‘Binge’ Tackles Bulimia With Wit, Honesty, And Dark Humor
Beauty can belie the mind’s darkness. Its sorrow and self-loathing. A comely figure or a symmetrical face is more successful at concealment than even a mask; no one thinks to look for a seam to see what’s really underneath.
The privilege of beauty is undeniable, but the power it grants is the very same power that renders the “beautiful” beyond reproach or capable of psychological pain. We have imbued physical beauty — and thinness — with such potent power that those in possession of it are often thought to be impervious to the crushing self-doubt that accompanies most relationships humans have with their own bodies. Particularly women and femme-identified people.
Indeed, 80% of bulimia nervosa patients are women; approximately 1.8 million adult American women suffer at the hands of this disorder, which is typically marked by binge eating followed by forced vomiting and/or excessive exercise. This cycle wreaks havoc on one’s heart and other organs, causes chemical imbalances, tooth decay, inflammation of the esophagus from stomach acid burns, and can potentially — and often does — cause death. Nearly half of bulimia patients also suffer from a comorbid mood disorder; they’re often depressed, anxious, and self-destructive.
In short? It’s hard to imagine laughing at bulimia.
But this is exactly what Angela Gulner — creator of the new show Binge — wants you to do. Gulner, a self-described “white, upper-middle class graduate of an Ivy League” (Harvard’s MFA program to be exact), binged and purged for eight years (after a year-long stint with anorexia) and is hoping to depict the disease with the honesty and, yes, humor, that it deserves.
I wrote of beauty because Gulner is beautiful; she is the living myth that accompanies bulimia — that it’s just a “rich white girl problem.” If she had any real problems, she wouldn’t need to retch into a toilet three times daily to keep her already societally enviable figure enviable. If she had real problems, she could think about someone other than herself, something other than being beautiful.
But bulimia affects everyone almost identically — regardless of ethnicity or class — and in fact, is commonly experienced by survivors of sexual abuse. And while Gulner says that this wasn’t her own story, a huge swathe of people she encountered in treatment and read about in recovery never had issues related to vanity, but instead felt like they didn’t “deserve to be nourished.”
After spending months in outpatient treatment in 2013 — following a nearly decade-long affair with compulsive bingeing and vomiting — she realized there weren’t any stories really telling it like it is. She was a struggling actress, without work and without representation, so she decided she would try writing.
Together with her (writing) partner Yuri Baranovsky they drafted a pilot script in a matter of weeks and while they wrangled meeting after meeting (Gulner even managed to get representation through the script) they were met again and again — and again — with “a lot of nos.” Gulner’s script languished for two years. Gulner’s script languished for two years. She says the people she was having meetings with — you know, the kind of people that dominate Hollywood — simply weren’t getting it.
So this past summer, they decided to go it alone and shoot the pilot themselves.
The result is hilarious and harrowing; to couple those two words together in even a sentence is a stretch, but in a show? Nearly impossible. Gulner says she dreams of doing the kind of advocacy and awareness building for eating disorders that Orange Is The New Black championed for trans, prison, and mental health rights (albeit problematically at times). Like Piper Chapman, Gulner’s character uses a white woman as the way into a world much broader, richer, and more complicated then one woman’s story could ever convey.
Binge tricks you; you’re laughing, you’re charmed — the acting by Gulner and her best friend (Daniela Dilorio) is outstanding, their friendship beautifully rendered — and then you’re face-first in the toilet and very, very uncomfortable. But Gulner insists that this is the truth of the disease: It’s not an after-school special where you’re confronted, you cry, and then you’re better. It’s a nuanced struggle.
“Your life becomes so small as a bulimic — everything is about what you are putting in and taking out of your body — but I also had a very full life at the same time,” and Binge deftly explores those seeming contradictions.
I got on the phone with Gulner to talk about bodies, art, race, and recovery — here’s what she had to say.
I can never resist asking what people’s childhoods were like. Particularly people who grew up to be actors. As someone who thought they might become an actress — dare I admit this in a public forum — but then felt like it was too harrowing and hard a profession (so I chose writing) I am always curious about how you found yourself compelled to pursue the most degrading, difficult job on earth.
Angela Gulner: [laughs] I feel like this is a theme with my other female actor friends in particular — we have to remind each other why we love it. It can be so mean.
I always thought I’d become a therapist, actually. I was studying theater, psychology, and women’s studies (even though I had always acted and grew up seeing amazing shows at the Children’s Theater Company) but then my mentor at St. Olaf’s (I grew up right outside of the twin cities in Minnesota) had gone to the Harvard MFA program and she convinced me to audition there. I did and I got in.
