Katie Brown’s book “Unraveled” broke my heart. I’m glad I read it

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Imagine this: a young girl, wide-eyed, contemplates the final course. It was the X Game in 1995, the flagship competition of the emerging world of climbing. The other competitors, Slovenians, French, other foreigners ranked among the best in the world, mimic the course. They study it carefully and discuss it in small groups. The girl, barely 15, stands sideways, pursed lips and a squint in her eyes. She snuggles tighter into her sweater and barely glances at the road, more interested in the ground, to get it all over with. She wants to tell the looming cameras, the spectators, the whole world that she doesn’t care.

The observation period ends. Climbers climb. The girl ? She goes last. Her expression never changes when she attaches herself. Not when she pulls or climbs, laboriously slow. Not when she pulls the lip off the wall and on the last head wall. No, even when she cuts the chains, she doesn’t smile. Did she just win it all? You bet. But she is an anvil: strong and immobile.

Katie Brown was remarkable – even Lynn Hill said so, once calling her “the greatest female sport climber in the history of the sport”. She suddenly appeared on the climbing scene at the age of 12. Two years later, she won the world junior championships. Then, she won every US National Championship competition she entered. She has won several World Cup titles. She won the Arco Rock Masters. she saw Omaha Beach (5.13d) at the Red River Gorge.

Then she left.

And the world wondered, what happened? She was as mysterious as she was good.

Brown started climbing when her family moved to Lexington, Kentucky from Denver, Colorado. She started going to the Red River Gorge with her brother, then, once the passion was acquired, her mother became her only partner and chaperone. She was raised a Baptist – the kind that’s a lot more conservative than you initially think, and he profoundly influenced his relationship with climbing and the climbing community.

“I talked about it in my book,” she told me in a video chat. “I had never been to the movies, I had never been to dance at school, I had never driven in the car with my friends when I was a teenager…” Those weren’t on Table. Prohibited. Young Katie was isolated from a world that desperately wanted to know more about her. And is it because of this isolation that she developed an eating disorder? The better question is why nobody did anything about it. Why no one thought to ask. Why was she dying before their eyes, and instead of saying, Are you OK? Do you want to talk about it? What have you eaten lately? they said, Give us your opinion on the contest. When she left the sport, they asked:

What happened to Katie Brown?

“We have our hands entrusted to us in life, and sometimes life happens,” Brown said, as I couldn’t help but ask the same question last week during an interview to discuss of his new book. Unraveled: A Climber’s Journey Through Darkness and Back. Released today, October 11, the 250-page memoir details Brown’s climbing career, everything that happened — to her and because of her decisions. Sometimes heartbreaking, it’s an honest and revealing look into the spirit of an athlete in a world that has let her down.

“Well, I mean, quite frankly, if I could have gone back in time and found out what I know now, I would have applied for emancipation, I would have walked away from my family. But that’s… that isn’t the answer to your question,” she continued. “Just sanity, you know? I don’t know. I don’t really know what happened. Life happened. A lot a lot of things didn’t happen. It was the 90s… Yeah, I’m sorry. I don’t really have a good answer to that.”

It’s complicated, right? When there are multiple breakpoints. Things become inextricably linked.

Brown decided to write Untangled after hearing an interview on NPR with Dr. Gaudiani, or Dr. G, a board-certified medical intern who specializes in complications associated with eating disorders. Dr. G is internationally recognized in her field, and she had just released her own book, Sick enough: a guide to the medical complications of eating disordersin which she writes:

Denial of the seriousness of illness is one of the hallmarks of these mental illnesses. Patients may think their blood work isn’t “so bad” or their weight isn’t “so low,” or they may point out that they still perform well in school or work. By writing this book, I hope to establish that anyone with an eating disorder is sick enough to seek help..

“I was just like, ‘Oh my god, I never knew,'” Brown said while listening to the interview. Brown was learning about herself, her eating disorder and associated symptoms, for the first time. She wanted to know more, to understand what was causing what. Brown interviewed Dr. G, then she continued to dig. His old diaries played a central role in the process.

If you’ve had an eating disorder, you know what I’m about to say. Your brain stops working normally. Things are getting… fuzzy. Far. Thoughts. Just. Won’t. Come. Your body is starved and all the precious energy is directed elsewhere. Do I remember it well? Did it really happen? You can’t be sure. Add some lies. Add isolation. Nothing make sense anymore.

His diary entries are woven into the timeline of Brown’s book. She wrote maniacally, almost every day, from age 15 to 20. I would doubt its veracity,” Brown says. “Journaling was almost like a coping mechanism. Like, I’m going to love writing down everything that happened every day to prove to myself that it was real, because I was told a lot of lies. And I was so isolated that you started to disappear.

The entries are simple but vivid, providing a direct window into Katie’s world. The only things she hadn’t detailed, Brown says, were the arguments she had with her mother. “I would pass over that,” she said. “I would just write like, ‘It hurts so much, I don’t want to write about it.’ ”

Brown’s book leaves nothing to the imagination. It covers everything from his competitive career, his interactions with his family, his struggles as an adult, and his departure from the world of climbing. You ride the waves with her, see where things have gone wrong.

I hate when people are mad at me because I want to be liked and accepted. The reason I hate climbing is because I feel like people only like me because of my climbing.

“I just want to eat but when I do I can’t stop, and it’s greedy, which is also a sin. I’m afraid that God will punish me. Does he do that? Where is god Did I let Satan in like mama said?

“Mom keeps talking about all these people who want to have us.

“I feel like my brain isn’t working. The tendons in my arms hurt when I take hold, like I’ve never experienced.

I will leave it there. Read the book. I wanted to know more about Brown’s life now, what she was doing.

It’s 2022. Katie Brown is a mom. She and her husband are building a house in Colorado. They have a young daughter. Brown works full-time as a makeup artist, primarily for brides. “People are like… ‘what?’ Brown laughs. She admits it may seem like a haphazard profession, but she loves it, “like playing with art,” she says.

She goes to therapy. She took an Ayahuasca trip, where she internalized the need to honor her feelings: “My whole life has been to say to myself, ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself. So many people have it so much worse, you’re in luck, blah, blah, blah. You shouldn’t be mad at your parents or anything. They did the best they could. So I had this whole thought pattern around that. But all of that just creates so much resistance to acknowledging and owning what you’ve been through.

Brown still loves rock climbing. She wishes she could go out more. During the pandemic, she went to Joshua Tree, Hueco Tanks and Red Rock. But lately, work and building houses are taking his time. “Climbing always feels like the most natural thing for me, as a human being. I feel much more comfortable climbing than doing any other activity.

Brown hopes people will identify with her book. I certainly did. “I just want to let people know that they’re not alone…” she said. “We need to take a closer look at the mental health of young female athletes.”

Later in our interview, I couldn’t help it, so I asked again: What happened to Katie Brown? But this time, I answered in my head: she defended herself. She took control of her life. She left climbing because she didn’t understand who she was and she was ready to do anything to understand it.

Katie Brown tore herself to pieces. And then rebuilt itself from scratch.

Buy the book here.

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