My mum tortured us with ‘cult’ diet
Gathering by their lockers at Dalton prep school on the Upper East Side of New York City, Christine O'Brien and two of her brothers chugged the unsavoury contents of the jars their mother, Carol, had prepared for them that morning.
The concoction - known as "blended salad" - was made from liquidised lemon, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber and celery with no seasoning. It was part of the drastic diet, dubbed "The Program," the children were forced to follow.
Now in her 50s and an English professor, O'Brien has opened up about the bizarre regimen that shaped her life in Crave: A Memoir of Food and Longing.
In it, she tells of her crippling hunger, guilt, deprivation and desperation to please a mother who nearly died because of her own devotion to the cultish fad diet.
"Part of the difficulty was the challenge of loving her so much," said O'Brien of her beauty-queen mum.
Raised in the 1960s and '70s in the famed Dakota building at West 72nd Street and Central Park West - with neighbours including Lauren Bacall and Leonard Bernstein - O'Brien (nee Scherick) and her three younger brothers, Greg, Jay and Braddy, appeared to have a privileged childhood.
Their father, Edgar Scherick, was the head of programming at ABC and went on to produce blockbuster films such as The Heartbreak Kid in 1972 and The Taking of Pelham 123 two years later.
But behind closed doors, the family was in turmoil. The children were starving and terrified of Scherick's rages - which were often triggered by his wife's obsession with food.
At the age of 10, O'Brien witnessed her mother collapse in the hallway of their 3,000-square-foot apartment. Carol was hospitalised after what she claimed was an allergic reaction to aspirin and lobster.
"When she came home, she spent the following year in bed," she said. "That's when the weird stuff started."
Carol, who had always been thin, became convinced that her failing health needed to be corrected through her diet.
"Throughout her life, she wanted to be elite and she was," said O'Brien of her mother. "For instance, she was playing the piano at four and had perfect pitch. Then she became a beauty queen and a model. Food was a way of differentiating herself from the crowd. This way of thinking [about nutrition] was new and she was a pioneer. It became her mission to be different."
And different she was. Lying weakly in bed, tended by a maid, Carol spent weeks eating nothing but raw liver.
"Then she graduated onto broiled lamb with tomatoes three times a day, which at least smelled a lot nicer," said O'Brien. "She'd have a drink with it - a goat's milkshake with brewers' yeast.
"Next she'd read that raw egg yolks were powerful and, all of a sudden, she'd be drinking them. She learned as she went along."
Soon Carol abandoned meat and encouraged the children to drink fruit juice mixed with wheat germ. She joined a Manhattan food co-op alongside like-minded hippy types.
"In her mind, you had to push against the toxins to purify the body," said O'Brien. "Diet became a form of purifying her body and her children's bodies so she could love us. I don't think she could love us if we were dirty and had toxins in us."
In July 1973, when O'Brien was around 13, things took a turn for the worse. The teen and her three brothers, then 12, 11 and 10, were placed on an ultra-strict diet known as "The Program."
It was peddled by Dr. Christopher Gian-Cursio, an underground figure who practised without a license.
"Mum told us he had Mafia connections and Mafia men on street corners were guarding him," said O'Brien.
Gian-Cursio's diagnostics involved monitoring the children's pulses and looking into their eyes.
"He practised iridology, where the iris is an indication of different parts of the body. If something looked muddy or cloudy, for instance, there was something wrong with the corresponding part."
O'Brien was prescribed a diet she would rigidly follow for the next seven years. Breakfast was a small supplement of tomato juice mixed with raw, powdered liver. "It was lumpy and tasted revolting," she told The Post.
She was also allowed two warmed egg yolks to start her day.
Almost as disgusting were the thrice-daily "blended salads" like the ones the siblings swigged at Dalton. Whenever possible, the "meals" were consumed right away to prevent the enzymes from oxidising.
At lunch, the kids were also allowed a small portion of cashews, hazelnuts or walnuts and fruit such as an apple. Cheese was occasionally permitted.
Dinner consisted of chopped, raw vegetables and a small serve of brown rice.
"If you were still hungry, you could have more warm egg yolks after that," said O'Brien. "We were always hungry - a constant, gnawing hunger because the food that we ate just didn't fill us up."
