Melissa Broder, author of “So Sad Today” and “The Pisces,” spoke with ALL ARTS ahead of the release of her second fiction novel “Milk Fed,” out from Scribner Feb. 2.
What is at risk when you indulge in your fantasies? This question follows readers through Melissa Broder’s second novel “Milk Fed,” an exploration of 24-year-old Rachel’s journey to self-acceptance through her deep-seeded desires.
Rachel is a lapsed Jewish woman with an eating disorder — a secret that has overtaken every corner of her life. Her daily routines are tied to calorie counting. Her meals consist of Splenda-and-yogurt breakfasts, eaten behind makeshift towers of paperwork on her desk at a Los Angeles talent management agency; dressing-less Subway salads and cups of plain frozen yogurt for lunches away from the office; and low-calorie frozen dinners, devoured alone in her mostly empty apartment.
Just as she begins a 90-day detox from her psychologically abusive mother at the recommendation of her therapist, Rachel meets Miriam Schwebel, a fat Modern Orthodox Jewish woman who steps into her brother’s cashier role at Rachel’s favorite frozen yogurt shop. Miriam gently pushes Rachel towards mountains of sprinkles and sundae sauces, and it’s not long before the line between employee and customer blurs, intertwining the two in a 288-page saga that tugs on the thread between food, sex and God.
“It’s definitely a story of appetites,” Broder told ALL ARTS over the phone ahead of the novel’s Feb. 2 release. “It’s like you got physical hunger, and sexual desire, and then the spiritual longing, and also this familial yearning. And I think that as humans, and particularly as women, we’re encouraged to compartmentalize each of these instincts and to control them … but I don’t think we can compartmentalize these instincts. I think these instincts are all braided or intertwined.”
Broder is one of the millennial generation’s most notable mental health writers. She is best known for her long-standing viral Twitter account @sosadtoday — a feed of blunt musings on the daily realities of living with depression and anxiety — which boasts over a million followers. Her first book of essays by the same title personalizes the once-anonymous account, taking fans through Broder’s experiences in more depth. Even her first fiction novel, “The Pisces,” follows a lead character named Lucy, whose affair with a merman is seen by many readers as an escape from depression.
help i can't stop feeling
— so sad today (@sosadtoday) January 31, 2021
“When I wrote the book, ‘The Pisces,’ people were like, ‘How was it different writing a fictional character who was depressed, compared to the ‘So Sad Today’ book, which was about your own experience?’” Broder recalled. “And I was like, ‘Oh, well, I don’t think Lucy’s depressed.’ And then I was recording the audio book, and I was like, ‘Oh, she’s very depressed.’ Like, this woman is blatantly depressed.”
In Broder’s newest story, Rachel’s eating disorder seems tied to the drum of her anxieties: her mother’s relentless nagging from across the country, the unwelcomed eyes of her colleagues, and Rachel’s own praises and criticisms of others that ultimately serve as a mirror for her own concerns. But Broder didn’t come to the page with the idea of Rachel suffering from anxiety. In her own experience, an eating disorder is not a side effect of anxiety, but rather, an ineffective tool to manage a whole host of problems that may make someone anxious.
“An eating disorder [is] … a way to take a full range of anxiety — from everything like existential anxiety, familial anxiety, spiritual anxiety, sexual anxiety — and reduce it into this compartmentalized and yet very self-focused system,” Broder explained. “It sort of feels like making order out of chaos, even if you’re just spinning your wheels.”
Broder wrote about this sensitive topic from personal experience; she admitted that she “had what might have been considered a diagnosable eating disorder” when she was young, but that she thought she’d gotten “well.” Writing Rachel’s story showed her that the information she gathered from that period of her life — food rituals, Nicotine gum and exercise routines, all seen in “Milk Fed” — are still there, tucked away in the back of her head.
“Now … I live my life. But would I describe my relationship with food as a casual one? Absolutely not,” she said. “Would I describe it as a natural relationship or one of intuitive eating? Definitely not.”
