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Author Barbara Ehrenreich on “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined

StoryOctober 13, 2009
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In her new book, author Barbara Ehrenreich documents what she says is the destructive power of the positive thinking movement in the United States, from breast cancer to the workplace, to the economy, to politics as a whole. Ehrenreich opens the book by writing about her own experience with breast cancer culture after being diagnosed with the disease in 2000. She says in the prevailing positive thinking culture of America, breast cancer patients are urged to avoid feeling angry and instead find meaning and even uplift in the disease. She writes, “In the most extreme characterization, breast cancer is not a problem at all, not even an annoyance — it is a ‘gift,’ deserving of the most heartfelt gratitude.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Pink ribbons are being worn by thousands as walks and events take place across the country to raise awareness about the disease.

Well, our next guest opens her new book with a critical analysis of the culture surrounding breast cancer in this country. Barbara Ehrenreich is a journalist and author of seventeen books, including the bestsellers Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. Her latest book, just published, is called Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

AMY GOODMAN: Barbara Ehrenreich opens the book by writing about her own experience with breast cancer culture after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000. She says in the prevailing positive thinking culture of America, breast cancer patients are urged to avoid feeling angry, instead find meaning and even uplift in breast cancer. She writes, “In the most extreme characterization, breast cancer is not a problem at all, not even an annoyance — it is a ‘gift,’ deserving of the most heartfelt gratitude.”

Well, in Bright-Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich goes on to document what she says is the destructive power of the positive thinking movement in the United States, from breast cancer to the workplace, to the economy, to politics as a whole.

Barbara Ehrenreich joins us now in our firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

It’s great to have you with us.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Good to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your experience with breast cancer. Talk about, well, just how you begin the book, getting diagnosed.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: OK. This book could be called, you know, “What I Learned from Breast Cancer to Help Me Understand the Financial Meltdown.”

But I was diagnosed about eight years ago and started reaching out, as you would do, naturally, to find support and information on the web and all that sort of thing. What I found was very different. What I found was constant exhortations to be positive, to be cheerful, to even embrace the disease as if it were a gift. You know, if that’s your idea of a gift, take me off your Christmas list, is my feeling. And this puzzled me. But it went along with the idea that you would not get better unless you mobilized all these positive thoughts all the time, which, by the way, I’m happy to tell you, there’s nothing to that. I mean, there’s been sufficient scientific research now that we know that your mood does not, you know, dictate whether you will get better or not. But, you know, imagine the burden that is on somebody who’s already suffering from a very serious disease, and then, in addition, they have to worry about constantly working on their mood, you know, like a second illness.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the research. I think that’s going to surprise people, what you just said. I mean, years ago, you were in biology. You were at Rockefeller University.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Oh, yeah. No, I — and here it finally came in useful. I think there’s a widespread idea — it sounds so familiar that, you know, you would, you know, just let it go right by you — which is that your immune system will be boosted if you are thinking positively. Well, there’s not a whole lot to that. There’s not a whole lot to support that. And furthermore, more to the point here, it’s not clear that the immune system has anything to do with recovery from cancer or with whether you get it in the first place. Now, I had — I guess I had kind of accepted those things, too. But that is the ideology, though, that you find in so many other areas of American life, too, that if you — you can control things with your mind, if you just have the right thoughts and attitudes. There is nothing in the material world that’s causing your problem; it’s all within you.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And how did this ideology, this positive thinking movement, become so pervasive in American society? You document its rise in the culture.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Yeah, well, I go back to the nineteenth century, because I’m always interested in history. But it really began to take off in a very big way in about the ’80s and ’90s, because the corporate world got very interested in it, got interested in it during the age of downsizing, because it was a way to say to the person who was losing his or her job, just as you would say to the breast cancer patient, “This is in your mind. You know, you can overcome this. If you — if something bad has happened to you, that must mean you have a bad attitude. And now, if you want everything to be alright, just focus your thoughts in this new positive way, and you’ll be OK.”

