Writers hunger for acceptance leaves her starving amid plenty

Having grown up poor and hungry in the '30s, Lynn Ruth Miller's mother vowed that her children would always have enough to eat.

But for Miller, whose feelings of emptiness and failure led to bulimia, food became not only a coping mechanism, but also a control issue.

The Pacifica writer, artist and teacher examines those issues in her autobiographical novel, "Starving Hearts."

"This story is not what happened to every young girl in the '50s, it's what happened to me," she said.

"It tells of the pressures on children, especially those from a particular Jewish background whose grandparents were Eastern European immigrants and whose parents were raised in the Depression.

"These families were trying to live in a new and different culture, to assimilate, to become good Americans, while still keeping up their Jewish values," she added. Food was a centerpiece in their traditions, and often, they used it as a substitute for warmth, physical closeness, praise and love.

For years, the overeating didn't result in weight gain for Miller, but that changed, and that's when the anorexia began.

Today, at 66, Miller lives in her own home, and fills it with the colorful canvases she paints, the cats and dogs she rescues, and the many books she devours. She mixes sadness with humor as she reflects on the painful years when coming of age meant coming to terms with her mother, "whose own unhappiness crushed us both," she writes in the dedication of "Starving Hearts."

Miller expressed that pain through anorexia and bulimia: starving, bingeing and purging. Today, eating disorders are fodder for talk-show discussions, but in the '50s, they were rarely discussed and even seldom understood.

Food was a big part of her family's Jewish lifestyle, and at their table, overeating was rewarded. Her mother's greatest joy was in being a baleboosteh, in Miller's words, "a praiseworthy homemaker, totally involved in home and family." Her mother viewed it as her job to cook abundant meals to feed her family.

Today, with many sources of joy in her life, Miller says she is able to put her feelings toward her parents, especially her mother, in perspective.

"I don't blame her, because as I look back now, I realize she was trapped. Her dreams could only go as far as my father would take them. She had wanted a career, but had children instead," she said.

Miller's mother used food as a way to prove she was a good mother, and Miller used food to manipulate her. "If I don't eat, she'll be upset. If I do eat, it will please her."

Mealtimes were complicated by other factors. In the book, she describes sumptuous dinners, laden with rich Jewish foods, all beautifully prepared. But the family was tense, argumentative, critical — and "nobody tasted the food. My mother shopped all day and prepared huge feasts, and she was crushed if there was food left on anyone's plate. Since she and my sister were always dieting, and my father had ulcers, I was the only one who ate everything."

As Miller got older, eating the elaborate meals that were her mother's creative outlet was the only thing she could do that would bring some praise. Being a good student who loved to read and write poetry didn't impress a mother whose hopes for her daughter were good looks, good taste and a good home.

Because her parents didn't value her achievements, Miller didn't feel successful, even though she graduated from the University of Michigan and got a master's degree at Stanford.

Growing up, getting the Mrs. degree and marrying "well" are the subjects of "Starving Hearts," which will be released in May. Miller has written 11 novels, but this is the first to be published, probably because it is her most heartfelt story, about her own family dynamics.

To recover from eating disorders, she said, "I finally realized there are so many things worth living for…dogs, flowers, poetry, music. I had choices about my behavior, and I wanted to get well. I learned that money isn't where it's at. Or other people's approval. Being Lynn Ruth is where it's at."

It took 10 years to conquer her addictions. Miller says her eating disorders are in control, but they will never be cured. She still finds it impossible to face food three times a day, so she prepares just one meal daily, a big well-balanced dinner — "I binge every night." Then she ritualizes the occasion by setting her table with flowers and place mats, putting on music and preparing fresh, healthy dishes.

"Some of my happiest moments are as a teacher, when I can reach a child, hug her and show that it is all right to be who you are. I tell the kids in my art class, 'paint the picture that you need to paint, jump around if that's your nature. There's room for all of us.'

"If only someone had said to my mother, and to all the frustrated women in the '50s, that it's OK if your children want different things than you do," she said. "It doesn't make you a bad mother to let them blossom just the way they are. Everybody has a place in the sun. My book says to mothers, don't make your child in your image, worry about your own image. It says to daughters, don't worry who approves of you, worry if you approve of you. And it says to fathers, you have a role in being a parent, too."