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.

He gained the five pounds necessary to get out of the hospital, withdrew some cash from his bank account, bought a one-way Greyhound ticket to Orlando, and took off. Police were put on the case, and stories about him running away appeared in the Boston newspapers, but Michael made it to Orlando anyway. The next day he decided to take an Amtrak train back to Boston, taking his "chances with dying on the train," he wrote in a diary entry. "If I'm not dead when I get to Boston, I don't know what I'll do." Before getting on the train, he inexplicably called his parents, which led to police finding him and his return home.

"What I will say about those five days 'on the run' is that I had peace of mind," he wrote. "I felt better about myself than I had for years."

Back home he started starving himself again, and by March 5, 1988, he was down to 81 pounds, prompting his parents to commit him to Bournewood Hospital in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he refused to gain weight, yet maintained his 80 pounds. "We were at an impasse," he wrote. It was here he was first treated by a psychiatrist named Stephen Wiener, another of the select few medical professionals who gained Krasnow's respect.

Wiener had him transferred to the eating disorders unit at Children's Hospital in Boston. It would be his only stay at a residential treatment program designed for anorexics, and, at age nineteen, he was out of place, a young man among kids.

He did well there anyway, gradually bringing his weight up to 92 pounds. Not long after he reluctantly agreed to increase his daily caloric intake to 1750, he was told to increase again, to 2000. "The plan was for me to get up to 110 to 120 pounds. To me this was unthinkable." He began to consider running away. Any chance of success was shattered by an arbitrary two-month time limit the hospital set on stays in the residential center. He was told he would soon have to leave Children's. "This would mean starting all over... I felt overwhelmed. On May 24, I ran."

His escape led to more headlines in the Boston Globe, Boston Herald and Middlesex News. ("Parents fear for son who left hospital," read one; "'Troubled' teen flees hospital," went another.) This time he made it to North Carolina, where he checked into a hotel to starve himself to death. After seven days of total fasting (no liquids either), he was still alive. He called his parents and they came and got him.

"Yes, I agree with what you are now probably thinking -- my parents did not deserve to get stuck with me; I did not deserve to be given such great parents; and yes, I am a pathetic human being," he wrote.

Wiener had relatively little experience in treating patients with eating disorders, and he realized that Krasnow's life might hinge on finding an experienced specialist in eating disorders. He called the best in New England, only to be met with one of the most glaring failures of all, the one that keeps the worst patients safely away from some of the most prominent psychiatrists. The specialists, without exception, refused to see Krasnow because he didn't weigh enough, a paradox that infuriated Wiener. Each specialist insisted Krasnow get up to 100 pounds or more before they'd treat him, "as some rigid orientation of a safety margin for Michael," Wiener wrote in a special addendum to Krasnow's book, adding that it seemed a "self-selection by the experts to treat only those patients who were already willing to accept treatment." They didn't want even the threat of death -- the worst failure a psychiatrist can suffer -- on their hands, Wiener implies.

Krasnow, meanwhile, dropped down to a dangerous 74 pounds and was put in Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Newton, Massachusetts. He continued to refuse to eat after eight days of fasting, prompting doctors to hook him up to an IV, a move that led Krasnow to eat again voluntarily. Within a few days his weight was back up to 80 pounds. He agreed to undergo electroshock therapy, which helped his depression -- for a while. The depression returned as strong as ever, and the net result was his loss of valuable memory of his father's last days. His father died on July 7, 1988.

"I've told you how great my dad was, so I'm going to hate myself for saying this, but I don't miss him. I don't even think about him that much... I just don't care about anyone or anything."

What Krasnow forgot, his mother says, was that minutes after Jerry Krasnow died, Michael asked to be alone with him by his deathbed. "He told him he was going to get better," Gail Krasnow said.

Michael's final hospital story is the most harrowing -- and the most brutal. After returning home, he dropped back down to 74 pounds. On June 20, 1989, after discovering that he'd tied on fifteen pounds of ankle weights to trick her when she weighed him, his mother had him committed to Newton-Wellesley again. By June 28, 1990, he was down to 69 1/4 pounds. This time the gloves were off. On both sides. Krasnow was determined to die. Doctors were determined to see him eat.

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