In this op-ed, Caroline Hurley explores how reading The Secret Garden during quarantine helped her eating disorder recovery.
The time I first read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel, The Secret Garden, I was no longer a child, not technically, anyway. I was 18 and high school had just ended unceremoniously over Zoom. The first summer of quarantine stretched ahead of us, but I didn’t mind the stay-at-home orders. After two years at boarding school, I missed home. A virus that hadn’t yet made itself familiar upturned a new part of the globe each day. I welcomed the prospect of holing up in my childhood bedroom. This state of mind — seeking comfort in uncertainty — was what drew me, finally, to pick up The Secret Garden.
It was a story that arrived in my life both much too late and right when I needed it. I had been in recovery from anorexia for a mere two years when quarantine began and was still in the midst of reaching a healthy weight. Having restricted my food intake on and off since I was 11 years old, my connection with my body was severed in ways I was often unsure that I could repair.
With a hazy memory, I tried to remember what it felt like to be healthy. Back when I was young, really young, what did it feel like to move without thinking about burning anything off? I tried to recall what it was like to climb a tree just to see things from high up. I was a compact, muscular kid. I could give my sister a piggyback ride even though she was three years older. I was proud of my strength.
At 18, I wanted that energy back. Even in recovery, even after the insomnia eased up, I still spent most of every day tired. I knew changing that required gaining weight, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t still terrified of the scale going up. And why wouldn’t I be? Although anorexia gave me a more extreme aversion to gaining weight, mainstream culture encouraged that aversion at every turn. For my entire life, in the media I saw and in the conversations I heard, weight gain was associated with ugliness, laziness, lack of control, disgust, and embarrassment.
Until Mary Lennox: “I’m getting fatter and fatter every day,” she said quite exultantly. With one word, the 10-year-old protagonist of The Secret Garden showed me a view of weight gain I had never seen represented. Exultant: triumphantly happy.
When the book begins, Mary is described as underweight, jaundiced, and sickly. She is an unhappy, bitter child who has recently lost both of her parents and has little hope that she will be happy with her new life, staying with an uncle in England. In the beginning of the book, she refuses to eat her meals and declares that she doesn’t know what it is to be hungry.