Stepping into “Milk Fed” is like being led through Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory by a hesitant tour guide. Each page invites the reader in with delicious descriptions of sugary and savory treats, all lush and decadent. Yet the looming threat of Rachel’s eating disorder and her subsequent shame spiral touches every item on the menu, making it all bittersweet.
If only calories did not exist, Rachel thinks, as she all but drools in line at the yogurt shop, exiting reality in favor of daydreams about “red velvet yogurt dripping in caramel, freckled with slivers of Snickers,” and “a Dutch chocolate planet [where] every species of gummy [lived]: bear, worm, fish, penguin, dino, and peach ring. It snowed Reese’s Pieces and chocolate sprinkles on a cake-batter-flavored mountain.”
In the same way she craves candy and baked goods, Rachel also craves approval, fulfilling this desire through her older coworker, Ana, who bonds with Rachel over familiar values in social and nutritional deprivation. Obfuscating the line between hunger, sexual desire and motherly love, chapters center Rachel’s fantasies, which continuously morph around consumption — from foods she’s clearly mislabeled “bad” to Ana, who works as a stand-in for her mother amidst the detox.
In a particularly R-rated chapter, Rachel again allows herself pleasure only in the form of fantasy, dreaming of “Mommy Ana” and chanting, near bliss: “I want you to eat me, I thought as I edged closer. The consuming mother, I thought as I pulled away. I want you to eat me, closer, closer. The consuming mother, further, further.”
But with Miriam, fantasy takes a backseat. Instead of spending all of her time in pipe dreams atop a stationary bike, peddling to completion, Rachel’s obsession with consumption turns to Miriam, who gives her space to indulge in parts of her wildest dreams in real life.
“I often think that who we love sometimes says more about us than it does about the object of our desire,” Broder said of the relationship between the young women. “I think there’s a lot of us in who we love.”
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Only gaining access to Miriam through Rachel’s eyes, the reader begins to see how Miriam embodies everything Rachel disavows, while paradoxically holding everything Rachel wants: a healthy relationship to food and a bigger body, a loving family, and spiritual guidance. Harkening back to Broder’s idea of “intertwined instincts,” it’s as if when one of Rachel’s walls comes down — as she shares greasy Chinese food, movie theater candy, and Shabbat dinner with Miriam, all while ignoring the scale — her other instincts come bubbling to the surface.
Rachel’s relationship with Miriam extends beyond stolen moments watching old movies and her continued obsession with sex and food; it pulls Rachel into a family and community, sewing the thread between sex, food, family and religion. Shabbat dinner with Miriam’s family opens Rachel’s eyes to her inner truth, her dark desires falling away in order to claim something more pure as she sits with the Schwebels around the table and feels “natural belonging”: “I didn’t need to be or do anything more than simply exist for them to love me.”
“This is absolutely the first time [Rachel] has allowed herself — instead of performing sexuality — to actually experience and feel,” Broder said. “And that’s a really big moment for a person.”
The height of the book can only then come after Rachel admits this yearning to herself, and once she’s deep into the long journey of self-acceptance through her budding relationship with Miriam. At a Saturday Shabbat lunch celebrating a visit from Miriam’s brother, who has flown in from Israel where he is fighting in the military, Rachel finally turns away from searching for approval and risks her new place in a community as she earnestly questions how religion and God fit in with the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians without homes.
“We don’t always get our way to an answer,” Broder, who identifies as an American Jew, said of her choice to include the Israel-Palestine conflict in a pivotal moment of the story. “Like, how do we know what we know? The Schwebels’ truth [about Israel] is very different from Rachel’s truth. Can conflicting beliefs held by warring individuals or groups both be true? And then, for myself, the big question is: How do we live when the conflict is within us?”
“Milk Fed” asks readers to reflect on rules — what they mean to us and what they may be holding us back from. Underscoring the ways our desires work in tandem with our intuition through Rachel’s story, Broder highlights how important indulgence is, how we risk familiarity when we listen to our instincts, but how honoring them can lead us to a more authentic life.
In Broder’s words: “We can make an infinite amount of things our God. It’s whatever we’re putting first.”
Top Image: Courtesy of Luke Fontana via Simon & Schuster