“Illness doesn’t need to be like that”

After writing my previous post, the good folks behind Gert Loveday asked if I had heard about another Australian health blogger, Belle Gibson. Yes, I had… Gibson was famous for having terminal brain cancer (not true) and running a wellness site (true). Her app, The Whole Pantry, was included on the Apple Watch, and it seems like Gibson was just about to hit the big time when it turned out that the money from her charity fundraisers was going to the charity of Belle Gibson. Then it turned out that Gibson didn’t really have cancer, just an appointment with “Dr Phil.” (He didn’t have a last name. No, it wasn’t that Dr. Phil.)

Understandably, the shit has hit the fan. Gibson has failed to make her promised explanation, the app has been pulled from the Apple store, and Gibson’s book has been pulled from sale in Australia and a planned American release cancelled. It’s sweet justice for those who’ve been used by Gibson–but why were people conned in the first place?

Several parts of Belle Gibson’s cancer story just don’t make sense and never did. Gibson was diagnosed with “terminal, malignant” brain cancer (she never named the type of cancer, which should have been a huge red flag from the start). Cruel as it seems, Gibson’s continued existence gives the lie to her story. Malignant brain tumors have extremely low survival rates. Gibson claimed that she was diagnosed in 2010, so she would be very lucky to survive to this point, whatever her treatment. In addition, cancers that originate in the brain are unlikely to spread. Yet in June 2014, Gibson declared that her brain cancer had spread to multiple organs. This just doesn’t happen with primary brain cancer, and if somehow it does, the victims are unlikely to travel round the world afterwards–which is just what Gibson did.

A quick Google check (and some talk with, you know, actual cancer patients) would have brought up tons of questions. Yet nobody checked, nobody bothered to dispel Gibson’s claims until after Jess Ainscough’s death. Why didn’t anybody do so? Partly because society considers it extremely rude to question the diagnosis of a sick person (especially when that person’s illness can be leveraged to raise funds for research). Partly because journalists must have a desperate need for copy to fill up the chasm of the Internet.

But part of the reason has to be a communal desire to believe that what Belle Gibson was promoting was true, no matter how physically impossible it might seem.

What exactly was Gibson promoting? A lot of her advice was pretty basic fitness and wellness stuff, with a dash of organic woo–move around, meditate, drink smoothies, try “superfoods” and don’t wear antiperspirant, etc. Not terrible advice, but not unique and certainly not cancer-curing.

But I’m not sure if Gibson ever quite claimed that she had fully cured her cancer. Instead, Gibson claimed that her regimen was keeping the cancer from destroying her lifestyle. She could “live” with cancer in an attractive and marketable way, just like Jess Ainscough.

Of course, Ainscough actually had cancer and died, hiding her no-longer perfect body. Gibson was the perfect cancer patient, precisely because she didn’t have cancer. Gibson was positive and physically beautiful even under supposedly terrifying circumstances. In Gibson’s own words, “Illness of any kind is exhausting and debilitating, but there was a part of me that knew it didn’t need to be like that.” Had Gibson really had cancer, she would have had to undergo exhausting and debilitating treatment. She would have lost her hair, grown tired and pale, vomited, fainted, all the unhappy side effects of “getting well.” (Ainscough faced the same dilemma, only with a real choice involved. She chose to preserve her body “whole,” even if that body contained the cancer that would eventually destroy the whole.) Gibson sold the fantasy that it was possible to avoid entering what Susan Sontag called “the kingdom of the sick.” Just exercise, eat your veggies, and think happy thoughts and you’ll never feel sad or, more importantly, make people want to avert their eyes.

This emphasis on avoiding ugliness reminds me of this Atlantic article on Angelina Jolie. The author praises Jolie for being open about her recent ovarian surgery and for embracing an organic model of health and beauty–a better model, which involves green shakes instead of orange skin. I understand that this is probably true, but there’s a catch–the idea of natural beauty still privileges beauty over health. It’s still important that a woman embrace the ideal of beauty–certain ways are better to get there than others, but health still involves an attractive appearance, even during serious illness.

