Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
A Dangerous Daughter
By Dina Davis
May 2021, Paperback, 274 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0645175813
According to a recent Deloitte study, over 70 million people today have an eating disorder. There are almost certainly millions more who are restricting their food intake in some way. So embedded is the idea of ‘thinness’ as beauty in our culture that from early childhood women are conditioned to think of the human body’s natural appetite—not just for food but for space, power, and desire in general—as gross and inappropriate. Jewish traditions are often built around meals that reference persecution – such as the seder where foods are eaten to call to mind hardships. A Dangerous Daughter is fiction but it’s based on Dina Davis’ own experiences with anorexia that include many of the damaging mis-treatments that the protagonist of the book, Ivy, experiences. Like many people, Ivy is encouraged to think of the abundance of food in her life as a privilege against the starvation that others continue to experience. In one instance, her father insists on showing Ivy images in the newspaper of Holocaust victims, which impacts deeply on Ivy:
As she stares, shapes materialise into a pile of human skeletons, sprawled all over each other, some with mouths open as if frozen in horror, some face down on top of other bodies. What shocks Ivy most is their sticks of legs and arms, bones barely covered by skin stretched taut to breaking, skulls showing through shorn heads. (7)
When Ivy’s new friend Ingrid, who has already lost her extended family in the Holocaust, dies after falling off a horse. Ivy decides she will stop eating entirely. It’s a chilling transition that Davis manages smoothly, conflating Ivy’s discomfort with her body’s transition from childhood to adulthood, a crush on the boy next door, a stringent diet prescribed by a dermatologist for her skin, and unexpressed grief. The writing remains charged and engaging throughout, with verisimilitude born from Davis’ own experiences that include the poor way in which Ivy’s illness is handled, including a barbarous bout of electro-convulsive therapy:
Her lips move yet no sound comes out. She wants to plead with him, to promise she’ll be good if he lets her go. But he’s busy pressing wet pads to her temples and pushing a mouth guard between her teeth. There’s a rumbling noise in her ears like distant thunder, and a burning pain behind her eyes as her teeth clamp down. Then a white blinding light. Then blackness. (28)
Treatments for and understanding of Anorexia have come a long way since A Dangerous Daughter’s 1950’s setting, but the systematic way in which young people are marketed to, or the way that perceptions of beauty are biased towards a particular set of standards that only fit a small proportion of the population have not changed and if anything have gotten worse through the ubiquity of mobile phones and internet. According to the Garvin institute, some 20% of people diagnosed with anorexia die from their illness. Support services remain woefully inadequate, with many treatments still using restrictive diets or worse, blaming young people for their condition. Ivy’s recovery only begins when the blame, punishment and shaming stops, thanks to an empathetic Freudian psychoanalyst who helps Ivy understand the nature of her illness. Davis’ writing is subtle and powerful throughout the book, focusing on Ivy’s growing sense of self and a slow, nonlinear healing process that rings true.
Even after Ivy’s recovery, people continue to comment on her body, even congratulating her on how slim she is – focusing the narrative firmly around the systemic problems in our culture that perpetuate the diet culture which nearly killed Ivy. Ivy’s writing becomes a key part of Ivy’s healing, helping her manage the complexity of her emotions in a healthy way:
Writing is fast becoming Ivy’s release, not by pouring her anger into her diary, but by crafting her words carefully, choosing those which will have impact on her imagined readers. (170)
Writing becomes a portal for Ivy to explore her own past safely, engaging with her identity and even deciding to use her Hebrew name instead of the more anglicised name her parents give her to keep her safe. In so many ways, A Dangerous Daughter, is a book about trauma and healing. Of course it will appeal to anyone who has had some experience with eating disorders as Ivy’s struggles, though extreme, is all too common. Ivy’s story goes beyond individual memoir thought, exploring the way in which repressed trauma and shame can surface in deadly ways. The antidote is creativity – the book itself becomes a way through Ivy’s illness into life. Ultimately A Dangerous Daughter is an uplifting and powerful book that shows the power of empathy, resilience, and connection.