I’m a real nerd — I loved being in school. I spent two and a half years doing six days a week, sometimes 12–14 hours a day. I was always working on some sort of incredible project with people who wanted to be there . . . and then I moved to L.A two weeks after graduation. I was like, I’m gonna be a movie star next week but moving to L.A. was the most soul-crushing, not artistic place ever. I was intimidated by the “industry” and had been raised to believe L.A. was an “ugly beast.”
But acting is such a special, unique gift — you get to look into the hows and whys of what makes us human. And when you’re in a scene, when you’re really doing it, it’s almost like a meditative state. You’re in the present, with your scene partner, listening and reacting. Acting also requires you to constantly be a student — and I’m not talking scene study. To be a good actor, you have to study the world around you. You have to exercise your brain, your body, and your senses all the time. You have to be curious and engaged with the world around you — and because of that, you’re working with people who are also engaged and it breeds really fulfilling, compelling conversations, and relationships.
In the practical sense, I love stories. I love working with a group. I love long hours and grueling schedules and impossible circumstances and I love, love, love, love being on set. That feeling of working together through impossible odds (indie filmmaking feels totally impossible 100% of the time) to create something you all believe it.
And at it’s simplest, I act because it’s fun. It’s so freaking fun.
And as for L.A.? It sneaks up on you. Being from the Midwest, the weather here is everything. I never want to move. I’m so spoiled. I love the sun. It’s perfect every day and it makes the hustle easier because at least it’s sunny outside! But L.A. is quirky, too, and it shows its personality gradually and over time.
You mentioned this is the culmination of two years’ work — was there a catalyst or an aha moment for you to create this show?
Angela: What year is it — 2016?! I was in treatment in 2013, 7–8 hours a day from February to May. And my roommate at the time — Megan was like, you need to tell this story. These stories are really funny and really weird and it’s an experience that most people will never have. She planted the seed in my head.
So it was the perfect storm of getting out of treatment, where I had put my life on hold for a couple months, and wanting to get back to being creative. I didn’t have representation or acting work so I thought I’d try writing. I asked my friend Yuri who has a dark twisted sense of humor to help me. We wrote it pretty quickly, actually; his manager loved it and over the next three or four months I got my representation because of it.
Honestly, it’s like winning the lottery to just get a guest spot on a TV show and it’s hard to be artistically fulfilled by that kind of thing. Unless you get lucky fast and get a juicy role you can pour yourself into . . . it’s gonna be a long time before you get to do the work that made you want to become an actor.
I couldn’t wait for other people to tell me when I could be creative, so I started to write.
Can we talk a little bit about your own experience with bulimia and how you managed to finally conquer it?
Angela: For me, from the age of 7, I just wanted to be skinny. Like the girls on TV. Skinny meant good. I was obsessed with it. It was always something that was in the back of my mind . . . but finally when I was 17, I discovered calorie counting and became really good at it and quickly. I was anorexic for a year before I was bulimic but my personality isn’t suited for anorexia — they’re all about control and perfectionism — they’re detail-oriented. Anorexia is all about withholding and denying yourself things.
For me, I am really the opposite — I have impulse control problems. I go into mania. When I want to do something I do something really intensely. When you’re anorexic you stop being hungry — you go into this survival mode, it’s been mapped into us. You start doing weird things like walking through grocery stores for hours and looking at box after box, but never buying anything. And then when you do finally start to eat, your body clicks into another, different survival mode where it tries to take in everything it can because it doesn’t know when it will next get food.
There’s a lot of guilt and shame. We feel like we should be able to control what we put in our bodies — especially after coming off anorexia — but physiologically your brain and body kick into this place where you can’t stop eating. Time will get very blurry or you get tunnel vision or you can’t remember what happened. Your body thinks it’s dying because it is — and it’s trying to save you by eating.
The emotional fallout of that is just terrible — the shame, the guilt, the embarrassment. Then weight gain. It’s just intolerable. For eight years I did that. It was exhausting.
This brings me to my next question, which is how much of the story of Angela in the show tells the story of Angela talking to me from L.A. right now? In the show, her friends are suspicious perhaps that she has a problem with food, but have no idea the extent to which it is ruling and ruining her life. Were you bifurcated in this way when you were suffering with bulimia?
