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Pollack 'Polly' Ann Williams, 1974 - 2008

She explained her eating disorder on HBO's 'Thin'

February 16, 2008|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Pollack "Polly" Ann Williams, who was featured in the HBO documentary "Thin," an unflinching look at several women with serious eating disorders, was found dead Feb. 8 at her home in Hixson, Tenn. She was 33.

Williams died from an overdose of sleeping pills, a suicide that was "a direct result of her internal battle with the eating disorder," her sister, Bebe W. Reed, told The Times. "She said she could not fight the fight any longer."

Lauren Greenfield, who made the 2006 documentary, said of Williams on her website: "In her short life, she touched more people than most people do in their lifetime, and I know she was very proud of the contribution she made in the eating disorder community."

Appearing in "Thin" was a challenge for the intensely private Williams, who often said she agreed to be filmed because she hoped her story might move others to seek help.

As many as 10 million girls and women in the U.S. are fighting a life-threatening eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia, according to the National Eating Disorders Assn.

The documentary was filmed at Renfrew Center, a residential treatment center in Coconut Creek, Fla., and received critical praise when it was screened two years ago at the Sundance Film Festival.

Much of the film's high drama centers around Williams, who reveals that she checked into the clinic after trying to kill herself over eating two slices of pizza. She adds: "That was obviously not the whole reason."

The gregarious Williams bonds with other patients in a dorm-like setting and struggles to eat a cupcake as others provide support. She sneaks away to get a tattoo of an "eating disorder recovery" symbol and slips her psychiatric medications to another patient. For violating rules, she is asked to leave the center.

Eventually, Williams completed a 10-week outpatient program in Chattanooga, Tenn., for people with eating disorders.

"This is such a horrible disease," Williams told The Times in 2006. "It's not something you can beat on your own."

Born in 1974 in Memphis, Tenn., Williams lived most of her life in Johnson City, Tenn. She shared her first name, Pollack, with her grandfather.

An exuberant child, she was quick-witted and whip-smart, both a cheerleader in high school and a member of a high school academic decathlon team that placed third in the nation, her sister said.

At Virginia Tech, Williams earned a bachelor's degree in English with a concentration in Shakespearean studies. After graduating in 1996, she "went on a diet that lasted seven years," Williams said in "Thin," a companion book to the film.

She recalled counting calories by the time she was 11, bringing diet pills to grade school in her lunch and starting to struggle with an eating disorder at 13.

At the Florida treatment center, Williams discovered photography and studied it in community college after returning to Tennessee. For the last four years, she managed a photography studio for JC Penney in Chattanooga.

She also took postgraduate courses in healthcare law and policymaking at East Tennessee State University.

Since the film's release, women with eating disorders from around the world had sought out Williams, and she corresponded with them by e-mail for hours, her sister said

"She wanted to be an inspiration to other young women. . . . She truly wanted to be victorious," her sister said. "Those girls who had a connection to Polly through the Internet should know that Polly was a fighter -- and she would want them to fight."

In addition to her sister, Williams is survived by her father, Alex Williams; her mother, Susan Rule; her stepfather, Jim Rule; two other sisters, Susan Staley W. Smith and Betsy Williams; a stepsister, Courtney Rule Williams; a grandfather and two grandmothers.

Memorial donations may be made to the National Eating Disorders Assn. Its website is

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