The Hunger Artist

Michael Krasnow was one of the few male anorexics to leave behind a detailed account of his life. And his reasons for dying.

Actually, feeling fat may not have had anything to do with my reluctance to dance. After all, I could have simply sucked in my gut.... I mean, I really, really wanted to. I was just too scared to ask, too scared that the girl would say no, and I'd feel foolish.

While girls were difficult for him to embrace, he found contentment on the basketball court. In hindsight his mother believes Michael's almost constant basketball playing might have been the first sign of his obsessiveness. He was also consumed with collecting things -- especially comic books -- a habit common to obsessive-compulsives.

While the life he wound up leading might presuppose bad and possibly abusive parents, his were, by all accounts, better than good. His father, Jerry Krasnow, was a born family man, enjoying immense amounts of time with both Michael and his older brother Neil, who now lives in Miami and works as a stage manager at a playhouse. His father "would drive me all over Massachusetts to different stores and conventions," Krasnow wrote, "not because he was fond of comic books, but because he knew how much I enjoyed them."

Gail Krasnow was a PTA president, the more practical parent, "getting me ready for school... helping with my homework, driving me anywhere I needed or wanted to go, etc., etc. She was the one who kept the family in line."

Mrs. Krasnow, who now lives in a high-rise apartment overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway in Hallandale, has searched her family history to find some genetic clue to her son's malady. Sitting in her immaculate, white-tiled living room, she explains that it may have its roots in her mother's side of the family, where one distant cousin has "problems," including "talk of possible anorexia," and another battled depression and drug and alcohol problems. Her own mother had signs of obsessive-compulsion, too: She habitually checked the stove to make sure it wasn't burning.

She calls Michael her "dream child," uncomplaining, highly affectionate, helpful in every way. He was modest, hated the popularity he got in elementary school when he landed the part of teen idol Shaun Cassidy in the school play, and hated to ride in his mother's used Lincoln Continental because he thought it made him look too rich, one of the earliest omens he'd become what Spielberg called a "monk."

It wasn't until high school, at the age of fourteen, that Michael fell into the abyss that led to his death fourteen years later.

He began high school in fine form, studying more than the average student and joining the cross-country and basketball teams. Then a depression came, and as it worsened he found himself spending more and more time at home studying. He quit the teams and abandoned his newspaper route. His grandfather was gravely ill at the same time and would soon die. Doctors would later point to the death as a possible trigger to Krasnow's problems.

"I say otherwise," Krasnow wrote in his book, "but what do I know? Everyone else knows what I think better than I do."

He gradually worked up to studying every night until 2:30 a.m. Then, he started setting his alarm for 4 a.m. to study before school, cutting his sleep to less than two hours a night. As the obsession deepened, his handwriting got smaller and smaller on the page.

"The study was part obsession, part perfection," Krasnow wrote. "Every piece of homework had to be immaculate. For instance, my math homework could not have one little erasure mark. This meant I had to copy it four, five, or six times. This perfection was very frustrating. To vent this frustration, I began banging my head against the wall."

The head-banging frightened his parents.
"I used to see it. It's a wonder [his head] didn't split open," his mother recalled.

She took her son to a psychiatrist. He was put on antidepressants, which he would take fruitlessly and with side effects like uncontrolled trembling, mental confusion, and cold sweats. An experiment with hypnosis failed. Finally his parents took him out of school, denying him the source of his obsession. That made room for a new, even more bizarre one: tooth-brushing. He'd brush for twelve hours a day.

"One day, I woke up and said to myself, 'Oh, gee, I don't want to brush my teeth all day. Well, hey, don't have anything to eat, your mouth won't get dirty, and you won't have to brush.'"

Krasnow by then had two common anorexic traits that fueled his disorder: chronic depression and an obsessive-compulsive disorder. He embraced anorexia with a special fervor, kicking it off with an eight-day fast, the last four spent in a hospital. His war with doctors -- and with life -- had begun.

Self-starvation has a long history, and until the 1800s, when anorexia nervosa was "discovered," fasting was often seen as admirable, even saintly. In From Fasting Saints to Anorexic Girls, two Dutch authors write of the Christian practice of fasting as a form of penance, a way of curbing earthly desires. Ascetic Buddhists and ancient mystics also fasted in their quest for purity.

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