This is the idea that allows women like Gibson to flourish–the idea that “unnatural” treatment is bad, even if it saves your life, because a woman’s body should be a natural temple of health. A woman should be able to heal herself if she’s just positive enough and lives on spirulina and mushrooms. And even if she isn’t, it’s better than living bald, or without an arm, or pale-skinned or frightening in any way. A woman is literally better off dead than ugly.

We want to believe Belle Gibson, because we don’t want to be frightening crones. Just as people long ago wanted to believe that women could live on air or give birth to rabbits, we want to believe that women can be riddled with deadly tumors and still be beautiful and fresh as daisies. We can still be beautiful and feminine despite the obstacles our own bodies throw in our way. We can be deathly ill and still full of life.

An illness story

I’m fascinated by this story of cancer treatment and death because, well, I love crazy alternative therapy stories and I love reading sick lady stories. Specifically, I’m fascinated by how women’s tales of illness are almost like advice stories–they show you how to behave correctly, on every occasion, and how to be a “winner,” even if you die. (Poor Susan Sontag, she utterly failed to stop people from using metaphors to talk about illness. Especially the violent ones!)

A quick rundown of the story: Jess Ainscough was diagnosed with a rare cancer, epithelioid sarcoma, at age 22. The cancer was located in her arm. Instead of undergoing the usual therapy–amputation–Ainscough decided to start Gerson therapy, which involves a bunch of supplements, juices, and coffee enemas. She seems to have blamed her pre-diagnosis lifestyle for her illness–she partied and ate frozen food–and thought that by changing her behavior, she could reverse the cancer. She lived for seven years after diagnosis, and started a wellness blog that seems to have disappeared entirely after her death, but was popular in her native Australia during her life.

Some blogs criticized Ainscough for flinging woo at her followers, saying that her treatment cured her cancer when it didn’t help her at all. I tend to agree with her view, although I can’t say for sure if undergoing conventional treatment would have lengthened her lifespan; it seems as if leaving the cancer untreated led to a particularly painful end, at the very least. Then again, with the recommended course, she would have been a living amputee, with a permanent mark of treatment on her body, and not the “radiant” creature that recently passed away.

And Ainscough was radiant, at least in what is left of her online presence (pictures, mostly; her own words seem to have been erased). She’s described by her followers as so happy and so positive. And that seems to be the important thing, being happy and being good, not being alive. Like I said, I’ve read a lot these stories, and almost all of them prescribe chirpy self-improvement and food restrictions–the same things that women are supposed to do when they don’t have cancer. Apparently doing these things even harder can cure cancer (well, not really, but enough women want to believe that they can cure cancer). And even women undergoing conventional treatment tend to recommend the same things–smiles and dieting and forgiving your enemies, and so on. It’s not a cure, but it can’t hurt, right?*

I don’t know exactly what the link between this happiness and light and cancer treatment is, even though I’ve worked on it, and I’ve read Barbara Ehrenreich and other writers on the subject. I know it’s there, but I can’t articulate it as precisely as I’d like. Maybe there are just too many connections. Perhaps it’s a way to normalize a dreadful disease, make it just another way to self-improvement. Cancer becomes the same as cellulite or acne, something you can read about and work to improve, and just like you’re responsible for doing your own makeup and toning your own thighs, you’re responsible for killing your own cancer cells. If you eat right, exercise, and generally keep yourself looking good, you can “thrive” even if you have a threatening or  incurable illness. All of this “thriving” involves camouflage–hiding body parts with shawls, covering up bald heads with wigs, smearing makeup over one’s face to hide pallor or flushes. All the normal tricks of womanhood, only done with lives on the line.

It’s all that trickery that fascinates and frightens me. I’m probably scared that I’m not a good enough woman when I’m well, and it’s all going to be too much for lazy me when, barring car crashes and gunmen, I inevitably get sick. I’m going to be physically decrepit and emotionally wrecked, and then I’m going to have to put on makeup every damn day and drink dreadful green juice to have the nice, glowing skin I never even had when well. And then what if I die! Probably with my wig crooked and lipstick on my teeth. And in my last moments, I’ll be in a state of utter existential dread, and then I’ll see those offenses against femininity and it will just be too much and I’ll expire of lady regret. Primary cause of death: lazy womanhood.

