Barbara Ehrenreich rips toxic positivity a well-deserved new one in this much-needed but unfortunately poorly organized book surveying the origins, bizarre applications, and downside of the American obsession with positive thinking.

The first chapter is about how her diagnosis with breast cancer lands her in a strange new world of enforced positivity and a weird, mutant, and extremely pink version of feminist femininity.

She clearly traces the journey from breast cancer being an unspeakable and hidden doom to how genuinely needed efforts to get it more funding and make it seem less of a shameful death sentence went off-kilter in some very strange ways. For instance, support groups (needed; very helpful to many women) get so obsessed with the idea that positivity is essential to survival that they refuse to allow women to express any negative emotions, especially anger, for fear that they will literally kill them; one of Ehrenreich's ends up ostracizing a dying woman for being angry and depressed.

As Ehrenreich points out, actual research on the effect of positive thinking on illness outcomes is complicated at best. Just to start with, many studies don't actually say what people think they say, and "positive thinking" is extremely hard to measure. And then there's the whole issue of correlation vs. causation: the patients who were more positive might have felt more positive because their illness was less severe, they had better medical support, etc, while the more negative patients might have had worse symptoms, couldn't tolerate the treatment, etc. So it might not be that positive thinking causes better outcomes, but rather that people who were going to have better outcomes anyway are more likely to be positive. And so forth.

And even if positive thinking really does make it that fraction more likely that you'll live longer (even the best-crafted studies don't show large differences), can positivity be forced? If it works at all (it may not) does it work if it's forced, or does it have to be sincere? Does telling people they need to smile or they'll die produce the sincere happiness that's supposedly needed. Or is it more healthy to feel and express the emotions you sincerely feel, even if they're not positive?

And how come, out of all the illness-based positivity hammering, it comes down hardest on a disease primarily affecting women? Could it be that "smile, smile, smile, look on the bright side, use the opportunity to bond with your loved ones, and whatever you do, don't be angry" is a message that American women get anyway?

Ehrenreich's righteous fury burns through this chapter, fueling a killer takedown of bad science, not-actually-feminism, and cruelty disguised as kindness. It was brilliant and if she'd written the whole book on that, it would have been stunning. Also, there is definitely enough material for a book's worth.

The rest of the book unfortunately leaves the subject of breast cancer and, in most cases, illness behind to first explore a possible root cause of the whole positivity movement in the US, then devote a chapter each to various idiotic and rage-making applications. It was interesting but didn't live up to the beginning. Unless I missed it, the US is really overdue for a current version of something like Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
mildred_of_midgard: (Default)

From: [personal profile] mildred_of_midgard

This reminded me of a blog post Sara Douglass wrote before she died of ovarian cancer, and sure enough, she was reacting to a review of this very book.
mildred_of_midgard: (Default)

From: [personal profile] mildred_of_midgard

You might appreciate the rant about being inundated with alternative medicine advice. "If someone asks for the information, then by all means hand it over. If someone doesn’t ask for it, then please stop ladling out the advice. It does not help. It makes it much, much worse. Please credit whoever it is with cancer (or whatever serious disease) that they have enough intelligence to know who Mr Google is, and that they know what Mr Google can do, and that if they want to avail themselves of Mr Google then they bloody well will all on their own."
staranise: A star anise floating in a cup of mint tea (Default)

From: [personal profile] staranise

I have already mentioned Louise Hay’s theory that we’re all responsible for our own cancers by harbouring unresolved grief

Sorry, I just need to have a moment--

Yes. We are harbours for our own unresolved griefs. We couldn't live them, couldn't let them rip through us with fire and explosive force; we sent them out in ships at anchor, gave ourselves gentle spaces inside us, and said: Not Now. We lived. Away from our own harbours, anchored but like kites, we were free, so much more than those cool dark spaces where our griefs lived. We unfurled, flourished, grew. Some of us, thick and rich and full of flowers, came back to those ships and unloaded them, ate our griefs in fatter years, let them sink through us, then sank those ships and grew coral reefs from them. Others were halted when the barrels on the ships corroded, toxic neglected chemicals mixed and destroyed us like Halifax's harbour, left us hurt and abraded in the ruins to build the city up again. But for a time, we were harbours, we were coastal towns; we found shelter in ourselves, transcended the things that tried to overwhelm us, and made safety out of the sea.

Of course we harboured those griefs. Our harbours sheltered us.
staranise: A star anise floating in a cup of mint tea (Default)

From: [personal profile] staranise

Mine. On rare occasions, I'm attacked by random pieces of poetry.
staranise: A star anise floating in a cup of mint tea (Default)

From: [personal profile] staranise

Thank you. <3

(I still think it's ridiculous that people think you're sick because you haven't processed your trauma. You wrote a memoir and become a therapist, how much more processed can you get?)
staranise: A star anise floating in a cup of mint tea (Default)

From: [personal profile] staranise

I'm sorry, I'm so distracted dementedly laughing at the idea of walking up to a mature adult and concernedly asking "How are you?" without context and meaning their childhood trauma.

I mean, it's very sweet. It's just preciously naive.
recessional: a small blue-paisley teapot with a blue mug (Default)

From: [personal profile] recessional

. . .it's probably just the Castalinese in the back of my brain but my demented lol is also kind of leavened by a horrified WHO THINKS THIS IS OKAY OMG THAT IS SO NOT A THING TO DO WERE YOU RAISED BY WOLVES NO IF YOU WERE RAISED BY WOLVES YOU'D HAVE BETTER MANNERS!

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