A writer one step ahead
CAROLINE KNAPP, who for 11 years worked for the Phoenix newspapers - first as a staff writer and editor, and then as a contributing columnist - died on Monday, June 3, from complications arising from lung cancer. She was 42.
As a writer, Caroline had a signature style. Her grace sometimes masked the broad stretch of her range. As a reporter, she was dogged and inventive - spending a day in a wheelchair, for example, to document how difficult it was for those with handicaps to navigate public transportation. And as an editor, she balanced exacting standards with a gift for nurture.
But it was as a columnist and a memoirist that she made her mark. She launched a feature called "Out There," which is now written by several contributors, but which in her time at the Phoenix was her special preserve. Whether she was writing about politics, feminism, or the perilous state of modern relationships, the tone was unmistakably her own. Reserved in person, she was ruthlessly self-revelatory at the keyboard. The common denominator of her private and public selves was her wry sense of humor.
Long-time readers will certainly remember the dozens of columns she wrote chronicling the social misadventures of her alter ego, "Alice K. (not her real initial)." What began as a parody of daily-newspaper lifestyle reporting developed a life of its own over time. The Alice K. chronicles could be seen as an extension of the impulse that animated Armistead Maupin to write his San Francisco-based series Tales of the City. Alice K., in her own way, also presaged Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City. Whenever Alice K. appeared in the paper, dozens of letters from readers would follow. They were almost always evenly split between men and women, and just as evenly divided between those who thought that Alice, and by extension Caroline, should get a life, and those who identified with the anti-heroine's travails. Those columns were later collected in slightly different form in Caroline's first book, Alice K.'s Guide to Life (Plume, 1994).
Her second book, Drinking: A Love Story (Dial, 1996), about her struggle to come to terms with alcoholism, made her national reputation. Her second bestseller, Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs (Dial, 1998), solidified her standing as a writer of distinction. Ostensibly a book about dogs, it is, like so much of Caroline's work, at heart about love and relationships. Just before she died, she finished her latest work, a book about women's appetites for, among other things, life, love, food, and sex.
Among Caroline's most moving pieces were her columns about the deaths of her mother and father, who died a year apart from each other, also from cancer. To those who knew Caroline, it was a wrenching reminder of how cruel life could be.
Caroline died at Mount Auburn Hospital, where she was closely attended during the days before her death by her family, her friend and companion of many years, photographer Mark Morelli, and her dog, Lucille. Caroline and Mark were married in May, a few weeks after she was diagnosed.
Access Caroline Knapp's legacy Web page.
Excerpts from Caroline's Phoenix columns and features
Nature vs. nurture
Why women are ambivalent abut power (10/25/91)
One of the many issues Professor Anita Hill indirectly raised when she came forward earlier this month with allegations of sexual harassment against now-confirmed Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas was power: women's lack of it, men's abuse of it, and the extend to which the power differential between the genders can affect (usually in harmful ways) women's lives.
But lurking behind that issue is a reality most people either fail to recognize or, at least, feel loath to discuss: ambivalence. Women may bemoan their powerlessness - we rail against it, label it a scourge, claim the world would be a better place if power between the sexes was shared - but if we really take a close look at what power means, it begins to seem like a far more complex tool, something that, at least as it's defined and wielded in our society, can conflict profoundly with women's dreams, ideals, fantasies, if not their very natures.
Feminist heresy? Not at all. If women are ambivalent about power (and I suspect plenty of them are), it speaks not to timidity or weakness on their part, but to the ways they're taught to think and hope, to their essential differences from men, and - in some important ways - to fundamental conflicts between male and female priorities.
Notes on fathers
What illness can teach us about family connections (8/9/91)
My father stared out across the room, a pained expression on his face.
"I guess what I want to hear from you," he said, his eyes not meeting mine, "is that you think I'm a decent person."
I wanted to cry. My father, whom I've idolized all my life, is terminally ill. His condition, which developed quite aggressively and with little warning, was diagnosed in early May, and I have spent the better part of the months since then watching him confront the end of his life, and doing what I can to help him.
"You are far more than a decent person," I answered. "You are my father."
The exchange was brief but important: a small testimony to the kind of unconditional love that can exist between parents and children, a small lesson in what it means to be an adult child.
It is an extremely strange and painful experience watching a parent move from strength to vulnerability. My father has been one of the most active, driven people I've ever known, a man who put in 18-hour days his entire career, spent untold weekends obsessing about his tennis game, even tended the lawn with a fervor that bordered on the religious. He traveled a lot on business, worked nights and weekends, rarely relaxed.
These days, his once frenetic schedule has been reduced to a series of slow rituals: resting and waking, eating meals, getting to the bathroom. He sleeps a lot. He spends most of his waking time in a wheelchair, sitting at a dining-room table at our home, in Cambridge. Moored there, he stares out across the room and contemplates the 75 years that have comprised his life: his accomplishments and failures, his memories and unrealized dreams, his regrets. He sighs a lot; often, his eyes brim with tears.
Measuring growth in approach, not pounds (1/6/95)
Do you ever really get over something like anorexia?
A friend of mine asks me this at a restaurant. I shrug and say, "Oh, sure." And the I return to my menu. I stare at it, obsess, and calculate. Should I be a loathsome, self-indulgent slob and have the bacon cheeseburger and a heap of fries, or should I be a good girl and order the puny Greek salad, dressing on the side?
So there. The easy answer is yes: of course it's possible to "get over" something like anorexia. And the real answer is no: no really, not completely.