Angela: Oh yeah, there’s a lot of cross-over from the pilot with what I experienced. But the character in the plot is a lot louder about it than I was — I was better at hiding it. I was putting a ton of energy into presenting myself as together and successful and healthy. Very few people knew I was struggling. I had sought treament once before but not followed through. I told myself, “I’m okay”; I had these go-to lies to rely on.
As alluded to in the pilot, I also started binge drinking — that became part of the cycle — maybe a year after I came out to L.A. I would get blackout drunk so I didn’t think about what I had eaten. Everything was made 10 times worse by the alcohol. I would wake up next to my computer, which would have search results like, “Eating disorder treatments.” I would call clinics black out drunk and leave messages asking for help. Then I would wake up and be like, NOT AGAIN.
It was a really embarrassing cycle for a month or two where this happened regularly. Finally I met with a therapist at a clinic — I thought I was going to chat with her once a week for an hour and she looked at me and said, “no, no, that’s not gonna work for you — you need to come for six hours a day six days a week. Didn’t you understand that?!”
And I was like, wait WHAT are you talking about?! No I didn’t understand that, I was freakin’ drunk when I called you!
So what we envision for the series is that she’ll go back and forth between how much she wants to get better and how much she doesn’t. But in reality, I was a good patient. Once I had committed, I said, I’m gonna get this out of my life and move on.
I am someone who loves dark humor — I think sometimes the most eviscerating pieces of art force laughter out of us even as we cringe or cry. Why was it important to make this series funny? What’s the relationship between laughter and gravitas for you?
Angela: Growing up all I ever saw were movies like Perfect Body — starring Amy Jo Johnson as an Olympic gymnast; they used to play it at my high school. This is what an eating disorder looks like. It was so dramatic and sappy and the lesson is really beaten over your head. Or on network TV shows you’ll get like one episode where the little sister is sick and she cries and then she’s better. It tends to be incredibly oversimplified.
I think it really puts the other person at ease if you make a joke. It allows them to engage without pity or concern or worry. It enables them to listen and try to understand and have a real conversation. Comedy can be disarming and equalizing. I’m hoping to allow the audience enough time to laugh and sigh and feel open to not feeling sorry for Angela, but identifying with her. Comedy where you’re not sure if you should be laughing makes for a more invested viewer — you’re not being told to laugh — you’re having a dialogue with yourself.
We’ve got to talk about race! This show calls into question the importance of representation, but also white privilege. I totally fell prey to the belief that it is young white women of privilege that dominate the eating disorder realm in America, but have since learned that’s a myth and the prevalence is largely the same regardless of ethnicity. How does Binge both perpetuate and challenge dangerous stereotypes of race, gender, and class?
Angela: I’m obviously white and grew up in a upper white middle class family and went to an Ivy League school — there’s a lot of privilege in that. What’s also true is that when I was in treatment in Pasadena, California, there were people there of all different colors and ages — there were men and transgender folks. While my story does serve a narrative that’s often heard, I hope it also opens it up for other people’s stories to be told.
So many eating disorders stem from sexual abuse — and that’s not known. That idea that it’s something that just happens to rich white girls or that it’s about vanity or about wanting be thin or a model, for the majority of people who suffer from this disorder, that doesn’t come into play at all; it’s that they didn’t feel like they deserved to be nourished. They’re suffering from deep scars from their childhood.
If/when we make the whole series we want to open it up so half of the story is in the main character’s outside life and half is in treatment so we can get to know the other people in treatment.
And we want a diverse team to work on this. I want people working with us who understand all these experiences authentically. I don’t want to fall into the white person trap! When you get lazy or stop being vigilant you default to the white experience . . .
Anything else you want to say or talk about before I let you go?
Angela: Thanksgiving just happened . . . and Christmas is just around the corner, which means we’ve entered Hell Season for those struggling with food disorders. I vividly remember the dread, anxiety, fear, and self-hate that flooded me the weeks leading up to the Festival of Binges and the shame, regret, embarrassment, and, well, self-hate of the aftermath. Thanksgiving through New Year’s was a black hole for 10 years of my life, and I can think of no better time to release my pilot. My hope is that it can be a source of humor, community, solidarity, and irony during an incredibly stressful time.
— Watch the full pilot below —
If you or anyone you know is suffering from an eating disorder please seek help.
National Eating Disorders Association
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Yuri Baranovsky directed Binge, Justin Morrison shot it, and Dashiell Reinhardt was the lead editor. These three fellows have a production company called Happy Little Guillotine Studios.