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What It's Like to Lose a Daughter to an Eating Disorder

Laia Abril/Institute

“The most uncomfortable aspect of eating disorders is death,” Laia Abril told me over the phone recently. The Spanish photographer was discussing her new book, The Epilogue—a photobook that chronicles a family’s grief over the death their 26-year-old daughter, Cammy Robinson, who suffered from bulimia.

For about five years, Abril’s work has focused on eating disorders, inspired, she says, by personal experiences. But she describes the overarching theme of her work as the “uneasy realities” of femininity. Among her other projects, “Last Cabaret” is a photo collection that delves into the “peculiar environment” of El Bagdad, a sex club in Barcelona, and “Femme Love” is another series that follows the relationship of Mox and Jenny, two lesbians in Brooklyn. (Abril intended to explore a broader community of young lesbian women but ultimately created an intimate portrait of a single couple.) Abril’s work has been displayed in Italy, Spain, Poland, London, and New York, where she now lives. In her work on eating disorders, she zooms in on particularly unsettling aspects of these diseases, selecting atypical subjects or intriguing formats to telegraph her message. 

The Epilogue is the third chapter of a longterm project: The first chapter, A Bad Day, is a multimedia series about bulimia and was published in 2010, and the second, Thinspiration, is a “fanzine” that explores the pro-anorexia community, published in 2012. In this most recent installment, published this fall, Abril wanted to emphasize the life-threatening aspect of eating disorders, while also exploring their profound effects on the families of the sick. “Collateral victims are very important,” she told me.

"I spent so many years trying to make her better, trying to fix her." -Ashley, Cammy's best friend
Laia Abril/Institute

Abril also felt that Cammy’s story was particularly significant because she represents a category of people with eating disorders who often go unrecognized in mainstream portrayals: For much of her illness, Cammy maintained a normal body weight, and at times was even overweight. When many people think of eating disorders (especially ones that end in death), Abril explained, they think of “people who are very thin and don’t want to eat.” For this reason, Abril refers to bulimia as “the ghost of the eating disorders.” Abril wanted to highlight that not all people with eating disorders look or act like the stereotype.

A book of photographs is a strikingly poignant way to narrate an illness that revolves around self-image and appearances—but Abril goes beyond that. On the one hand, The Epilogue is a compilation of memories: photographs, letters, diary entries, to-do lists, hospital charts, and personal interviews with Cammy’s friends and family. But on the other, the book is almost counterintuitively grounded in the present, rather than the past. Though some old photos of Cammy are included, most of the images focus on the time after Cammy’s death. The book is chilling and beautiful, opening with a dark shot of the Robinsons’ quiet home.

Abril is adamant that the stories she’s explored have inherently required different presentations, and that The Epilogue demanded its photobook format. “I knew from the beginning that it had to be a book,” she said. “The story has so many layers and needs so much attention. … You can go as deep as you wish, and choose your own story, in a way.” Abril’s photos are simple, emotional tableaus—a single person captured unaware while in thought, or a solitary object of sentimental value—and are accompanied by minimal explanations where necessary; most of the text comes in the form of interviews with various characters from Cammy’s life.

Cinderella Road, the location of the Robinsons' former home, where Cammy spent her childhood and teenage years.
Laia Abril/Institute

Before selecting the Robinsons, Abril e-mailed hundreds of families who had experienced a loss from an eating disorder to see who might be willing to open up their lives to her project. Abril said the Robinsons were a good match because they have raised awareness about eating disorders by starting a foundation in Cammy’s honor. She spent two weeks living in the Robinsons’ home in Tennessee and developed a very close relationship with them—which she attributes largely to the open nature of their mourning. (So close, she added, that she spent Thanksgiving with them this year.)

Abril admits that this paradox of intimacy with her subjects can be one of the biggest challenges in her work. “I need to be close enough to the family to gain their trust and understand the story,” she explained, “but at the same time I need to have enough freedom to be truthful about what happened.” With the Robinsons, this was a non-issue: Abril said they wanted a “real” book, rather than a nice one.

The narrative of The Epilogue diverges from any cliched misunderstanding of an expected eating disorder story, or a story about death. And Cammy’s loved ones—despite profound grieving—do not ignore her imperfections post-mortem. When the young die, they are often memorialized without their flaws. In many of the interviews with Cammy’s family, the tension of their relationships is tangible; some of the interviews feel angry, rather than sad. Cammy is repeatedly remembered as difficult; her mother recounts her adolescent unpopularity; her brother blames her for “dominating” six years of their parents’ lives. Mixed into a wealth of sadness is a sizable amount of anger and frustration unusual for a remembrance.

Also unique about The Epilogue is its focus on Cammy’s family and friends navigating their grief. (With Cammy’s absence as the necessary backdrop.) So often, stories about eating disorders—if they even broach the subject of death—end when the person with the disease dies, and don’t explore the complications for their loved ones post-mortem. Abril’s work here highlights that for those close to the deceased, the nightmare and the sadness live on for much longer. This is unusual territory for most storytelling about eating disorders, but a necessary reality that Abril felt obligated to communicate.

Abril is quite familiar with eating disorders and the havoc they can wreak on both direct sufferers and their families, but “I didn’t know very much about Cammy before I arrived,” she admitted. “I asked a lot of things and every day I would discover something. It was like an investigation.” The Epilogue ends with a copy of Cammy’s death certificate. The immediate cause of death simply reads “cardiac arrest,” followed by three blank lines for “due to (or as a consequence of).” With The Epilogue, Abril has filled in those blanks.