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.

While she struggled with what to say to him, she knew exactly what not to say: Goodbye. She'd been told by one of her son's psychiatrists that to utter that word to him might give him license to commit suicide.

Gail Krasnow was both a cop and a spy when it came to her starving son. He hated to be checked up on, so she devised different ways to peek into his refrigerator, like bringing a bottle of water on her visits to put in his refrigerator. She didn't really need the water -- it was a pretense to scan the few things inside the fridge. On the rare occasions she found herself alone in his room, she'd pop through his cabinets to make sure he had food. Usually there would be a jar of peanut butter, some canned tuna and chicken, and cereal. He claimed to eat about 1000 calories a day in those last years, just enough to sustain his sparse weight. He wrote that in an average day, he would eat two ounces of cereal in milk in the morning, and a sandwich (peanut butter, tuna, or chicken) in the evening with a banana and juice.

"I always think of fasting," he wrote, "but tell myself, 'Eat your 1000 calories today. You can always starve yourself starting tomorrow.'"

His mother didn't want to push him into full rebellion, so she rarely tried to talk him into eating more. She knew how he reacted to doctors and their ultimatums and had learned lessons from it. His stone face never changed. Nothing could change him. So she walked on eggshells, hoping that whatever "clicked" in her son when he was fourteen years old would click back off. Now she wonders if she should have taken the opposite tack.

"I wonder what would have happened if I had screamed at him, 'If you want to kill yourself, go ahead and kill yourself!'" she now says with sorrow. "Maybe that would have worked. He would have amounted to quite a bit. If he married and had children... he would have made a wonderful parent. That'll never happen. I can't second-guess what's happened."

He wrote in his book that he spent most of his time, when he wasn't working, staring at the wall. Krasnow had absolutely no interests, not in politics, not in sports, not in art, not in sex, not in anything. During the months he wasn't working or writing his book, he vegetated in his apartment.

Krasnow lived mostly among retirees in his Hollywood apartment building. He'd occasionally walk through the dimly lit, brown-carpeted lobby in his ragged robes and pajama bottoms. People couldn't help but stare at him. It didn't seem to bother him. His mother was bothered. She'd glare right back at those curious and rude folks until they averted their eyes in embarrassment.

George Pettas, a 71-year-old retiree from New York City who lived in Krasnow's apartment building, often spoke to the ghostly man in their midst.

"What he had, it's all in the mind," explained Pettas, a former drummer in a jazz band, one recent afternoon in the Town House Rentals lobby. "He gave me a copy of his book, autographed it. He told everybody, 'I don't want to live.' I figure there's something wrong with his brain. Some people blow their brains out, jump out of a building, but him, he did it the hard way. It's a shame. He was determined to die. Oh yeah, he was absolutely looking forward to it. Most people didn't want to talk to him, he was so grotesque. What are you going to say to him? 'How are you?' He is looking like he's about to die. Oh, he was so pathetic. He looked worse than the guys in the concentration camps."

When Pettas heard that Krasnow had died, he said he felt relieved. Finally, an end to the suffering.

Gail Krasnow said she never really believed, despite her son's constant refrain that he would someday starve himself to death, that he'd ever actually do it. She thought he'd eventually settle into a career. If only she could have lifted the pall from his face. Could have watched him eat a steak dinner. Could have seen a smile break on his face. Or more than a smile. She recalls the times when Michael, as a boy of seven or eight years, would sit in front of the TV. "You'd hear this laugh that came from way down in him. A big, big belly laugh," she remembers. During his final years, she'd sometimes say to him: "If only I could hear you laugh like that again, it would make me so happy."

Michael wouldn't answer her. Just stared off into space, like that October morning she found his corpse on the couch.

She hoped to find answers in those two hand-written pages, "The Final Epilogue." She didn't.

In his first epilogue, written after Haworth Press agreed to publish his book, Krasnow wrote that nothing had changed since he had written it a year earlier: "I still exist, but nothing else; as I've said all along, it's only a matter of time until I fast and starve myself to death." The second epilogue was written at the behest of his editors, who wanted him to include a sample menu, which he begrudgingly did.

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