My Search for Answers in the Fringe “30 Bananas a Day” Movement
Jacqueline Alnes on the Promises of Freelee The Banana Girl and Durianrider
Before the defamation lawsuit, the cups of coconut sugar poured into banana smoothies, the sexual assault allegations, and the dissolution of what was once a dream, there was a man and a woman. Acne covered the woman’s face and shoulders and chest. Her gut was inflamed, a symptom of systemic candida. The man, whose father had passed from cancer, was sick of the lies. Sick of the fries. Sick of rubbing thighs or listening to MLM gurus with dollar$ in their eyes. And so the man and the woman separated good food from bad. They called the good food Raw, and the bad food they called Murder, Torture, Junk, and Harm.
The man and the woman worshipped what the earth yielded, an abundance of fruits and greens plucked ripe from their vines and stalks and trees. They ate dozens of bananas per day, and mangoes, dragonfruit, persimmons, oranges, peaches, watermelon, papaya, and more. Piles of durian crowned the man’s bed. And the woman lay on the ground in a bikini, hair spilling across her face, boxes and boxes of dates surrounding her toned body as the man looked on. The man pressed the fruit between his fingers, saying squishy, date sugar, nutrition, nutrient-dense, and neither were ashamed.
The man and the woman held the knowledge of good and evil; they could discern between the sweet flesh of a sun-ripened pineapple and plastic bags filled to the brim with animal blood. They knew that water and carbohydrates in the blood equaled beauty; fat in the blood, ugly. Pure thoughts came from drinking water. With this knowledge, the man and the woman created a website. The man and the woman painted the header with a faded image of browning bananas in the sun. They added green trim to a white background. They added an image of spotty bananas. They renamed themselves Durianrider and Freelee The Banana Girl. With that, the 30 Bananas a Day movement began.
Freelee and Durianrider invited their followers to a fruit farm in Cairns, Australia, where there was a garden and the garden was good. From the garden came tatsoi, a green with leaves like flattened lily pads; Black Russian tomatoes; a bowl of pea-sized cherry tomatoes; tall sprigs of dill; cos lettuce; and sweet leaf skimmed from the stalk. People multiplied, journeying from all around the world. They gathered around a picnic table where the garden’s bounty was arranged. Sun overhead, they ate until they were satiated.
Tanned and wiry, the people bore gifts: they whacked a cleaver against a rod of sugarcane before twisting it and twisting it, milking the juice into a bowl. They broke open the scaly green skin of a jackfruit with their fingers. They sifted, smashed, and sieved coconut until it turned to oil, and they slathered it behind their ears, on their shoulders, and into the palms of their hands. They jackhammered avocado, mango, pineapple, and banana in a large pot, poured the golden mixture into a pitcher, drank from it, and said, wow.
Durianrider, standing before the small crowd of disciples, said, “People just want to feel good.” And it was so. There, on the farm, the people slept in tents; the people woke up and ate coconuts; the people went down to the creek for a swim; the people did yoga beneath the limbs of an ancient tree; the people walked the walk and talked the talk and ate raw food and only raw food. No one snuck down the road for a hamburger.
Freelee and Durianrider posted footage of toned bodies, testimonies about healing from chronic illness, and an abundance of fruit to their site. Through raw food and raw food alone, their followers turned from flab to fab. From tragic to magic. From around the world, people watched and saw that the movement was good. Like fruit flies lured by the sweet stench of something overripe, people desperate to heal from eating disorders, to cure illnesses, to save the animals, to find community, and feel young again were drawn to 30 Bananas a Day!
I was one of them.
Within the biblical garden of Eden, there are two notable trees: one of life, and one that holds the knowledge of good and evil. God instructs Adam, then a nameless man, that he may “eat freely of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” God is omniscient; the man, new. Scholars, when analyzing this moment in the text, propose that this might have been a time when man—and later woman—had access to immortality. What if Eve had eaten from the tree of life and ignored the tree of good and evil? What did her curiosity cost?
