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The Hunger Artist

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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.

In addition to its spiritual uses, self-starvation was a form of a freak-show brand of entertainment at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Fasting men had shows where they'd sit on a stage and... well, not eat, sometimes for as many as 40 days. One of the most famous of these men was Claude Seurat, a Frenchman who allegedly weighed 72 pounds, about what Krasnow weighed during his final years, but Krasnow was three inches taller.

In 1922 Franz Kafka wrote a story called "A Hunger Artist," about a fasting performer who starves himself to death in a cage at a circus. The character's last words -- which have prompted some historical scholars to posit that Kafka, who was notedly thin and obsessed with food himself, was really writing about anorexia: "You shouldn't admire [my fasting].... Because I have to fast, I can't help it."

In 1860 a French doctor named Louis-Victor Marce published a tract on patients who refused to eat. "If the food refusal continues, the physician should employ intimidation and even force," he wrote, adding that, when necessary, the mouth should be pried opened violently.

If Krasnow's experiences are any indication, the philosophy behind the treatment of anorexics hasn't essentially changed much since then. Psychiatrists and medical doctors often make demands on their patients to reach certain weights in a certain number of days, using forced feedings as a final resort. Krasnow complains in his book that doctors seemed more interested in breaking him than in fixing him.

In his very first stay in a psychiatric ward in July 1983, he was told, after those initial eight days of fasting, that either he eat 500 calories, or he'd be sent to a hospital for a forced feeding. "I ate that morning. I really tried," he wrote. But he managed to ingest only 400 calories and was shipped to the hospital. "To this day, I don't know why [the doctor] was not satisfied. Perhaps he wanted to immediately impress upon me that he was in control."

That first fast, that first skirmish with doctors, gave young Krasnow a sense of control, too: "I had the willpower to diet. I was the all-powerful Michael."

When a doctor first told him he had symptoms of anorexia nervosa, "I automatically labeled myself an anorexic," he wrote. "It's hard to explain, but it almost seemed 'glamorous' to me... I was special. The anorexia gave me an identity."

Though Krasnow embraced his disorder, he also wrote that he wanted to get better and believed doctors to be "miracle workers." He began seeing a psychiatrist who, in his book, is referred to as "Dr. P." (The publishing house refused to publish the doctor's name, and Michael's mother refused to name him, fearing Dr. P would sue.) The mysterious Dr. P had an opportunity to work with Krasnow while he was still young and malleable.

Dr. P, who is the star of a chapter titled "The Silent Psychiatrist," was chronically late, and once he arrived, the real insanity began:

A typical session would start with each of us saying hello. Then we would sit down and look at each other. After doing this for 50 minutes, he would tell me that my time was up, and I would leave. This is the truth. I'm serious. He was getting paid around 60 dollars per hour, and we were staring at each other. That's all. No talking.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman