Gag Reflex, Elle Nash’s new novel from Clash Books, is an epistolary novel of sorts, framed as a LiveJournal, the famed blogging platform popular from the late 90s to mid-2000s was released on June 21, 2022. As a configuration of fragmented diary entries, it is an alarming encounter with self-loathing. There’s a connection between this work and Nash’s earlier novel, Animals Eat Each Other, aligned with femme subjectivities abrasively charged by eros and entropy. Currently based in Glasgow, Nash spoke with JC Holburn via email.
Holburn: What I found most prescient is the way your narrator likens her experience to that of a monk. While Buddhism and samsara come up, what’s also latent is a Christian ethos of piety in terms of emptying the body as a vessel (or, as is alternatively described, a “temple”) to be filled with the ecstasy of hunger and emptiness that you find in mystical writers, from Catherine of Siena to Simone Weil, and so on. Your narrator describes it in the book as an edged lip between living and dying. It’s a kind of spiritual endurance. It’s also like a drug induced state, because you’re numbing your extremities, as you describe later. Repentance in the form of cutting also comes up. Do you think religion played a significant role in your consciousness / subconsciousness at the time?
Nash: At the time of my writing it, probably yes. If we define religion specifically as a particular practice in which something is sacrificed in order to gain greater meaning, definitely. I’ve never deeply read Weil or Catherine of Siena, but I think the romanticization of repentance played a huge role in my life growing up with an eating disorder. I remember once I was punished by being locked in the basement spare room for getting a C on a report card or some test, something like that, and once I was grounded for a month when I was thirteen for going to a punk show, I had to read philosophy books like Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and As a Man Thinketh and write book reports on them. My family life was structured very much in the traditional sense of the patriarch being, basically, the godhead, and all other beings in the pod needing to bow their heads to obey. Even without growing up distinctly Christian I think the ethos of puritanism was there in my childhood; and my mom, who grew up in rural England, was painstakingly frugal, and maybe that lent to a sense of asceticism in my life. I really wasn’t allowed any bodily autonomy until my teenage years and so turning those two practices inward onto myself to gain a sense of control and find deeper meaning in my life just seemed inevitable.
Most people would probably rather burn or shun or hide the diary entries of their younger selves. But you chose to look back in a near verbatim and vulnerable, stream of consciousness way. How did you go about editing and revisiting this painful younger self, in a way that was detached enough to withstand it? Were there things you chose to omit? And while I’m in two minds on even asking this, were you concerned about triggering readers (not that I’m implying you should be, I’m anti-trigger warning myself because world is pain and any attempt to isolate oneself from pain is an act of self-preservation which, when we look out at all the suffering of the world, I don’t think we’re necessarily entitled to at all times…)
It’s hard to describe what the process of pulling this together was like. It feels like a blur now. I can’t even remember if I had fathomed the idea before or after the pandemic began. It must have been after, because it was when I had moved back home, into my parents’ house, that I had found a bunch of my journals from that time period, which must have catapulted some kind of desire to look back on myself. 2020 felt like a really painful year for me in a lot of ways, and writing became an obsessive escape. And to be frank, since I was a teenager, relapse has always been some kind of inviting, coaxing siren when I’m having problems, because it allows me to literally jettison all other real-world issues out of my brain and focus solely on one: the problem of my body. It streamlines all of my pain and makes it simple. And so I think in some ways, revisiting my past journals was a way for me to experience this simplicity again without actually relapsing. I think I had finally reached a point where I could read about it, where I could look at old photos of myself, and not wish myself back to it. I could simply escape to the past by working on this manuscript instead. I’m not even sure how well it will land with others, because I think it’s so much inside of me, and I was so much inside of it, it feels impossible to look at the work objectively. I’m obviously more into the myth building of my body-problem than anyone else might be. But I’m kind of hoping it at least paints a picture of a lived experience that is valid and has depth, just because many eating disorder narratives I’ve found feel surface level.
I had some concerns with being triggering, given like… I know exactly what I’m looking for when I read Wasted by Marya Hornbacher (at least I did, years ago, when I was worse). That was one reason I chose to omit numbers specifically in the book, as I felt having something so blatant might encourage judgment or comparison which really is the nature of eating disorder triggers, right? Whatever “activates” the desire to plunge deeper into the well. But at the same time I also really wanted to represent a lot of the minutiae that occurs with having an eating disorder, at least from my experience, how much I obsessed over food, fantasized about it, listed it, organized its role within my life.
The lists seemed an important inclusion. Here are traces of a girl who needs control through her inventories of calorie counting and snacks. She doesn’t need tips or motivation to stop eating. She’s also aware though that the less she eats the more irrational and obsessive and exhausted she will feel. Can you unpack the point about not being pro-anorexic, but about being “pro-not ignorant”?
Definitely. So at the time I was in these LiveJournal communities, there was kind of a “culture war” that existed, not unlike stuff that exists on Twitter et al. today (tbh, just making this connection…) You would have a lot of people who really just wanted to understand their illness, they wanted to share their lives in a place that felt safe, where someone wouldn’t control them by forcing them to get better, they were actively suffering, they weren’t trying to make a cute little club out of it. They seemed, in hindsight, almost like “eating disorder realists.” They accepted that they wanted to starve or purge, but they also believed in harm reduction, and they certainly weren’t going to teach other girls actively how to harm themselves. But you also had LJ communities of girls who were almost… optimistic? And this is how I would classify the pro-ana mentality. They had very positive attitudes (online, at least) about wanting to fast and to purge, often created shareable lists of “safe foods’” vs “unsafe foods” and lists of tips on how to lose weight, that kind of thing. Many made groups where they would fast together/compete etc., share photos of themselves or triggering photos to encourage each other to commit. Some would wear red bracelets to signify being anorexic, or purple bracelets to signify being bulimic, they would come into some ED communities wanting to learn how to “be ana” or “be mia.” They would personify and look up to emaciation in a very optimistic light. And a lot of the “realist” people were like, “We don’t make personas of our illnesses, please stop and turn around. You don’t want to be this way.” A lot of them were like, “We want to look this way because we want to die.” The line, looking back, is really thin. Like sometimes a friend could encourage you to keep fasting. But sometimes you would hit a really low weight and those friends were certainly not congratulating you. They were worried even though they understood. I think the big difference really is probably that.
But on the other hand—any young person that goes into an online community saying “I want to be anorexic” probably already is suffering and ill. I think the “realist” groups realized that once you’re enmeshed in it, it becomes a lot harder to leave without help. One goes from maybe wanting to lose a few pounds for prom to literally becoming so consumed, you want nothing else but to die. So they didn’t want to encourage or help people get enmeshed in it, which is what I think made them not specifically pro-ana.
When gag reflex comes up, it’s in the context of your protagonist going down on a lover named Mike, and describes feeling “cleansed” like his cum was the Eucharist. She talks about being Rome and “living for my ruins.” This rueful remark of self-destruction seems to be a mode of countering desire. The more one starves and exposes themselves to pain, the less one desires anything, or at least numb themselves to wanting. Your narrator wants to suffer and wants to have her suffering validated. Do you think the urge to self-destruct ever goes away? Does it just find expression elsewhere? Or do you think it’s possible to leave that cycle altogether?
I don’t know if it ever goes away. I tear up as I write this because it’s been such a long time since being a teenager struggling with self-harm, and though it’s been years and years since I’ve done it, you know, the compulsive thoughts still come up when things are really difficult. I have to white knuckle my way through those moments sometimes, like an addict. That’s a religious question, right? “What is the one thread that connects my life? Is it pain?’’ I think for me it’s certainly found expression in other things, like, the more I began to write the less I began to focus on my body… But I also have to believe at some point that it will lessen because nothing is permanent, especially with active practice and right thinking… even if suffering is inevitable… at some point, I do believe I can understand the root of it and perhaps work it out somehow.
In a final note you say that you came to some realizations about being treated badly, and yet at certain points your younger self expressed a kind of awe that people did care for you. There were moments of tenderness and expressions of concern for your well-being. And moments of sharing scars too. I’m wondering if you saw the words of your therapist about your success, about needing to be convinced, in a different light? (Or, was she just a terrible therapist needing to be “convinced” of the authenticity of your sense of failure?) In any case, was this revisitation at all therapeutic for you? How will you use this experience moving forward with your writing in future?
Oh god! I think that event truly marred my relationship with therapy forever. Though to be fair some of that event is fictionalized. My first time ever going to therapy, I remember I wanted to talk about my feelings, and my self-esteem, but I had told the therapist from the start that I absolutely didn’t want to touch on my eating issues at all, that I wouldn’t discuss them. That is the most I can really remember, she gave me some exercises. In its context I can’t remember why it was that she stated that, but it definitely fucked with my ability to feel okay—made me feel, as having an eating disorder does, that I was “faking it” the whole time. It was like I was driven to prove to myself, and to others, that I was hurting, and since I didn’t know exactly how to vocalize it, I just turned it inward and self-harmed even more. I don’t know if revisiting these situations was inherently therapeutic. In some ways, it was almost too consuming. I love to obsess, I think it’s just, at this point, a character trait. It’s something I have to accept about myself and figure out how to channel in more productive ways. Something Juliet Escoria said to me once, before I moved to Arkansas in 2016 without ever having visited, was that sometimes you have to do a thing that inherently feels self-destructive but is actually good for you. I think about that now a lot, especially now that I have moved, yet again, but this time to an entirely new country… or when I spend too much time inside my head, thinking about the next thing I want to write… it’s just, how can I channel this impulse into something that works for me?
Interviewed by JC Holburn
Elle Nash is the author of Animals Eat Each Other (Dzanc Books) UK edition (404 INK), and Nudes (SF/LD Books) UK Edition (404 Ink) and Deliver Me (forthcoming 2023, Unnamed Press). Her work appears in BOMB Magazine, Guernica, The Nervous Breakdown, Literary Hub, The Fanzine, Volume 1 Brooklyn, New York Tyrant and elsewhere. She is a founding editor of Witch Craft Magazine where she hosts her annual writing workshop, Textures. Elle lives in Glasgow, Scotland where she draws blood by day and slays with the pen by night.