Of course, that’s flippant. I do remember an encounter with a woman who wasn’t thin and beautiful, who looked sick. Years and years ago, a neighbor was seriously ill with cancer, and I knocked on her family’s door to sell her Girl Scout cookies. She answered the door, to my surprise—I guess I thought that she had already keeled over—and declined to buy, saying that she was trying to eat more healthy foods. Her appearance startled me. She was so thin, and you never saw someone that old and thin in real life, only young models—and I was mystified by her refusal. With my 12-year-old wisdom, I thought, You have only a bit longer to live, eat whatever you want! Looking back, I wonder about her motives. Was she trying to recover, and did it matter if she was? Was she living life to the full by taking care of herself, forgoing “evil” food, or was she denying herself the joy of experience? Does it really matter? Maybe she just hated those cookies. I shouldn’t ascribe motives that weren’t there, even though I naturally do.

I do wonder if looking good is a duty, though, so as not to frighten silly little Girl Scouts or neighbors or loved ones or, most importantly in the United States, employers. How much does it matter? Will I have to find out one day?

* When did positive thinking become a cure, anyhow? People in 19th-century literature seemed to die more often if they were saintly young females with lots of faith and hope, but then again there was that Victorian Heaven to send them to. I may also be confusing Little Women with actual 19th-century medical experience.

Random thoughts on an article on feminism, part 2

“Feminist writers are so beseiged by online abuse that some have begun to retire”

One of the concepts that I wanted to explore from this article is the concept of victimhood—these women are losing themselves, losing their voices. They are suffering because of somebody else’s actions. None of the women are explicitly described as victims, of course. Why would anybody admit to being a victim? “Victim” is a dirty word; even people who get sick, who suddenly fall ill with horrible diseases, are “survivors,” because calling them “victims” means that they’re losers. Even if they only survive a week! Calling them victims means that the disease is more important.

Being a survivor implies strength, that somehow being acted upon by illness or evil made you a better, stronger person. Although does that mean that women have to be sick or raped to be “their best selves”? I would rather be my shitty self. Although why do I think that I’m a shitty person because I haven’t, say, come through a brutal rape or been riddled with cancer? Why does bodily and emotional pain blot out any of my own freely chosen actions? If I got cancer and died, would that mean I was a terrible person, as opposed to all those times I was cool about people being in jail forever? Are my morals contained entirely in my vagina and breasts and what other people do to them?

And maybe that’s not so bad? I mean, it’s hard to change things. Power resides not just in some asshole on the Internet, but in my family and in my friends, and power isn’t just incarnate in fat, ugly MRAs but in a whole series of processes, slow and grinding and vast, some of which hurt me, some of which benefit me. Men have power, and they don’t see me as another creature with power but rather as something attractive, or silly, or neurotic or old or funny or this or that. An object, not a subject. Even if I tried, I couldn’t change anything, because attempting that would be just be futile. I’d look silly. I wouldn’t even be a threat.

And maybe this works. After all, very few people in this world are always the “I” and not the “me.” Who am I to complain? And weakness has its advantages. Fuck up at work? Ha, that wasn’t really me, I’m stupid! What I say doesn’t matter! A man couldn’t get away with that. Fuck up at home? It wasn’t me, the script was wrong, or my brain is wired wrong, or I need emotional balance or some other shit (emotional balance being the most important goal a woman can achieve—are you happy?) It wasn’t me, in other words. I don’t threaten a thing, I am the thing. Ideally, an object doesn’t get in any trouble at all, just like a beloved dog or a cat is cosseted after it acts badly because “it doesn’t know any better.” And who wouldn’t want to be a pet, if you can’t really be a human? Who wants responsibility for their own life?

But still—why would I want to be a victim? Why would I want this system to turn on me? Do I want men to be angry at me because I think that means that I mean something? Do I want to be angry, to be upset at something else because then I don’t have to bother being a moral agent? Do I want to be an eternal victim-woman because being a person is that much harder? Because I don’t think I can even be a person? Does being a woman exclude being a person?

