Through the power of story, great pain can become a message of hope. First-time novelist Yara Zgheib shares the heartbreaking true story behind The Girls at 17 Swann Street.
I do not know how to eat. There was a time not long ago when I forced myself to forget. I forced myself to forget the tastes I used to love: ice cream, French fries, pizza, even bread. I pushed them off-limits, one by one. I starved and ran, starved and ran my fears and anxieties away till I, like Anna, the protagonist in The Girls at 17 Swann Street, found myself in a treatment center for eating disorders.
There I was faced with girls who were battling diseased brains that were killing them. Some became my friends. Some of those killed themselves. I admit, at times I was tempted.
I eventually left treatment and have been in recovery for a few years. But there are still girls, sometimes boys, being admitted to that center every day.
My story is no different from theirs. Perhaps the only distinction is that I chose to write mine down. It started as a memoir. Actually, before that, as a diary of my days in treatment. I was in great pain and angry at the world for not caring or understanding. Then I read these words by Borges:
“A writer—and, I believe, generally all persons—must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.”
I had the clay, and I just shaped it. I wrote a memoir to tell my father that not eating did not mean that I was vain, or that I did not love him enough. I wrote to tell my husband the same thing, and sorry, and that without him, I would be dead. I wrote to my mother and sister. I wrote to my brother, my friends, to all the people who stared. I wrote to give the world a glimpse of what goes on in my head when I eat one bite, just one bite of pizza, then I rewrote the whole manuscript as fiction because it was not just my story.
Eating disorders affect millions of girls and boys around the world. Anorexia in particular is terrifying because it is quiet and sneaky and patient. It poses as your brain and tells you lies about your worth and your reflection in the mirror. Those around you cannot hear it and therefore cannot understand why on earth you will not share a few bites of their birthday cake with them.
It is about being cold and hungry all the time, even in your sleep. It is about losing your hair and energy and friends and period and personality. It is about people’s incomprehension and judgment, about scaring little children at the pool because your ribs and kneecaps are sticking out and your eyeballs are deep in your sockets.
“I am not cured. I am not ready; I am terrified of what is coming. But I lift my chin higher. Keep walking, Anna.
“[…] The car turns at the end of the street, and the house disappears. I am going home. We are going home.”
Anna had to be fictional because she is not just me. She is every person who has ever felt unworthy, insecure, scared or guilty about the way he or she acts or looks or eats. She also had to be fictional to protect the real girls of 17 Swann Street, the real Matthias and the other characters in the story. Last, she had to be fictional so she and her story could be universal. So that she and the reader could be hopeful. It can end well. It does. People do leave 17 Swann Street.