The Hunger Artist

When the phone hadn't sounded by 9 a.m., Gail Krasnow expected the worst. It was a practiced ritual, this daily phone call, born of a life-and-death struggle between mother and son that had continued for fourteen years. She could have given up on Michael years before. She could have tried to live a normal life. But he was her cherished child, and she wouldn't let him go, not without her best and most enduring fight. The morning before, Michael had called as planned. His voice was weak, his breathing short and labored. Was this the day she'd dreaded all these years, the day he'd coldly promised would come?

Her patience exhausted, she broke protocol and called his apartment. The phone, which wasn't hooked up to an answering machine, rang and rang. Michael Krasnow wasn't picking up. Mrs. Krasnow got up from her desk and headed for his apartment, located just a couple hundred yards from her office on Young Circle in Hollywood. After parking in the lot on Polk Street, she hurried through the Town House Rentals lobby to the elevator, stepped inside and punched the button for the eleventh floor, just one down from the top. Slowly the clanking, rumbling elevator climbed, 3... 4... 5... 6.... Finally, after nearly a full minute of tremulous ascent, the 11 lit, and the door slid open. She turned left past rooms M and L, past the "Trash" and "Storage" rooms to the final room at the end of the hall, Michael's room, Room J. Knocking with her left hand, she turned the silver-colored knob with her right.

Unlocked. Michael never kept his door unlocked, neither when he was home nor when he wasn't -- except when he was on the other end of the hall washing his clothes. Let it be the laundry, she hoped, as she opened the door to the little one-room apartment.

Inside he was lying still on a bed that also served as a couch. His sunken eyes were open in a dead man's stare. The skin was stretched even more tightly than usual on his skeletal face. "Oh no!" the mother cried. Mrs. Krasnow, widowed eight years before, put her hand on her son's stick-like, withered arm. It was cold, not too cold, but cold enough. There could be no mistake.

He'd won.
After all those years fighting doctors, fighting her, fighting his own bodily instincts, and failing to get better, he'd finally achieved fatal starvation. Twenty-eight-year-old Michael Krasnow's final weight, as documented by the Broward County medical examiner's office, was 64 pounds. He was five-foot-ten.

The natural assumption by strangers when they saw him was that he was suffering from AIDS. He wasn't. Krasnow himself, not a virus, was at the controls of this suffering. His disease, though, was no less mysterious than HIV; his ailment was just as baffling as any microscopic ravager. He was anorexic. Anorexia nervosa. A disorder originating in the mind and manifesting itself in bones protruding from skin.

During his final years, he weighed between 70 and 75 pounds, a weight doctors told him would quickly precipitate his death. Krasnow solved that problem by quitting doctors. He often worked 40 hours a week at that weight, running the family finance company near his Hollywood apartment, where he'd retreated to live, and to die.

Covering his skin and bones in that apartment on the morning of October 9, 1997, the morning his mother found him dead, was one of his T-shirts, the one with a map of the Boston Marathon on it, and a pair of blue shorts. He wore only T-shirts, a jacket he'd had since he was a child, and a pair of bathrobes reduced to rags. For long pants he wore only a pair of pajama bottoms. The only suit he owned was the one he got at the age of thirteen for his bar mitzvah. When he wore it to a wedding not long before starving to death, it looked oversize on him, draping down from his stick-like limbs as if it were on a scarecrow.

In his room was an alarm clock, a watch, a phone, a small black-and-white TV, and a word processor. He never used the alarm clock or wore the watch. The phone was there at the insistence of his mother, who paid the bill so he'd keep it. The TV was turned on only occasionally, his mother said, "for the noise more than anything else." The word processor was there to type up the hand-written pages of his book, aptly titled My Life as a Male Anorexic. Straightforward and well-written, it remains the only known autobiography of a male anorexic ever published.

On his table was a letter to a professor at a Texas university who was interested in incorporating his book into her "body image" class. On the same table were two pieces of notebook paper lined with tiny, excruciatingly neat cursive handwriting, not a blemish on either page, not a single erasure or crossed out word, perfect. The two pages encompass "The Final Epilogue" and are meant to finish the book, which could use some extra bulk. At 81 pages minus the epilogues and addendums, the autobiography is about as thin as he was.