The Program: Christine S. O'Brien on Growing Up Hungry

Christine S. O'Brien, author of "Crave," shares the environment in which her mom grew up, and how it contributed to her later loyalty to a strict diet called "The Program." 

Christine S. O'Brien, Writing for
9-minute read

In "Crave," Christine S. O'Brien tells the story of a childhood full of hunger, both for food and family stability. Her father was an explosively angry and highly successful ABC executive, and despite their luxurious New York life, her mom insisted her family follow a strict diet called "The Program," consisting mostly of celery juice and blended salads. "Crave" tells the story of Christine's journey of mental and physical hunger, and ultimately, her awakening.  


I am ten and standing in the doorway of my parents’ bedroom. My mother is lying in her evening clothes, a cream pantsuit and heels, her towering five-foot-eight frame prone like a felled tree on the hardwood floor of the hallway. It’s almost midnight. My father is crouched beside her, one hand on his bent thigh. Murtle, our latest live-in, is crouching, then standing, then crouching again. She is in her uniform, though it is half zipped, revealing the upper part of her bare back, and she is barefoot and not wearing stockings.

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“Go back to bed, Christine,” my father says, barely glancing at me.

Murtle takes my arm and gently guides me away from my parents’ room, where I had been asleep in their bed, waiting for their return from a dinner party. She leads me through the door of my brothers’ rooms and into the playroom.

“The ambulance weel be coming,” Murtle says. Her voice is lilting and soft, though the pressure of her squeeze on my arm is firm. “Your mother weel be fine.”

From the playroom I peer through the crack in the door and into the dim hallway. Murtle and my father stand as men in jumpsuits lift my mother onto a gurney, then follow the men as they push it, its wheels rolling loudly on the bare wood, away down the hall.

* * *

It’s springtime and my mother, nine, walks through her father’s orchards with Topsy, her family’s Saint Bernard. Topsy touches the back of my mother’s leg with her cold nose. When her father brought the puppy home, she was tiny with oversize paws. Now, at three, she is big enough for my mother to ride. Though the farm is filled with dogs, her mother always keeps a small dog—there have been multiple Tippys, Jippys, Trixies, Skippys, Spottys, Fidos, and two Lassies, but Topsy is my mother’s favorite. The dog never leaves my mother’s side, even standing guard across her body as she plays in the sandbox.

My mother reaches out to pet Topsy with her left arm, crooked at the elbow, the result of a fall from a stepladder when she was fourteen months old. The doctor, who had been retrieved from a Sunday night church meeting, didn’t set the bone correctly. He also administered too much ether, which resulted in ether pneumonia. By the time her parents took her to a specialist in St. Louis, it was too late to correct the set.

Girl and dog pass through the rows of fruit trees. It is the job of my mother and her older sister, Audrey, to pick the fruit for eating or canning, but it is early in the season and the trees are still heavy with blossoms. Spring is the time to catch bullfrogs and bring them home to eat, their legs still jumping in the pot while they cook. It’s a time of waiting, for the lilacs to bloom at the Nessings’ up the street, for the yellow roses to open along her mother’s trellises, and of course for the fruit blossoms: apricot, apple, peach, plum, pear. Spring brings freshness and life, the dark of the freshly plowed pasture, the feel of the smooth, slick, black soil of her father’s first furrow between my mother’s bare toes—the first plow line determining all the others, its degree of straightness being the mark of a good farmer. Spring brings the winds of March, the thundershowers of April, the tiny streams rushing down the tracks of the field road, the peachy oranges and pinks of the sunsets after a late-afternoon rain, the green-and- yellow tornadoes. It also brings the funnel cloud when the sky becomes as dark as the newly plowed earth and my mother’s family rushes to the cellar, freshly picked raspberries spilling onto the porch, a flying sheet of tin roof slicing through the air past Uncle Russell’s head, her mother holding the screen door closed while the apricot tree uproots ten feet away.