A powerful new play about a young woman struggling with anorexia nervosa comes to The Warren: Main House on May 17 and 18 at 2pm, as part of the Brighton Fringe.
Called Close to You, it is written and performed by Jennie Eggleton who draws on her own battle against the condition – a battle unsuccessfully fought by Karen Carpenter whose song gives the show its title.
Raw and poignant, the piece explores the obsession, despair and tentative hope of a young woman in the grip of anorexia.
Desperate for recognition, fame and love, and to be just like her idol Karen Carpenter, she slips into the isolated world of disordered eating.
“I started working on it when I was at drama school,” Jennie says.
“I was doing a character class, and we were asked to do a character from history. I immediately wanted to do Karen Carpenter. She is someone whose music I listened to a lot, but I don’t think many people know her tragic life story.
“She died from a heart attack brought on by anorexia at the age of 32. It was so sad.
“She was trying to get better but she was taking something called ipecac. You take it, and it makes you throw up. They use it in hospitals if you have drunk too much or if they want a patient to be sick. But it weakens your heart muscles and it poisons the blood system, and it’s very dangerous. She died after taking it for 60 days.
“I did all the research I could on Karen Carpenter and did my piece in class. It consisted of some imagined monologues I had with Karen and with Karen’s mother and with Karen’s best friend. My tutor said that it had legs and that I should develop it into a full show. I went away and thought about it and realised that it was what I wanted to do.”
Now 23, Jennie had anorexia from the age of 16 through to about 19 when she ‘started to get into recovery’: “I am now a healthy weight and I eat healthily, but it is something that I do still struggle with in periods of stress or if I am unhappy. I start to take control of my food intake. Luckily I have got a really supportive friend network and family. They will notice, and they will mention it to me. But the point is that I don’t want to get back to how I was before. I was six stone. I wasn’t hospitalised, but I had therapy and saw a nutritionist.”
As for the causes, Jennie reckons there were a number of contributing factors.
“I was at a school in north London, and my parents had split up when I was younger. My dad got remarried. I was going through my AS levels and A levels, and my school was very competitive, constantly pushing me to the best that I could do, but it was slightly more than was healthy. I was forced to do four A levels when I only wanted to do three. I was forced to try for Oxford when I didn’t want to.”
But going to university in Leeds proved key. She found herself surrounded by people that didn’t know her past history and was able to work hard, but not under the kind of pressure she’d endured at school.
She also started going to cognitive behavioural therapy rather than therapy, which meant trying to change her outlook rather than delving into the past.
It all worked. But in the end, as she says, you’ve got to take the decision that it is not how you want to be.
“I struggled with that decision for a long time, but in the end I was able to decide that I didn’t want to be anorexic.”