Content warning: This review includes mentions of suicide.
“The girl in the mirror was too much and not enough.” –Meg Haston, “Paperweight”
I first stumbled upon “Paperweight” by Meg Haston in a library, adding it to my pile of books as an afterthought. In the years that have followed that library visit, the haunting story of Stevie has followed along, too, cementing “Paperweight” as one of my favorite books of all time.
“Paperweight” follows Stevie, a 17-year-old girl who is going to die in 27 days. No, she hasn’t been diagnosed with a deadly illness or given an ultimatum for her life. Rather, she’s taking her life — and the end of it — into her own hands. Being placed in an eating disorder rehabilitation center for 60 days isn’t part of her plan, but nothing will stop Stevie from marking her brother’s one-year death anniversary with her own mortal ending. To Stevie, a tragic ending is precisely what she deserves, the end to a life marked with abandonment and loss.
As we get to know Stevie, we learn more and more of everything she blames herself for: her mom leaving when she was a child, her brother dying, and for not being enough to make either stay. Haston allows the reader a peek into Stevie’s sessions with her institute-appointed psychiatrist, her strictly monitored meals, and whispered conversations with carefully selected roommates.
As days pass, we learn more and more about the events leading up to Stevie’s first binge and the hurt she tried to bury by getting drunk and refusing meals. With each new unlocked memory, the complexity of each character is deepened, transforming Stevie from a pained child to a cruel teenager to someone somewhere in the middle. By the last page, Haston has crafted a story of friendship, womanhood, bleeding wounds and all the salves that do little more than provide a temporary distraction.
“Paperweight” is in no way a new book — it was published in 2015. Yet, it is as relevant and moving today as ever. For the past several years, the rate of teens with eating disorders has been on the rise, as has the number of fatalities attributed to eating disorders.
An estimated 9% of the United States’ population has an eating disorder at any given time, with approximately 24 million people of all ages currently suffering from an eating disorder. Many of those affected are youth, with studies finding that 35% to 57% of adolescent girls admitted to engaging in “crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives.”
Quarantine and online school only further crushed numerous youth’s mental health and spurred even more adolescents to develop disordered eating habits and, in turn, eating disorders. As the last week of February was National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, it’s even more important that books such as “Paperweight” are read and shared around.
Ultimately, everyone has something to gain from reading this masterpiece. Those who are recovering from eating disorders are reaffirmed that they and their experiences are valid and that they are not broken or alone. Parents of youth who have an eating disorder or are in recovery get a glimpse into the mind of one person struggling with an eating disorder.
While everyone’s experience is different, parents can still learn more about what their child is going through or survived. Even those who have no immediate connection to eating disorders can learn more about the condition that likely is affecting someone around them, even if they aren’t aware of the connection. By offering a narrative that details triggers, signs of eating disorders, and the immense pain that patients go through, Haston leaves every reader with more understanding of the eating disorder experience than they held when they first cracked open the book.
In addition to educating you, “Paperweight” will rip your heart out and refuse to tape it back together, and that is what truly cemented this novel as one of my favorites. Haston doesn’t write about eating disorders in a way that is easy for readers to swallow or in a way that paints Stevie as perfect. Instead, Stevie’s life and her struggle with anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder as well as her relationships with her family are stripped to their ugly, raw origins. The more time we spend with Stevie, the more cruel and morally ambiguous she becomes.
When I first read “Paperweight” two years ago, I thought I was meant to love Stevie. I faulted Haston for writing a character that, in my mind, didn’t redeem herself by the last page. Upon rereading recently, though, I’ve come to understand that Stevie’s imperfections aren’t meant to be forgiven. Throughout her time in treatment, she consistently demonizes other girls who have started to recover — or in Stevie’s eyes, let themselves go. To forgive Stevie for the pain she caused others in treatment by taunting them with her words and actions would be an easy way out of answering the question that Haston poses: Should we forgive the hurt that hurt people inflict on others?
Does Stevie’s self-loathing excuse the vile things she said about others? Do we ignore the conditions and illnesses that prompted Stevie to turn to such heinous rhetoric? Haston doesn’t answer either question, but rather provides a discussion on morality and forgiveness through the story of a teenage girl who is as much a child and aged adult, all packaged in a book that will make your mind ache, you tear ducts work overtime, and your heart squeeze till you’re sure it’ll puncture.