I imagine Adam and Eve wandering the garden in bodies that were at once entirely natural to them and also mysterious. If thinking about them as humans, fallible and without God’s omniscience, I imagine that there must have been fear running alongside their wonder. What foods might sustain them? Why, if paradise was truly paradise, would the nectar of any fruit be off limits? So often, Eve is characterized negatively as being tempted by the fruit but, considering how Eve must have felt when the snake first whispered sweet promises in her ear, I see her want for knowledge. A curiosity about her own body and the world. Who wouldn’t want a taste? When I think about that moment in the garden, I see myself sitting before my laptop, plagued by two years’ worth of mysterious neurological symptoms whose root cause had evaded doctors, begging for something that would help me better know myself. I see all of us who, impacted by illness and exhaustion and age, might, if we could, reach for something forbidden that would teach us how best to live.Like fruit flies lured by the sweet stench of something overripe, people desperate to heal from eating disorders, to cure illnesses, to save the animals, to find community, and feel young again were drawn to 30 Bananas a Day!
It was during my junior year of college, during a period of time when my neurological symptoms—dizziness, aphasia, lapses in memory—were at their most severe, that I spent the long afternoons alone in my room praying to Google as if it were some kind of god, asking: What is wrong with me? Do I have seizures? Will I ever be able to run again? It was then that I first found the community I thought might save me. When my browser first loaded, the 30 Bananas a Day website populated with a faded header of spotty bananas, an advertisement for “The Woodstock Fruit Festival,” and a smiling apple parachuting from the sky toward a dancing cucumber. There were people with usernames like The FruitMonster, HunnyDew Sunshine, BeeFree, and Ivegonebananas. They left comments on forums titled:
Fresh Dates! How long do they last??
VEGANS! Do you compare animal life worth to human life worth?
Ah! What am I to do??? My fiance is anti-vegan!
I’m scared to eat.
Hi, newbie questions incoming
Are meals of carrots ok?
Terribly itchy legs at night, please help :(
Fruit stops sickness?
I’ll admit, I laughed. Whether it was the unaesthetic bright green and pale yellow borders outlining forums or phrases like “high vibe community!” “30BaD Peacekeepers” and “fruit-munchers” used in earnest, the site seemed at first like something funny to share with my roommates when they got home, something that would allow me to add my voice to the chorus of their days. Two of my roommates-turned-best-friends were vegan at the time, so I was well aware of what that meant: no meat, no eggs, no animal products of any kind, honey included. They had both been vegan before moving in and were respectful, if not fervent, when they spoke about their beliefs.
I never became fully vegan in the years that I lived with them, but I was jealous of their certainty. They watched documentaries like Forks Over Knives and used the footage as fuel for the way they felt about the world. Around Thanksgiving, they ranted about the conditions in which turkeys were kept; in captivity, unable to run around, the poultry developed bodies that were too heavy for their legs. In their journey with veganism at the time, there did not seem to be room for nuance or exception; they were committed to the point where I still Google the ingredients of red food dye to see if it includes Red 40 (a petroleum byproduct which technically is fine to eat but some vigilant vegans avoid because it has been tested on animals) or ask vegan friends if they mind which brand of white sugar I use before I bake for them (in our college apartment, we only used organic white sugar from the co-op because other sugar might have been processed through animal bone char).
While I felt—and still feel—empathy for the animals, food was more complicated to me. (Even now, as I write this sentence, I hear echoes of vegans on the internet telling me that if I truly cared, it would not be complicated at all.) I enjoyed sharing meals with my roommates and was grateful to learn more about their lifestyle, but I found it difficult to hold such a hard line in my own life in determining the “right” way of eating from “wrong.” I found too much joy in a bowl of my grandma’s homemade chicken noodle soup, for example. My grandma used a recipe passed down from my great-great grandma for the egg noodles and used a knife my grandpa had been gifted after working night shifts at a chicken place while my mom was growing up. I couldn’t imagine believing something about food enough to turn down any of her cooking, so much of it steeped in history, labor, and love.
It was the same lack of certitude that had led me falling away from formal religion after a lifetime of being brought up in the church; there was just something in me that had a hard time condensing the messiness of the world into a pinprick of something tangible I could trust. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to believe—in fact, I very much did. I wanted to belong to something greater than myself, to lose myself to the current of what I knew was right. One of the parallels between organized religion and veganism, at least in my experience, is that a believer in either has the tendency to think that their way of life is best, on a level of morality. To not believe—in God or veganism—means that you need saving or to wake up to the harsh realities of what your life without belief is costing you. I wanted to be all in. I craved the safety of knowing, definitively, that I was “good,” but I had too many questions. How was locally raised meat bad but fruit flown all the way across the world any better, on an environmental level? What about people who couldn’t access all the substitutes and specialty ingredients that we bought at the co-op each week?
