As I read Binnie Kirschenbaum’s Rabbits for Food, I thought of a post a while ago about my enjoyment of books with protagonists who may or may not be suffering from a mental illness. It all depended on one’s perspective. It turns out the books where both of those states are true is heartbreaking. Having a mental illness while everyone consistently fails to take one seriously just compounds one’s problems. Even though this book made my heart ache for its protagonist, I also found it hugely moving. It is the best, most effective thing I’ve ever read about depression or hyper-sensitivity.
Bunny has never fit in. Worse, she didn’t know she didn’t fit in until she was about ten and one of her sisters told her that no one in the family liked her. It’s not her fault. She doesn’t mean to sound like a jerk. She just doesn’t have a filter between her brain and her mouth. She also doesn’t have a filter between her feelings at the rest of the world. While she is perfectly capable of wounding people with her words, she is a confirmed vegetarian because she can’t bear the thought of hurting an animal. No one understands Bunny. Whenever she opens her mouth, her friends and family either think it’s a joke, or that she’s being an asshole, or they just ignore her. The only person who truly understood Bunny died because of a stupid, utterly banal accident. Her meds aren’t working anymore. Thoughts about the environment and her isolation from everyone—including her own long-suffering husband, Albie, who tries very hard to keep her going—have plunged her into a depression so deep that she has herself committed. Not only does she have herself committed, Bunny has also signed up for one of the most extreme treatments for depression ever devised: electroconvulsive therapy.
The other thought that occurred to me as I read Rabbits for Food was that I finally understand Holden Caulfield now. One of the central events in this novel is a New Year’s Eve dinner that Albie tries to talk Bunny out of attending. Bunny makes an effort. She showers. She puts on one of her best dresses. The dinner will be held at a legendary New York restaurant. But it was all doomed from the start because, from Bunny’s perspective, everyone at the dinner is a phonie. Bunny sits at a table, biting her tongue, as she listens to grown adults talk about balsamic vinegar as if it matters in this messed up world of ours. I wanted to shout at them on Bunny’s behalf. It’s no wonder she cracks. Holden Caulfield loathed people he considered affected. He was a lot more vocal about it than Bunny is and I reacted to The Catcher in the Rye at lot like Bunny’s family members react to her. I still don’t like that little punk, but I think I finally see his point. Most of us would be tempted to tell Bunny and Holden, “Can’t you just fake it so that we can all have a nice time?” The plain truth is that they really can’t.
I finished Rabbits for Food a few days ago but it is still very much in my mind. Bunny’s story felt so honest, so insightful that I think it might have permanently affected me. This is an incredible book and I hope a lot of people read it. Spending a little time inside Bunny’s troubled, bright, often funny mind might make us all a little more kind and patient, a little more understanding of people who are hurt by the world and need more than a little help to get back on their metaphorical feet.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for readers who have a person with depression in their life and want to understand why they can’t just will themselves better.