I've been thinking about this question a lot lately, perhaps because I'm coming up on an important anniversary: 10 years ago this month, I started therapy with an eating-disorder specialist, thus beginning in earnest the long and slow recovery, such as it is, from anorexia. Ten years ago, I showed up in his office wearing black boots, a matchstick-size pair of black jeans, and a gray sweater, my colors at the time. I weighed about 95 pounds, which was 12 pounds more than I weighed at my very lowest, and I felt fat.
Today? Hmmm. I saw the therapist this morning. I was wearing black boots, a pair of black leggings, (slightly bigger than matchstick size, but not much), and a cream-colored sweater. I now weigh about 108 pounds, another 13 pounds of improvement, and I only feel fat intermittently.
So cream instead of gray, 25 pounds, and a slight loosening of my definition of "fat." Is that recovery? It may not sound like much, but in many ways, yes: that's exactly what it is. Gradual and slight. Two steps forward and one step back. Miniscule changes, one ounce at a time, that begin to look like substantive changes only after you've amassed enough of them.
Food as enemy
The anatomy of an eating disorder (2/17/89)
From the summer of 1982 through the winter of 1985, I ate the same thing almost every day: a plain sesame bagel for breakfast, a Dannon coffee-flavored yogurt for lunch, an apple and a one-inch cube of cheddar cheese for dinner. Nothing more.
Once in a while - with long, painful deliberation - I varied the diet. I'd substitute 10 Wheat Thins for half the apple at night, or I'd have a vanilla yogurt at lunch instead of the coffee one. On even rarer occasions, I had a bad day: those happened if I became overwhelmed by longing, or if I found myself in social situations where I really couldn't avoid eating, or if I absolutely couldn't stand it anymore. And then I would give in and eat, and eat, and eat, and eat - until I felt sick or crazy or both. But for the most part, I had good days: a plain sesame bagel for breakfast (80 calories), a Dannon coffee-flavored yogurt for lunch (200 calories), an apple and a one-inch cube of cheddar cheese for dinner (150 calories). And nothing else.
Nothing else mattered - just food and my weight - and the effort to control them superseded everything. I lost friends because of it. I lied about it. Feelings - of love, sexuality, passion, rage, whatever - became no more than alien concepts, things that other people felt. Starving was my only goal.
The technical term for this affliction is anorexia nervosa. But in everyday language, it's an addiction - as powerful as alcoholism and in some cases as lethal. Conservative estimates are that one out of every 100 young women is a case-book anorexic. Scores more, however, fall into anorexic behavior on a regular basis...
At the time I was working for a Providence paper, my first journalism job. I was young, shy, scared, lonely, and probably most of all, angry. I didn't know what else to do, so I starved myself.
Like any addiction, starving is a coping mechanism. It is self-protective. When I was starving, all I could think about was food: what I'd eat next, when I'd eat it, how I'd eat it, and whether it would be too much or not enough. And because all I could think about was food, I didn't have room to think about anything else: not the past, not the future, not men or friends or world events, and certainly not things like the fact that I was young, shy, scared, lonely, and angry.
Starving also gave me a sense of power. On good days - the days I stuck to my regimen - I used to test my will by walking home down a street full of food stores and restaurants. I passed a restaurant where I could see trays of pastries through a glass window. I passed a gourmet-food shop, a Dunkin' Donuts, a candy store, an outdoor café, a bakery. I could smell the honey glaze on doughnuts. I could smell French fries, teriyaki-chicken wings, and homemade oatmeal bread. It gave me a tremendous sense of control. There I was in the midst of all that food, and I could resist the craving to eat, no matter how hungry I was. I was strong, different.
On good days, I also felt superior. I would look at people on the street - shoppers carrying bags of food, couples eating at the café - and I felt detached from them. Above them. They were giving in to appetites I had transcended, impulses I had conquered. At a time when I felt essentially worthless, starving was the one thing I could say I was good at.
1991: Daze of our guilt
Another year in the life of Alice K. (12/27/91)
Alice K. (not her real initial) lies in bed, worrying. It is three days before the end of 1991 and, in order to get a jump on 1992, she is lying awake, trying to figure out what the past year meant. The task is daunting - more daunting than it has been in past years - because, as Alice K. is starting to understand, the '90s are becoming a very confusing decade indeed.
Take Alice K.'s love life ("please," she might add if she had a sense of humor, but she can't because political correctness killed humor in 1991). Back in the '80s, romance was all very simple: you simply sought out a good-looking guy with a six-figure income, shacked up in an expensive condo with many expensive kitchen implements, faxed each other love letters from your offices in high-paying brokerage companies and corporate law firms, and spent a lot of time drinking California chardonnay in expensive restaurants and planning your time-share vacations.
Today, those days seem so long gone that Alice K. can barely remember them. In the beginning of 1991, Alice K. (who had quit her job as a stockbroker at the end of the 1980s and become a militant environmental activist) became involved with a macrobiotic-vegetarian yoga instructor and part-time Bread & Circus bag boy named Dick Head (not his real pseudonym), who persuaded her to dump her quickly devaluing Back Bay condo at a tremendous loss, then talked her into moving with him into a ratty two-bedroom apartment in Somerville ("We're downscaling!" Alice K. had happily told her friends), and urged her to stop seeing her psychotherapist and go to an aroma therapist instead. So Alice K. spent the first three months of 1991 attempting to sniff her way to mental health in a dingy apartment that smelled like Ceylon cinnamon, ylang-ylang, and Alpine Jupiter, secretly wishing all the while that she lived in a decade when the recreational drug of choice was a little more interesting than Advil.
Issue Date: June 6 - 13, 2002
Back to the News and Features table of contents.