I liked the freedom of eating a mostly vegan diet in college while still leaving room for spontaneity, cravings, or special moments with family. I wasn’t against any diet, but I wasn’t for diet either, which I guess made me just curious enough. I became a sponge for rhetoric that was an echo of my own innermost thoughts. What I hoped to hear, at that time, was a way of making order from the chaos in my own life. The more time I spent on 30BaD, the more I realized it was unlike the veganism that I knew through my roommates. Their veganism included cinnamon rolls slathered in vegan cream cheese, pizza from Mellow Mushroom covered with a thick layer of half-melted Daiya shreds, and chocolate chip cookie dough made with flax eggs. 30BaD was different. It offered me answers that would lift me from my loneliness and sickness.I wanted nothing more than THE ANSWER. The answer would mean I could get up out of my travel chair—in a moment as miraculous as a biblical tale—and walk around again. The answer would mean I’d have a body I’d want to flaunt.
30BaD became a fixture of my daily routine. Sometimes I visited because the absurdity made my own reality seem more normal (like a list of “Frequently Asked Questions” posted by Freelee that suggests if you crave eating “animal poo” or your “attitude starts to suck” it means you aren’t getting enough calories from fruit). Sometimes the website was a salve for solitude, and other times a form of escape. And sometimes, it moved me in a meaningful way, one I didn’t yet have words for. From reading through forums, it seemed to me that most of the followers had suffered something significant in their past: they were trying to rid themselves of illnesses that had gone undiagnosed for years, addressing eating disorders, or resolving symptoms they no longer wanted to manage with medication. I found people who echoed my own deepest pain. I found rules that promised me what medical professionals couldn’t. Like me, people who clicked on the website seemed at a loss for other options; they had exhausted all the possibilities that made sense. But unlike me, they had found an answer. They had left their old, sick selves behind and had returned to their former radiance.
They all posted about their miraculous recoveries on a page called “Testify!” In 2012, when I was frequently visiting the site, the page’s header featured a pair of cartoon bodybuilders holding up a weightlifting bar stacked with plates. The man had a six-pack, bulging biceps, and a Speedo that showed off the strength of his quads. The woman, in a barely-there black bikini, was equally jacked. She held her hand in a thumbs-up sign while the man curled a giant brown duffel bag marked “BANANAS,” the spotty yellow ends of bananas spilling out the sides. This, the image seems to say, is who you could be if you just picked up fruit at the supermarket: an emblem of strength, smiling, part of a community. And the testimonials were equally overt in their messaging. Scrolling down the pages and pages of different people’s testimonies was like riding a carousel of fruit-filled positivity: My skin is clear! I’m rarely bloated! I was able to give up nearly all supplements! Life is beautiful! My confidence has soared! I don’t have an ounce of cellulite on my body! I’m soo hydrated and drinking so much water I can’t help but be happy! I owe Doug Graham my life! I now experience soaring energy! I know that I’ve found THE ANSWER!
I wanted nothing more than THE ANSWER. The answer would mean I could get up out of my travel chair—in a moment as miraculous as a biblical tale—and walk around again. The answer would mean I’d have a body I’d want to flaunt. I might be able to cancel my appointment in the epilepsy monitoring unit and explain my symptoms away as some big misunderstanding, just an imbalance in my nutrition. I might be able to eradicate the toxins in me, the darkness that seemed to swell up out of nowhere. Because of my own disgust with my symptoms, my own frustration with the lack of tangible answers from doctors over the years, and the messages about how my body should look at its most desirable that had been baked in since birth, I wasn’t a difficult sell. When Freelee posted a montage video on her YouTube channel set to “beats by Danny Kirsch” that featured a series of pictures of her looking glum with phrases like “I had enough. It was time to take control of my life,” I thought, I want that too. When her body transformed in photographs—she’s flexing! Her skin is clear! She’s eating half of a watermelon, the abundance! She cycled across all of Australia! In 40 days!—to the sound of trumpets, the synthetic beat rising to a euphoric pitch, I thought, I want that too. Transform me. Set the footage of my life to the sound of exultant brass. To get the life that Freelee had, all I had to do, as she posts as a written slide in her video, was eat “the right kind of food.” Thankfully, 30BaD made it very clear what that meant.
Excerpted from The Fruit Cure: The Story of Extreme Wellness Turned Sour by Jacqueline Alnes, available from Melville House.