March 31, 2003 12:00 PM

Literary agent Betsy Lerner watches with pride as her daughter Raffaella, 6, dances around the living room. “It’s a beautiful thing,” she says, “to see a girl not have awareness of whether her to thighs or tush are anything but perfect.”

It’s a freedom that Lerner, 42, has never known. In her memoir Food and Loathing, she writes about a lifelong battle with chronic overeating that led her to the brink of suicide. Now after years of therapy and medication, she is able to control-if not conquer-her urge to binge. “I have been stable a long time,” she says, “but I continue to struggle.”

The details of that struggle, as portrayed in the critically acclaimed Food and Loathing, alternate between hilarious and heartbreaking. The middle of three daughters raised in Wood-bridge, Conn., by lumberyard owner Howard, 76, and reading teacher Roz, 72, Lerner was, she writes, “a girl who believed her thighs were grounds for execution.” At home, “overeating was the norm,” says sister Nina, 44, a social worker in Newton, Mass. (Gail, 33, is a producer for Will & Grace.) “My mother makes a meal for 6 people, you could easily feed 12.”

At 15, Lerner—then 5’2″ and 170 lbs.—joined Overeaters Anonymous. Adhering to the program’s tenets (which at the time mandated three meals a day, with foods like butter restricted) helped her drop 50 lbs. Unfortunately, she says, that “set up this all-or-nothing bingeing that for me was really detrimental.” Over a decade Lerner swung between gorging (two bowls of Rice Krispies would be followed by a bagel with peanut butter, half a box of Triscuits and a stack of American cheese) and eating three low-calorie meals a day. “I really didn’t know the extent of what she was doing,” says her mother, Roz. “No parent would know.”

But there were warning signs. As a teen Lerner was correctly diagnosed as manic-depressive and put on lithium, but the drug made her feel like a “zombie” and she stopped taking it. (In 1995 a new psychiatrist put her on a lower dose.) An A student who received a literature degree from New York University in 1982, Lerner nonetheless continued her downward spiral. “Whether the food swings were completely associated with mood swings I’ll never know,” says Lerner who, in January 1985, while a grad student at Columbia University, climbed onto an overpass and contemplated jumping into the traffic below.

The episode so unnerved her that Lerner checked into the hospital and was then transferred to a psychiatric facility, where she spent five months. Intense daily therapy proved a turning point. “What I focused on,” she says, “was to stop bingeing and sneak-eating—to eat the cake at a birthday party and not later by myself.”

Visiting her at the hospital was John Donatich, a former NYU classmate she assumed wouldn’t want to date her because of her weight. “I saw the pain she was in,” says Donatich, 42, a publisher, “and realized how I felt about her.” The couple married in 1992 and live with Raffaella in Pelham, N.Y., where Lerner strives to stick to three balanced meals a day. Doing so, she says, is “a perfect day for me.”

Galina Espinoza

Eve Heyn in Pelham

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