A tattered, stapled-together copy of Scott Anderson’s “The Hunger Warriors” now qualifies as one of my oldest and most treasured possessions. I distinctly remember snipping it out of the New York Times magazine nearly 11 years ago, so I could study the means by which Anderson managed to break my heart. I still read the story at least twice a year, to remind myself of the true art that is possible when a writer delves into our species’ penchant for collective madness.
A novelist as well as a reporter, Anderson is skilled at crafting scenes that seem perfectly ordinary, even boring, until he abruptly wallops us with a jarring transition. This is precisely the approach he employs in the lede for “The Hunger Warriors,” in which Anderson takes us inside a pleasant Istanbul apartment inhabited by Fatma Sener, a 22-year-old woman with “an infectious smile and penetrating brown eyes.” She loves to stare out the apartment’s window at the ships passing through the Bosporus, a pastime that reminds her of her childhood love of swimming. Everything about this situation seems unremarkable until Anderson drops the hammer like so:
What makes this unsettling, even grotesque, is that Fatma has come to this nondescript house in the Kucuk Armutlu neighborhood of northern Istanbul to kill herself. For the past 250 days, she has existed on a diet of water, tea, salt and sugar. Now, with her weight hovering around 70 pounds, she can no longer walk and can sit up only with assistance, and if she wants to gaze out at the Bosporus, aides must carry her bed out to the yard and prop her up with pillows. Fatma exists at the very precipice of death, and she knows it. On certain days, she can even discuss the end, how it might happen, with a trace of humor.
Yet Anderson is not yet done laying the groundwork for his disturbing tale. Sener, we next learn, is one of dozens of young Turkish women who have elected to fast until death. These aspiring martyrs are, in fact, masters of the ghoulish art of hunger striking; they have figured out how to limit their weight loss to just 100 or so grams per day, so they can waste away for many months before perishing. And why are these women sacrificing their lives in such an agonizing manner? Anderson’s revelation about the strike’s goal is a classic example of a setup technique that I call a “double pivot,” whereby an already engrossing story is revealed to have a twist that makes it even more of a must-read:
While the Armutlu strikers have a number of grievances against the Turkish government, their core demand is for the abandonment of a new generation of modern prisons in which inmates are housed in one- or three-man cells and a return to the dormitory-style prisons of the past. It is for this that by mid-July, 29 people, most current or former inmates serving time for political offenses, had died.
In other words, Sener is starving herself to death because she doesn’t approve of the sleeping arrangements in Turkey’s prisons. And she is doing so despite being fully aware that neither the Turkish government nor the Turkish public give a damn about her esoteric cause.
From that point forward, Anderson’s challenge is to interweave two distinct narratives: one a personal yarn about how Fatma Sener ended up a 70-pound living skeleton, the other an exploration of modern Turkey’s political tumult. When I sketch out the structures for projects such as “The Hunger Warriors,” I typically imagine something akin to a caduceus: I want the two narrative “serpents” to twist around each other in perfect harmony, so that both are given equal weight as they unite to form an elegant whole. But that is a difficult balance to achieve in practice: Too many stories lose sight of the humans at their cores, often because the writer lacks a natural sense of pace. Tangents loop into other tangents, and by the time we flip back to the flesh-and-blood characters, we have ceased to have much stake in their fates.
But Anderson does a masterful job of nailing the caduceus structure; he never pulls away from Sener’s tragic arc for too long, nor does he fail to explain the social and historical currents that egged this young woman toward a premature and pointless doom. He succeeds in part by making Sener’s father, Mehmet, the bridge between these two narratives. Like millions of his fellow Turks who came of age during an era of political repression, Mehmet cannot comprehend why so many young women are throwing away their lives for a radical cause. Yet like any good father, he cannot quite bring himself to accept that Fatma – “my angel” – is beyond redemption. The details that Anderson uses to illustrate Mehmet’s internal conflict always bring me to the edge of tears:
Two days later, Mehmet goes to Istanbul to see his daughter. While I actively encouraged this visit, I’m now apprehensive, worried that given his heart condition it might actually make things worse. Sure enough, Mehmet is agitated, chain-smoking cigarettes, when he comes off the boat.
My interpreter has bought several small heart-shaped pillows for the strikers, and during the taxi ride to Armutlu she hands one to Mehmet to give to Fatma. He thanks her, cradles it in his lap for a moment, but then hands it back. ”No,” he says. ”I swore that I would not give her anything until she quits.”
At the house, the assistants appear to be a bit nervous at the sight of Fatma’s father but quickly stand aside as he heads to her room. Their reunion is tender, Mehmet sitting on the edge of the bed to embrace his daughter, the two of them talking in soft whispers, but after 10 minutes he can’t take it anymore and abruptly bolts for the door.
”She’s mocking me,” he says outside, angrily puffing on another cigarette. ”I cry, and she smiles. I tell her to come home, and she smiles. How do I reach her?”
After a while, he goes back inside, but this visit is even shorter than the first, and he emerges cursing under his breath. ”I told her this was the last time. I know I always say that, but this is the last time I come here.”
As the story’s two narrative “serpents” twist toward a conclusion, we become aware of an unsettling truth: Sener and her fasting comrades are killing themselves not because of their dedication to a political cause, but rather because of their dedication to one another:
If not brainwashed in any traditional sense, neither are the strikers ”forced” to continue, as the government likes to suggest. No one is in Armutlu against her will, there are no armed guards à la Jonestown and there is minimal concern about destabilizing outside influences; certainly, I never have a problem when asking to talk with a striker in private. Instead, what seems to bind these people together is a much subtler form of coercion, one rooted in personal loyalty and shared experience that in many ways resembles the dynamics of a family. After spending months lying in a room next to someone suffering like yourself, how do you get up and leave her there? After so many friends have died, how do you admit it was for nothing?
If there is a more evocative description of peer pressure in the annals of nonfiction literature, I certainly have yet to read it.
I will not give away the ending of “The Hunger Warriors,” except to note that it presents one more example of Anderson’s talent for pivoting from hope to despair. The story’s kicker could not be any more plainspoken, or any more devastating.
Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and the author of Piano Demon and Now the Hell Will Start, the latter of which he is currently adapting for the filmmaker Spike Lee. His next book, about a fantastic early-1970s heist and its decades-long aftermath, is forthcoming from Crown.
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