Thursday, February 1, 2007

Barbara Ehrenreich vs. Hope

(Late update: the full text of the article is available at BE's website here.)

Pallimed goes philosophical for a single post. Back to the literature next time.

The latest Harper's magazine has a provocative editorial by Barbara Ehrenreich about hope (This issue--as far as I can tell the essay is not available online...so 20th Century!) Specifically--against hope. Well, not hope itself but the culture (& industry) of hope-positive thinking in the US.

(First an aside which will take up most of the post...)
...Which is to highly recommend her essay from a few years ago "Welcome to Cancerland" which pillories Breast Cancer Inc. and its infantalizing pink ribbons and teddy bears, the cult of survivorship, makeovers for chemo patients, and the incessant positive narrative of hope&cure. These observations came out of her own diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer.

Some of her choicer quotes:

So pervasive is the perkiness of the breast-cancer world that unhappiness requires a kind of apology, as when "Lucy," whose "long term prognosis is not good," starts her personal narrative on breastcancertalk.org by telling us that her story "is not the usual one, frill of sweetness and hope, but true nevertheless."

For those who cease to be survivors and join the more than 40,000 American women who succumb to breast cancer each year-again, no noun applies. They are said to have "lost their battle" and may be memorialized by photographs carried at races for the cure-our lost, brave sisters, our fallen soldiers. But in the overwhelmingly Darwinian culture that has grown up around breast cancer, martyrs count for little; it is the "survivors" who merit constant honor and acclaim. They, after all, offer living proof that expensive and painful treatments may in some cases actually work.


[T]he mindless triumphalism of "survivorhood**" denigrates the dead and the dying. Did we who live "fight" harder than those who've died? Can we claim to be "braver," better, people than the dead? And why is there no room in this cult for some gracious acceptance of death, when the time comes, which it surely will, through cancer or some other misfortune?

Note that BE is not arguing cancer is ok & we should just get used to it (she argues just the opposite). Instead, she's addressing the insistence (in popular culture in general, and in Breast Cancer Inc. specifically) on 'positivity,' cure, hopefulness, the-next-treatment, being-happy, "getting tested," "let's do something about this," etc. BE found cancer (& its treatment) to be a horrible, painful discontinuation in her life, and wishes, essentially, that the popular discussion of cancer could contain this reality, instead of (in the case of breast cancer literally) cosmetically painting a happy face on it all and insisting on "hope," "being positive," etc. I personally struggle with this too. I firmly believe death is natural (who doesn't I guess...), not in the sense of being happy/virtuous/good/healthy, but, in a very deep way a meaningful part of life for our species. Suffering then, along, with death, is also an absolute and inevitable, natural, part of life. "Meaningful," "natural," do not necessarily mean happy/fun/good--these concepts don't really enter into it. Why not, then, allow cultural space to address this straightforwardly, in a way that doesn't suggest that those who die of cancer are failures or who have been failed by medicine/The System, and that death, shudder, is OK. Not happy/fun/good OK, not let's stop working to forestall death via scientific/medical progress OK, but OK nonetheless. It's what happens to us mortals. If this doesn't make sense, well then rest assured I'll be back to blogging research ASAP.

...Anyway her latest editorial basically continues this point in her typical Ehrenreich cranky, idiosyncratic, and contrarian way. Worth the cover price of a Harper's. She ends the essay with:

The trick, as my teen hero Camus wrote, is to draw strength from the "refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation." To be hope-free is to acknowledge the lion in the tall grass, the tumor in the CAT scan, and to plan one's moves accordingly.

**I was just thumbing through the American Cancer Society's guidelines on nutrition and exercise for cancer patients--they explicitly define "cancer survivor" as anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer and is still alive. Technically true, but inclusive of those patients who are, like it or not, dying from cancer.

I guess you're either a survivor or nothing.

Other Pallimed articles with consonant themes here & here.

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