Random thoughts on an article on feminism

“Feminist writers are so beseiged by online abuse that some have begun to retire”

1. Why would anyone do this in the first place?

What really strikes me about this article is that none of these women actually have any issues that they are interested in—they’re just “feminists.” They are in the media and they are ladies and they do lady stuff. They are famous. Do they want to end female genital mutilation? Are they campaigning for paid maternity leave? Are they running those clinics that try to get women to adopt out their babies because abortions are evil (and yes, I am stretching the usual definition of “feminist” here to include “any social cause that has to do with women in any way, shape, or form”)? Hell, do they have strong opinions on female pubic hair (thanks, third-wave feminism)? Well, I don’t know! But they sure as hell are being harassed on the Internet. That’s the important thing to know about feminists. They get beat up on a lot on the most important space on earth—the Internet.

OK, some of the women mentioned actually have causes, but the article is careful to obscure their work with their victimhood. Joanna Munson is a pro-choice activist who is giving up blogging to go to law school. That may not seem like the world’s worst trade-off. If you want to help support abortion clinic operations, being a lawyer is probably a hell of a lot more useful than being a blogger. However, Munson’s entry into law school is depicted as a defeat—her Twitter account is more important than her professional participation in the public sphere. (Although if you don’t want to deal with a high-pressure environment with the potential for personal abuse, why law school?) Munson is a victim, first and foremost.

Or here’s abortion rights activist Lauren Rankin:

Last year, [Rankin] pulled back from writing online and, for the most part, from Twitter because the threats and insults were becoming so wearying. She continues to serve on the board of the reproductive rights nonprofit A Is For and faces off against antiabortion protesters as a volunteer clinic escort, but she no longer engages publicly.

Wait a second, so she’s serving on an abortion rights nonprofit board and she escorts women to abortion clinics, but she’s not engaged publicly because she’s not fucking around on Twitter. On one hand, this definition of public engagement makes zero sense, but on the other hand it does make me more engaged than Rankin because I published something on the Internet, so I like this definition even though it’s complete mad bullshit.

Rankin makes feminist causes a part of her professional life and volunteers with women in dangerous spaces, but she’s still a victim. Like every other women out there. Why would anyone do something where they were just going to end up a victim, no matter what they did?

2. How does a woman become a victim?

These women receive all sorts of threats. Rape threats, death threats, various threats to various orifices. They also receive a lot of rough criticism in general.

[Jill] Filipovic, the former editor of the blog Feministe, says that, although her skin has thickened over the years, the daily need to brace against the online onslaught has changed her. “I doubt myself a lot more. You read enough times that you’re a terrible person and an idiot, and it’s very hard not to start believing that maybe they see something that you don’t. 

Huh. That’s not really the way somebody with a cause would react… unless the cause is fundamentally yourself.

Anyway, Filipovic is a former blog editor because:

I have not figured out how to spend all day steeling against criticism — not just criticism, but really awful things people say to you and about you — and then go home and 30 minutes later you’re an emotionally available, normal person.

Over and over again, emotions come up.

“In order to work, have a nice family and feel like I was emotionally whole, I could not have one foot planted in a toxic stew.”

“Some young writers have told her, only half-jokingly, that they feel like they have PTSD.”

“It was just becoming really emotionally overwhelming to be on the front lines all the time,” she says.”

I’m not saying that the Internet isn’t a horrible hellhole for women (dudes, too, I don’t forget you). But it is interesting that the main fear that these women have isn’t that their abusers are going to make good on their threats—or at least that’s not the fear that the article focuses on. These women are afraid that the Internet is emotionally warping them out of their roles as human beings. The underlying assumption is that they are to be emotional providers and should present a “normal” face to the world at all times—even after years and years of feminism of varying kinds and strengths, that still holds true. A woman is a victim if she’s out of humor—if she can’t keep that essential balance intact.

Let’s Read Queen of the Tearling: Chapter Nine

Kelsea is practicing swordplay with her fencing master. It isn’t going very well, mostly because she’s too fat. No, really.