Such deprivation inevitably led to desperate cravings.
"It gets into your psyche," said O'Brien. "I craved steak more than anything. My mum's constant refrain was: 'You won't want it any more once your body is pure,' but that never happened."
Going for pizza was out of the question. O'Brien never tasted brownies as a girl. The only time she "cheated" was when she gorged on a Ho-Ho in her friend's closet after the Scherick family moved house in the mid-1970s.
"I felt wretched and wracked with guilt," O'Brien recalled.
Whenever a member of the family fell ill, Carol's solution was to put them on a five-day water fast.
"During our water fasts, I experienced a 'high' that felt almost like something monks would experience while fasting and meditating in an effort to get closer to the divine," said O'Brien. "I became addicted to that 'high.' It lifted me from all the sadness I felt in our household."
Incredibly, the siblings rarely, if ever, gave in to their cravings. "We felt that, by following the diet, we were keeping Mum alive because we knew how unhappy she was," added O'Brien.
Indeed, she had watched her mother almost die after she was administered a series of coffee enemas to "flush out" food considered "toxic."
"By the toilet a small rubber bag hangs from a wire coat hanger," O'Brien writes in her book.
"A thin white hose with a nozzle at the end dangles from the bag. It looks like something that belongs in a hospital a hundred years ago, not here in the bathroom."
After her mum told O'Brien she wanted to give herself yet another enema, O'Brien, then an eighth-grader, went to do her homework. But the quietness from Carol's bedroom disturbed her.
She writes, "I peek in. For a second, it seems the room is empty, but then I look over at the bed. She is lying, covers drawn up to her chin, staring at the ceiling … I expect her to look at me, but she doesn't. Her eyes don't waver from the ceiling. I notice her arms are shaking. I realise she is shaking all over …
"'Mum! Mum?' I pick up the phone, dial my father's office. His secretary calls an ambulance."
The family was later told that the enemas were causing Carol to "drown from the inside." If she had arrived at the hospital a half-hour later, she would have been dead.
Tensions between Carol and her husband were poisonous. Edgar often worked out of town but, when he was around his wife and her groceries, he became apoplectic.
"He'd say: 'Carol. This [diet] is crazy. It is taking over the house,' " O'Brien recalled.
Carol was convinced that Edgar's "meanness" was due to a clogged liver. She forced him to follow The Program, too. "Her mission became to clean him out so that he would stop raging," said O'Brien.
"He raged daily and it was terrifying for everyone. Nowadays, someone would leave a husband like that, but Mum had four kids. She was trapped."
She recalled him screaming, "Love is conditional in this house. It's based on whether we have our blended salad!"
O'Brien added, "Mum would be as cold as ice to him if he didn't eat his blended salads. She'd pack his lunch for work but obviously he could eat something else out of her sight."
The Schericks moved to Beverly Hills in 1977, and divorced in 1980.
"It was like a Shakespearean play where the forces were set in motion from the start," said O'Brien.
"The only way out of Mum's unhappiness was cleaning up Dad's liver. It didn't work and the raging never got any better."
As for O'Brien, she followed The Program for two years after leaving home in 1979 and starting college at Berkeley (she now lives in San Francisco). But, in 1981, when she met her future husband, Tim - an avid meat eater - she began to stray.
"I once ate meat at his home … and dreamt that night I was waving at my mum. Except, when I looked again, it was Tim. My emotional allegiances had shifted from Mum to him."
O'Brien, who has two children, still struggles with food issues, but has found an answer in a protein powder she takes every day.
"I like it because it balances me," said the 5-foot-6 blonde who weighs a healthy 62kg.
"But the best relationship I had with food was when I was pregnant and eating [sensibly] for two."
Meanwhile, Carol, who lived to the age of 84 and died of a stroke in 2016, stuck to variations of The Program for many years before becoming a proponent of kitcheree, a so-called "super food" consisting of rice, mung beans and spices.
"I feel admiration for what she tried to do," said O'Brien. "She believed she was on the forefront of a revolution and her beliefs would change the world.
"It's sad that, to her, it might have looked like her children rejected her beliefs. Though, in truth, we all carry part of The Program philosophy with us in how we eat and what we think."