Kessa By Steven Levenkron

Kessa… Now she is out of the hospital, but the most difficult part of her journey has just begun.

A few weeks ago we revisited The Best Little Girl in the World, Steven Levenkron’s 1978 classic about a rich white New York City teen and her struggle with anorexia and bulimia.

Very dated, but still strangely compelling, were you left wondering what happened next to Kessa? No? Oh, well, Steven Levenkron is going to tell you anyway.

So, as an actual YA, I was in the habit of accidentally picking up sequels to books first, and that was the case with Kessa and Best Little Girl. Before this re-read I was wondering how I managed to follow the story… but it turns out that most of Kessa is flashbacks, including large blocks of text lifted directly from the first book.

In comparison, Kessa is a pretty forgettable affair. Picking up just before she is discharged from the hospital, having gained weight via feeding tube and family therapy with specialist Dr. Sandy Sherman (Ph D), Kessa is still bickering with her roommate, Lila, whose presence is still mainly to remind the reader that only rich white people get anorexia in 1986.

Kessa continues her sessions with Dr. Sandy, which are rendered in excruciating realistic (which is to say, boring) detail. Kessa’s relationship with Dr. Sandy continues to be weird, as she views him not as a father-figure, but a maternal one, sometimes even slipping up and calling him “Mom”. How does Dr. Sandy feel about his star patient who is constantly calling him at home in the middle of the night?

“How do you feel now compared with the way you felt before you called?”

“Better. But maybe it’s – “

“It’s what?”

“Maybe it’s… you.”

Sandy was glad she couldn’t see him blush.

EW.

At her ritzy private school, Kessa has swapped ballet for gymnastics, which seems like it could be challenging to her recovery. And it is in gymnastics that she meets and befriends Deidre, a girl her age that Kessa immediately suspects of also having an eating disorder.

So much of the book is a literal re-tread of Best Little Girl that it is hardly worth mentioning; the Deidre subplot, which by turns is horrific, melodramatic, and darkly comedic is really the only part that is interesting at all. 

Like Kessa, Deidre has rich and neglectful parents who were fairly old when she was born; now retired, they spend most of their time at their Florida vacation home.

Kessa agonizes over Deidre refusing to admit that she is bulimic, and there are many Dr. Sandy sessions on the subject. Kessa’s parents at least notice that their daughter’s new friend seems awfully thin and has strange habits regarding food; for her part Kessa tries to trick Deidre into admitting her problem by taking her out to a pizza place that doesn’t have a public restroom (this backfires when Deidre just runs all the way back to school to vomit).

After Kessa is goaded into accompanying some school friends to Skirmishes, a Fern Bar on the Upper East Side with a lax policy of checking IDs, Kessa is emboldened enough to dare Deidre to come with her one night.

While Kessa chats up some underage boys, Deidre literally takes a powder, returning home where she stands over the toilet eating an entire ham slice by slice and vomiting. As her purging reaches a crescendo, she blacks out.

Which is where her parents, returned from Florida, find her the next morning, TOTALLY DEAD. In a particularly grotesque detail, it is noted that she landed teeth-first on the toilet bowl.

I have no idea what to make of this scene. Is it supposed to be so horrifying that it will scare teen readers off of bulimia? It is also so ridiculous that it is almost funny, and so gross that I don’t want to re-read it, which is why I am not quoting directly.

When Kessa calls Deidre’s house the next day she learns of her death and agonizes with Dr. Sandy over whether to go to the funeral. She eventually decides to go alone, and casket-side, an unusually chatty funeral director fills her in on the detail of what happened to Deidre’s teeth.

Oh, also it turns out that Kessa and Deidre had the same pediatrician, and through a series of coincidences Kessa finds the coroner’s report of Deidre’s autopsy and learns that she died of a heart attack due to complications from bulimia. Which is seems like there would have been an easier way to work that into the narrative.

After Deidre’s death, Kessa decides to aggressively befriend another girl in her gymnastics class, Dennie. Like Lila before her, Dennie is a sassy black girl with a strong single mother who mainly exists in the narrative to provide commentary on white people and their nonsense.

“My mother is one tough, beautiful lady. I want to be like her, but I’d like to have it easier… I don’t know how it is with your parents, but my mother isn’t so crazy about having, uh, white people up to the apartment.”

Eventually Dennie’s mother relents and Kessa goes home with Dennie after school on the subway, which is very scary and doesn’t have any white people on it. SIGH.

If Best Little Girl neatly concluded that Kessa’s eating disorder was a cry for attention, since her parents were so focused on her Ivy League brother and troubled hippie sister, Kessa decides that the problem is that she doesn’t want to grow up.

Up to this point Kessa has been vocal in the fact that she is totally NOT INTERESTED in boys, and squeamish about her own changing body. Dr. Sandy is really insistent about how once she reaches a weight of 104 pounds, she will resume menstruating… which I’m no Ph D, but it seems like that is not an exact science?

Kessa’s recovery is assured when she meets Brian, an east side preppy with a fake ID at Skirmishes and asks her mother to borrow a credit card to go buy some stylish new clothes at Bloomingdales, including a matching bra and panty set. Her mother approves:

Grace smiled. “Very good taste, and sexy too.”

So once again, everything is solved by getting a boyfriend. The end.

From this vantage point, it seems a little odd that Levenkron would revisit the Kessa saga 8 years after the publication of Best Little Girl. It is worth noting that it came after the death of Levenkron’s most famous client, Karen Carpenter, so there may be an element of damage control happening here.

Ladies And Gentlemen We Have A (Belated) Title! Department:

After all, Deidre was the best little girl in the world to them.

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5 Responses to Kessa By Steven Levenkron

  1. Anonymous says:

    How did I forget a major character and plot of Deidre until you reminded me? Yet I remember they served lobster tails and rice at the dinner party with Dennie. LOL
    The girl on the cover always reminds me of Melissa Sue Anderson from Little House on the Prairie.
    I need to dig out my copy to read again.

    • mondomolly says:

      It is always so interesting to hear what specific details people remember!

      I think the cover model here actually looks a lot more like Jennifer Jason Leigh than teh girl they used for the cover of Best Little Girl.

  2. ninyabruja says:

    CW:

    he discusses one of his patients in Cutting, but didn’t realize until much later that this girl was self harming because she was being molested ( along with her sister) by one of the staff in her building, which he writes about in Stolen Tomorrows.

  3. Cee says:

    “At her ritzy private school, Kessa has swapped ballet for gymnastics”

    Oh my God! Talk about frying pan to fire!

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