This scene reminds me of Arya’s early swordplay scenes in the Game of Thrones novels, only without the sense of fun. A lot of scenes in Queen of the Tearling remind me of scenes from other novels, actually, only not done as well—if you’re ancient like me and went to school before computers, they remind me of the mimeographed worksheets with the smudgy purple ink. Something readable was there at one point, but with copying it’s just a gross blur. Johansen borrows a lot from Game of Thrones, of course, but also Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon. I’m sure I could find more similarities if I had read Wheel of Time or that one series about the dude with the Objectivist sword, but I’m not about to torture myself.

Kelsea and the Mace chat a bit about her guards, and then Kelsea goes off to take a bath and mull over her excess weight. She’s a bit unhappy because she grew up in the woods and now she can’t go outside as much as she likes.

This is how women are trained to stay indoors, she thought, the idea echoing in her mind like a gravesong. This is how women are trained not to act.

Nice sentiment, but as far as I can tell Kelsea can’t run off to the woods because she’s busy running a country and assassins are after her, not because of any constrictive code of contact. If I were Kelsea, I’d worry more about the cabal of men who refuse to tell me anything, but knowing necessary information isn’t as necessary to a woman’s soul as horseback riding in the woods, I suppose.

Kelsea has learned a bit more about her kingdom; there are too many children, and none of them are properly educated because mandatory schooling has been abolished. I wonder how children even went to school in the first place, as the kingdom is agricultural and there aren’t any books—did they just sit around and stare at the wall while the crops rotted? It seems like Johansen is incapable of worldbuilding outside a very narrow, 21st-century Western concept.

Fortunately, an assassin arrives to liven things up. He puts a knife to Kelsea’s throat—of course, she’s stark naked, because we can’t have a woman killed with her clothes on—and her guards arrive too late. However, Kelsea’s magic jewel saves the day, pulsing out a magic light that kills the assassin.

The normal reaction to this would be “Holy shit, I just killed someone with a fucking piece of jewelry, how the hell did that happen? I’m some sort of motherfucking elf lord!” There also might be some screaming and maybe some “Bow, motherfuckers!” But this is Queen of the Tearling, so Kelsea’s mostly upset that people have seen her naked. The Mace sticks the body of the assassin (who turns out to be a noble) on a pike, vows to find the traitor who let the assassin in to attack Kelsea, and sets off to get him.

The Queen’s guards have retrieved Kelsea’s library, so there’s a short interlude where Kelsea earns her fantasy nerd cred by telling a young girl that you have to read The Hobbit before the Lord of the Rings. Really? You’re a lame, pedantic nerd, Kelsea. Also, out of all the books that Western civilization has to offer, somebody saved all three volumes of Lord of the Motherfucking Rings? Don’t get me wrong, I like Lord of the Rings, but if I had to take just a few books to a new civilization I would—OH WAIT THEY SAVED HARRY POTTER. Fuck this world, bring on the Planet of the Apes.

Kelsea has a vision of Mortmesne. It’s predictably dark and evil, with blood-red flags and heads stuck on pikes (this is the bad sort of sticking body parts on pikes, as opposed to the Mace’s habit of sticking body parts on pikes). Kelsea also sees cannons in her vision. Gunpowder is a new level of weaponry for this world, it turns out. Kelsea discusses this with her generals, who are understandably rather upset about the prospect of invasion by the Mort, gunpowder or no. Kelsea decides to evacuate the border and start guerrilla actions against the invading Mort armies, as there’s no real way to keep the Mort army out altogether.

I suppose this plan would work as a matter of national pride—rather live on one’s feet than die on one’s knees—but these people don’t seem to have anything more than clubs. Also, how are they going to feed all those people who pour in from the border? The Mace asks this question and gets a genius answer:

“So we feed and house them.”

“Where?”

“I’m sure you’ll figure it out, Lazarus.”

Well, then. This is going to end up like Culloden, isn’t it?

Bruce Anderson, Advocate of Child Torture

Oh, lord. I can’t stop myself. I can’t stop myself from finding terrible obituaries of Leon Brittan in the Telegraph. Kill me.

