Every cultural journalist dreams of unearthing a historical figure whose dramatic life story is a flash point for social issues of an era, and Michelle Stacey has found one in Mollie Fancher. In 1865, after 18-year-old Fancher was accidentally dragged by her crinolines from the back of a horsecar, she was put in bed to recover and stayed there for the next half-century. During this time she claimed not to eat for more than a decade and experienced trances, clairvoyance, and something like multiple personality disorder. By the time she died in 1916—a week after a bizarre party celebrating 50 years in bed—her symptoms had subsided, but as Stacey writes in The Fasting Girl, “her body was withered and atrophied from a half-century of immobility . . . she was an invalid by virtue of having long been an invalid.”
Fancher was a tabloid sensation in her day, but in Stacey’s hands she’s more. She personified the late-19th-century collision between post-Darwinian science and Victorian spirituality. Her story marked fasting’s evolution, at the dawn of psychoanalysis, from a revered holy practice into a perplexing psychological disorder (now called anorexia nervosa).
Stacey draws from period books and newspapers to bring Fancher’s story to life, describing “fasting girls” who preceded her (many were exposed as fakes), and telling the harrowing story of a doctor who proved Fancher a fraud by starving himself in public for 40 days. (Unlike Fancher, who was embroidering and entertaining curiosity-seekers after alleged years without food, he ended up “irritable, listless, and vomiting up bits of stomach lining.”) Stacey goes a bit heavy on the historical gravy, serving up soggy pages about other carriage accidents and other tabloid queens, but gluttonous research and a taste for savory detail also give this book nuance. Tempting as it is to call Fancher a proto-anorexic, Stacey resists, noting that thinness was not her issue. For an orphaned, educated, upper-middle-class girl who faced an adult world in which women’s roles were as stifling as they were demanding, invalidism secured Fancher’s perpetual childhood. Then there was the star power of being America’s most famous recluse, and its financial fallout.
Mystic, hysteric, anorexic, or freak, Fancher was only one thing for sure: a hunger artist who played her audience for decades. It took a probing writer like Stacey to give her a riveting second run.