By Holly Mullen - Tribune Columnist
Published in the Salt Lake Tribune February 2006

On a hot morning last July, I sat talking with Marlene and David Plumlee and Marlene's daughter, Jady, on their backyard patio. We sipped on cold Diet Pepsi, and frequently petted Jake, a sweet big dog with German shepherd, retriever and no doubt a few other bloodlines. Beyond craving human companionship as most dogs do, Jake seemed supremely needy. He nuzzled Marlene and David, and jumped at anyone's slightest move. Marlene explained that Jake had belonged to the oldest of her three daughters, Ashley. The dog was baffled by Ashley's absence. The sad reality was she would not be back.

Ashley Brooks died on June 3, 2005. She was 22. Marlene and David, Ashley's stepfather, were candid enough to list her cause of death in the newspaper obituary: complications from the eating disorders anorexia and bulimia. Ashley, a bright math and science student, a passionate soccer player, graduate of Salt Lake City's Judge Memorial High School and a junior in biology at the University of Utah, had fought her disease for two long years.

Marlene and David told of how, in spite of every possible intervention, Ashley could never move beyond a marrow-deep belief that she simply wasn't good enough. They talked of how the eating disorder evolved into practically its own person - which Ashley came to accept, indulge, hate and accommodate. "People who haven't been through it will think that sounds crazy," Jady said. "It isn't."

Ashley suffered a stroke in the family living room. Her matchstick frame and gravely weakened physiology could no longer sustain her. Marlene pointed out the exact spot where her little girl took her last breath.

Eight months have passed since the Brooks-Plumlee family invited me into their home. I tried to tell their story back then. I would hammer out a few words describing Ashley's memorial service, where speakers could barely be heard over the sobs rolling through the packed funeral home. Ashley's sisters, Jady and Robyn, had helped gather mementos of the young woman's life, and placed them in the front of the chapel. A snowboard. Her trophies and uniform from the Firebirds Soccer Club. Pictures of her cats and dogs. Photos of a happy little girl, goofing with her cousins on her aunt’s farm.

I kept trying to capture the emotion of the moment when, following the service, the crowd released hundreds of pink balloons into the azure sky. "Straight up to you, Ashley," a young woman behind me whispered.

But every time I tried to write Ashley's story, I faltered. I have written perhaps a dozen stories in my career about the science, psychology and viciousness of eating disorders, with equally disturbing stories about families who suffer with the victims. Marlene and David had tried everything to help Ashley recover: empathy and tough love; a costly residential treatment center; talk therapy; medication for depression, for obsessive-compulsive disorder, for insomnia.

In truth, I started believing that Ashley's story was too sad to write. It hurt to even think of it. There are too many young people - mostly girls with everything ahead of them - dying to be thin. But that is no excuse not to fight back.

As many as 10 million females and 1 million males in the United States have an eating disorder, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. The average recovery time for this complicated, chronic illness is seven years. Some fight it all their lives. Many, of course, never survive it.

I can no longer not write this piece. Starting today and through March 4, colleges and universities along the Wasatch Front are launching events in conjunction with National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. The U., Westminster College and Salt Lake Community College are participating. There will be lectures, Q-and-A sessions and discussions of the latest research into the causes and treatments of eating disorders.
A key sponsor is Students Promoting Eating Disorder Awareness and Knowledge (SPEAK) at the U. Find more information at their Web site:

Because this is everyone's issue. Mine, the people who love Ashley Brooks, yours.

For More Information on Eating Disorders
Contact NEDA - National Eating Disorders Association