The Center for Eating Disorders Blog

“Brave Girl Eating” – Q & A with Harriet Brown, Part I

On August 25th, 2010, The Center for Eating Disorders welcomed Harriet Brown – journalist, professor and parent of a child who almost died from an eating disorder.  Harriet Brown traveled to Baltimore to speak about her oldest daughter, Kitty’s difficult struggle with anorexia and  how their family used love, persistence and Family-Based Treatment (FBT) to help her recover.  In anticipation of that presentation and the release of her new book (left), we asked Harriet to share a little bit about her family’s experience in this three-part blog series. Her strikingly honest and insightful responses are sure to resonate with and empower countless other families who’ve been impacted by an eating disorder.

Q & A with Harriet Brown: Part I

Before your family went through this very personal experience with anorexia nervosa, what knowledge did you have of eating disorders and the treatment process?

HB: Probably about what most people know, which is basically nothing. I bought into all the usual myths: Anorexia affected white girls from rich families. Anorexia was a bid for attention, a way to act out in a dysfunctional family. I had no idea what I thought about treatment—I probably never gave it a thought, honestly.

When and how did you first become aware that your daughter was struggling with an eating disorder?  What were your initial reactions?

HB: We’d been aware of the possibility for a while—Kitty was a gymnast, and she’d always been on the thin side. I’d even asked her pediatrician about six months before she was diagnosed whether Kitty was maybe too thin; she’d grown half an inch and not gained any weight in a year, at age 13. The pediatrician reassured us, which in retrospect was a mistake; all adolescents need to be growing and gaining weight, and failure to gain can be as much a symptom as losing weight.

My husband and I first noticed an uptick in anxiety, but no weight loss. That’s why I was confused—I thought there had to be sudden dramatic weight loss. Kitty developed some obsessive tendencies around food and other areas, and her anxiety bloomed to the point of interfering with daily life. By now my husband and I were very alarmed. Around then Kitty lost a few pounds—4 or 5—and suddenly we put 2 and 2 together and realized we were dealing with anorexia.

Our first reaction was to push her to eat. That’s when we began to understand what we were dealing with. The harder we pushed her to eat, the more she resisted, and that was not like Kitty. By the time she was formally diagnosed, three weeks later, we were in a state of utter shock and panic. That sense of panic persisted for several months as we tried and failed to get her to eat, as her physical condition deteriorated; she landed in the hospital for dehydration and bradycardia at one point. That hospitalization was a turning point for all of us. We’d been trying to get her to eat, and failing; she was insisting she wasn’t hungry, she’d already eaten, her stomach hurt, all the excuses an individual with an eating disorder offers up. And part of us believed her, because we’d always been able to believe her. I think I was in denial. I know I was, actually. There was a moment, in the hospital, when after 4 hours of re-hydration, her heart rate still didn’t come up. The doc transferred her to the peds ICU. I remember distinctly running alongside the bed and arguing with the doctor about why she didn’t need to be in the ICU. I look back on that moment with horror, because it shows how much in denial I was that this was a life-threatening illness. No parent really wants to think that. And in retrospect I think all families pass through a stage of denial like this, and the best thing you can do is hurry them through it so they can get to the hard work of helping their child recover.

We flailed around unsuccessfully from June to August, when we stumbled on the notion of family-based treatment and decided immediately to try it. That’s when we started to make progress.

…to be continued.

Check back to read more of Harriet’s incredibly poignant account of her daughter’s illness and recovery.  In part II, Harriet talks about the most important thing she learned in the process of parenting a child with anorexia and the critical steps her family took along the way.

You can learn more about Harriet Brown and the upcoming release of her book, Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle With Anorexia, by visiting her website,

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