppy sex and yo-yo diets as her weight and moods swing in inverse proportion.

Eating her way through the Columbia MFA poetry program, Lerner almost jumps off a bridge before checking herself into a six-month sojourn at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, where she observes life in the loony bin with the biting irreverence of an overweight Holden Caulfield. It isn’t until years later that she’s medicated for manic depression and becomes able, as she’d always hoped, “to cope.” Her refreshing honesty makes Food and Loathing less the author’s personal journey and more the story of every woman — of any weight — who has ever hated herself for eating too much chocolate cake.

FOOD AND LOATHING: A Lament | By BETSY LERNER | Simon & Schuster | 304 pages | $22 hardcover

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