This time it’s Bruce Anderson, who, like Dan Hodges, isn’t really the sort of person that you’d want writing your obituary. Because he writes shit like this:

In the late 1970s, as a junior front-bench spokesman, [Brittan] was one of the pathfinders of Thatcherism. Forget mere centuries; her fame will endure for millennia.”

Millennia? What the fuck is this? Isn’t he even slightly embarrassed by himself?

It gets worse. Anderson goes on to tell a joke involving a pun on the word “pederasty.” Apart from being a pun and therefore the lowest form of humor, it’s an incredibly stupid thing to write about a man who, according to Anderson, died under the weight of an undeserved shame. Why joke about it? I’m sure it wasn’t funny to Brittan or to his family. An alternative view—Anderson knows the rumors, just like “everybody else,” but for him it’s nothing so bad that he can’t make a joke out of it. Ha ha, maybe Leon Brittan raped kids! Or Nick Clegg, same thing.*

I’m not writing this just to note that Bruce Anderson is a terrible journalist who thinks that Margaret Thatcher is comparable to Jesus or Socrates. It’s to note the creation of two realities. This isn’t like the case of Jimmy Savile. In Savile’s case, all the immediate postmortem coverage was respectful and positive; it took the airing of a documentary a year later to turn media coverage uniformly negative. Brittan isn’t even buried and there are already two versions of him in existence. In the tabloids, Brittan is a sadistic monster from hell; in the broadsheets and on the television, Brittan is a kindly family man who suffered calumnies of unknown origin.**

I bet that both versions of Brittan will disappear pretty quickly, and he’ll be forgotten by both tabloids and broadsheets, living on only as an Internet legend of evil, just as he was before his death. The evidence just isn’t there—or it isn’t there in a form that can reconcile “official” and “unofficial” Brittan, and the “official” version usually wins out when this happens. Besides, nobody ever did get around to figuring out whether Ted Heath threw all those kids from his boat or whether the Queen is a lizard woman, so there’s the still big questions to answer…

* Anderson has form with kids. No, I’m not talking about pederasty, I’m talking about this wonderful article about the permissibility of child torture. Out of all the post-9/11 intellectual exercises involving torture—and there were many—Anderson was the only one to make the brave stand that torturing terrorists was bad because torturing their children was easier. I have to give him bonus points for writing this in 2010, by which time the CIA itself had wound down its secret torture prison program. I don’t think they ever got around to torturing a whole family in one room, so Anderson never got to live the dream, even vicariously.

** On the Internet, Brittan’s a sadistic monster from hell and a Zionist Bilderberg dog, but then again, on the Internet, everybody knows you’re a Zionist Bilderberg dog.

Dan Hodges Prays that Leon Brittan Raped, Murdered Children

It’s a total 180 in content from what I usually do, but take a look at this article by Dan Hodges. No, go for it. The title of this post isn’t even an exaggeration. It’s textual, bitches.

Background: Leon Brittan, former Home Secretary of the United Kingdom, has just died; he had been named publicly as the man who “lost” a dossier about a child abuse investigation, while in private much worse was said about his activities. Libel laws in the UK are very strict. However, you cannot libel someone after they are dead, so a person’s reputation can change very suddenly after their death—witness Jimmy Savile.

As for the author, he’s a former New Labour member who writes about how terrible New Labour is in the Telegraph. For a living! There’s more, but that should be enough of a description for now.

And now for the show.

This is quite possibly the stupidest article ever written by a very stupid man, and I can’t let it pass. I just can’t. Look at how it starts.

I hope Leon Brittan was a paedophile. That he abused boys. Raped women. Made snuff films. Sat at the heart of a sprawling Westminster web of perverts and child killers, and then used his vast power and influence to cover up his heinous crimes.

I pray every single one of these horrific allegations are true. Because if they’re not, then what Leon Brittan and his family and friends have had to endure in the final years of his life represents abuse that in its way is as sickening and destructive as any of the abuses of which he was charged.”

Oh, really? Let’s sort this out. Continue reading →