Judy Collins has never been shy about talking about her alcoholism, but she’s never before shared the stories of the ways that her food addiction and eating disorders nearly killed her. Cravings: How I Conquered Food (Nan Talese/Doubleday) is a strange little book in its own way, part memoir and part history of food control movements—from Lord Byron’s diets to Weight Watchers—in which Collins preaches with the zeal of an evangelist about her healing from her own food addictions. Early in the book she describes her attempts to overcome her obsession with food and what it took to overcome it: “When I was controlled by food, my soul shrank and my fear grew. When I was abstinent, my soul grew and my body shrank. When I was in the depths of my eating disorder, not only was I obsessed with food but my mind never stopped. The chatter, the talk, the back and forth, the internal argument was never-ending. The peace of mind, quiet, and serenity that I prayed for from the depths of my illness came with surrender. It is something for which I am eternally grateful.”
Looking back, Collins recognizes the signs of her food obsession in her family and in her own behavior a child. “I knew early on that we were a family troubled by alcoholism and some kind of addiction to food. There we arguments about the liquor cabinet—Mother would lock it up and Daddy would break the lock in the middle of the night. And I have come to understand that the effects of addiction are not limited to the drinker or eater but have an impact on the entire family.”
At the same time that Collins is licking spoons in the kitchen as her mother bakes all sorts of pies or makes candy, she discovers her passion for music and reading, ignited in part by her father’s beautiful singing on his radio show in Denver and his reading to her from War and Peace and other weighty tomes of history. (Her father thought that if a person had not read Moby-Dick by the time she or he was seven, then there must be something wrong with the person.) Collins follows in her father’s footsteps in her obsession with music and reading, and Collins strides after her mother as she develops an obsession with food. She follows her father, “beginning with music and the piano lessons, and soon with the passion for alcohol and sugar. I was transfixed by the desserts my mother whipped up…from the age of three I knew that nothing could make me happier than devouring sugar in any form, at any time…Sugar fueled my race through life. It was the beginning of my dance with the devil.”
Collins weaves the stories of “diet gurus”—from Gayelord Hauser, the man who invented the celebrity diet, and Jean Nidetch and Weight Watchers, to Adelle Davis, and Jean Harris and the Scarsdale Diet, among others—into her own journey. As an inveterate reader, Collins devotes separate chapters to these various diet gurus to find out more about them and why they chose to try to lead the way to health in their times and their own lives. While these interludes are often interesting—Herman Taller, for example, advised dieters in the early sixties to eat three full meals a day and to include large portions of fried chicken, cheesecake, and mayonnaise in their meals in his then-popular book Calories Don’t Count.
After struggling to overcome her addiction in many programs, Collins discovers GreySheeters Anonymous, attends their meetings, and in December 1982—after eleven years of active bulimia—she gets up, embarks on this program, never to return to cravings and her obsession with staying thin. After sharing intimately her struggles with food addiction, Collins shares her joy in having discovered a path to recovery and she invites her readers to find their own paths. Joyously, Collins declares that the energy level she has today is amazing, even to her. “Recovery began with a simple plan,” she writes, “an adherence to a way of life that was given to me in the Anonymous programs…I believe I have found a fountain of youth.”
In September 2017, Collins released a new album with her long-time friend, Stephen Stills. It’s clear from the music on the album that Collins’ indeed radiates an energy and a passion for music, and her voice is stronger than ever. Cravings can sometimes get a little preachy, and it often slips into a bit of New Age spirituality, but Collins honesty and her joy in her new life imbues the memoir with a brilliance that shines brightly despite its flaws.