What if you couldn’t eat for… who knows how long? That’s exactly what happened to Jon Reiner, an author with Crohn’s disease. He tells the story in his memoir, The Man Who Couldn’t Eat.
The book starts with Reiner’s disease in a bad flare — as in, near-death bad. He winds up in the hospital with intestines full of holes, so fragile that one of the holes can’t be closed properly. Reiner’s doctors decide that in order for his guts to heal, he can’t eat or drink anything — not even distilled water — for as long as it takes.
That said, the book is not full of graphic detail about symptoms. Instead, it’s about how the disease changes his relationship to food. What happens after Reiner is told not to eat is hard to explain: first, you have to understand that eating isn’t just a thing you do. It’s a big part of who you are.
Reiner’s mantra throughout the book is, “Tell me what you crave, and I will tell you what you are”. In the book, Reiner is a man who craves almost anything, and has been reduced to almost nothing. Losing food is like losing a limb or an organ.
The person that Reiner is without food is almost alien. The things he does to connect to food are bizarre; you’ll read the book thinking, ‘I would never do that’, but you honestly don’t know what you would do. When you understand it in Reiner’s story, you will begin to appreciate the role that food plays in your life.
Reiner is an excellent writer. When he describes food, you can feel your gut brace and warm, ready for the first bite. His writing is Pavlovian:
The corned beef is good — salty, lean, chewy — and they’ve browned the toast to the right consistency, so it sticks to the pile of meat and makes unbroken slabs for pushing in load after load.
This is even more so when he gets into his ordeal:
I must lick this french fry. It’s calling me, and I have no choice. I’m not asking to eat the fry; that would be a mess. I just want to to lick it. Taste its salt. Have it in my mouth and melt into me. Just a taste, man, that’s all I need.
The standoff with the fry shows the lengths to which he goes. Can you imagine yourself in his position, so desperate for a flavor, any flavor, that you would simply lick a french fry. Reiner uses his illness to show us how food shapes and defines our lives, even if we never go through the same ordeal.
Reiner’s fast lasts for months. After his doctors allow him to eat, the rest of the book describes how he rebuilds his life and his diet. He gets more deliberate about how he eats, and starts a highly restrictive macrobiotic diet on his own. Reiner is not arguing for a specific diet, but rather explaining how his illness changed his relationship to food.
The Man Who Couldn’t Eat makes us question how illness changes our relationship with food, a very basic part of our identity and humanity. For many of us with IBD, that is an essential question.