Mind Unchanged

As an avowed grump, I looked forward to reading Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.

The first chapter on cancer, and the relentless positivity patients are expected to embrace, is the most convincing. In fact, Ehrenreich has some very interesting things to say about cancer, and her own experience as a patient. She writes that
the rebel cells that have realized that the genome they carry, the genetic essence of me in whatever deranged form has no further chance of normal reproduction in the postmenopausal body we share, so why not just start multiplying like bunnies and hope for a chance to break out?
Ehrenreich goes on to write of studies that show a correlation between positive attitudes and immune system health. However, the Journal of Clinical Oncology notes "the immune system does not appear to recognize cancers within an individual as foreign, because they are actually part of the self." It's an interesting and factual take on cancer, lacking in sensationalistic scare tactics. Cancer is so often seen as something that can be wholly prevented if one just tries hard enough, cutting risk factors, being born with the "right" genes, and even thought away, as Ehrenreich reports. However, to think of a cancer as an organic part of the self is almost a radical approach, though scientifically it's a bit of a no-brainer.

The next chapters, however, are less convincing. Ehrenreich comes out against positive thinking methods involving the rubber band trick (in which you snap a rubber band against your skin when you have a negative thought), and positive thinking and list making to reprogram negative attitudes. While she doesn't mention it by name, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy employs these tactics, and is often successful in treating illnesses like depression. I find Ehrenreich's dismissal of these techniques (and later her supposition that the pharmaceutical industry prompted psychologists to prove their worth with these and other thought exercises) to be a bit heavy-handed. There's a lot of research out there that says we're way, way over-medicated for depression, and I expected some critical analysis of this. Instead, she glosses over medications, and indeed, there's some tacit approval of them.

Ehrenreich also makes some pretty tenuous connections. For example, she seems to be hinting that Positive Thinking practitioners had a part, however small, in the layoffs and corporate restructuring of the 80s and 90s. Seems to me it's more likely that entrepreneurs were taking advantage of a new market. This would actually have seemed more sinister and proved the point that motivational speakers and the like were really just wanting to cash in on a social phenomenon at the expense of people in a difficult situation, rather than having a part in creating hardship.

In her chapter on the rise of positive thinking megachurches that take sin and God out of the equation, Ehrenreich spends a paragraph snarking on the appearance of a couple of the new breed of (very wealthy) preachers. The female of the couple, Victoria, is just back from winning court case in which she was being sued by a stewardess she treated miserably on a flight. Ehrenreich is part of the crowd at the megachurch that day.
I look around cautiously to see how everyone else is reacting to this celebration of a millionaire's court victory over a working woman, who happened in this case the be African American. The crowd, which is about two-thirds black and Latino and appears to contain few people who have ever landed a lucrative book deal or flown first-class, applauds Victoria enthusiastically.
Instead of attempting to explain this phenomenon, which would be well within the scope of the book, Ehrenreich devotes only a couple sentences, almost a literary shake of the head, an "aren't these folks silly" sort of dismissal. There's also a weird point she makes about modern megachurches that I can't shake off: Church buildings used to be built to inspire and be seen as something outside of the mundane world. "Not so the megachurches, which seem bent on camouflaging themselves as suburban banks or school buildings." A look at church architecture in Canada (I can't speak for anywhere else) from the 60s and 70s, across denominations, shows this as a phenomenon of the 20th century, not of any one particular turn of faith, though the megachurches do indeed hold more people, and are less community/neighbourhood sized.

What I find most troubling, is Ehrenreich's "patron at the zoo" way of writing. I did notice this when I read Nickel and Dimed many years ago. Ehrenreich often treats the poor and working class in her books like caged animals, with pity and disdain, instead of understanding. As mentioned above, she looks down on the "black and Latino" congregation of a couple of rich, white preachers, instead of attempting to look at how a supposedly poor group would find solace in the message. (I say "supposedly" because Ehrenreich doesn't mention actually talking to these people, she judges them simply by looking at them.) She finds certain psychologists merely silly or annoying, and makes her personal dislike known, while skimming over facts. This will be the last Ehrenreich I read, because I really can't take her classism (and possible racism!)any longer. Ehrenreich has pretensions of journalism, but her books read like a long, and in this case poorly thought-out, letter to the editor instead.

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In the "things that do not suck" portion of this post, the always amazing Kerry Clare has a great post on the Toronto Women's Bookstore, and her life with feminism over at Pickle Me This.

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