I can’t tell you how many times I have read people who have lost their jobs in this recession in the newspaper saying, “But I’m trying so hard to be positive.” Well, maybe there’s no reason to be positive. Maybe you should be angry, you know? I mean, there is a place for that in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Stepping back for a minute on breast cancer, you make comparisons of breast cancer to prostate cancer and how women are expected to deal — you talk about the pink ribbons, the teddy bears — and how men deal.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Yeah, I had real trouble with the pink teddy bears. That’s one of the first things I ran into at the time of my diagnosis. And there’s an ad for one of these things, a pink breast cancer teddy bear. Now, that is not how I was feeling.

And then there’s — the foundation was giving out these sort of nice tote bags to women who came in for treatment, in New York City, I think, and I got hold of one of these tote bags, though I wasn’t getting treated here. And inside were all these little, you know, cosmetic things and moisturizers and cheap jewelry and a box of crayons. So I called the foundation. I said, “This is really nice, but what’s with the crayons?” And this woman said to me, “Well, that’s in case you want to write down any of your thoughts.” And I said, “I’m a writer. I don’t use crayons.” You know, it was so infantilizing. And, you know, it’s as if — you know, if a man were to get prostate cancer, we gave him a little matchbook box to — matchbook car to play with. You know, I found this very offensive and upsetting.

AMY GOODMAN: And what kind of response did you meet with when you went online, went to the listservs.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, at that time, when I went online and I — I tried going on the Komen Foundation — that’s a big breast cancer foundation — message board, and I did a little entry under the subject line “angry.” And I talked about health insurance problems I was having. I was talking about, what is this disease — very briefly, but what is this disease? How come so many women have it, and we don’t know what causes it, and we don’t really have a cure? And then — and then I went on to mention, and what’s with all the pink ribbons, you know? It doesn’t sit right with me.

And I got back messages from women, also breast cancer sufferers, saying things like, “Run, don’t walk, to the nearest therapist,” “You are not going to get better unless you change your attitude.” So I felt very alone. But then I wrote about that experience. I mean, I wrote about the whole cancer experience and talked about my disgust at this positive thinking culture that had taken over, and I’ve gotten wonderful responses. Basically, “Ah, thank God someone said it!”

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, some would argue, what’s wrong with being optimistic, if it helps buoy your spirits? Isn’t that harmless in its own right? What would you say to them?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: I would say, look at the last year. Look at the financial meltdown, for example. I think, you know, there many factors in that — you know, greed, all sorts of things — but one of the factors was this very widespread ideology of positive thinking. And it operated at the level of the ordinary person who might want to get a mortgage, for example, and had always been turned down for a mortgage in the past, but who was hearing from his preacher, perhaps, one of his prosperity gospel preachers, that “God wants you to have that big house. And look, the Lord has blessed you with this amazing mortgage. You know? No money down, no proof of income, etc.”

But what was far more significant is what was going on at the other end. And this is, to me, one of the most fascinating things to research, is the change in the corporate culture in the last fifteen or so years, as this positive thinking took over and began to replace more logical, analytical approaches to things, focused on the bottom line. And the idea had taken hold that we can do no wrong. Housing prices can never go down. The stock market can never go down. And because I think it’s right, you know, it will be right, especially if you’re the CEO and you’re making $20 million a year. And I think that it was — it became like a mass delusion.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the economy, a different approach that you think needs to be taken, what does it mean to get angry, why you actually think that’s healthy.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: I think — first, I think it would be a — it’s a mistake to try to turn your anger and resentment and sadness or grief into something else. It’s very bad to try to just plaster on a smiley face. And that’s what Americans have been told to do as they’ve lost their jobs in layoffs now for a decade. Just put on a smiley face, go to the next place. And, you know, there’s a time when you have to say, “Wait a minute, this is not in me. This is not my attitude. This is coming from somewhere else. And we need to understand what that is and try to figure out how to get together and change it.” That’s my approach.

AMY GOODMAN: You don’t think the motivational speakers are going to do it?


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your experience at the National Speakers Association.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Oh, yes. I did interview a lot of motivational speakers. And, you know, these are people who — their primary clients are corporate. They’re brought in to sales meetings, but also to any kind of general corporate meeting. And the message is, again and again, you can have whatever you want, so long as you focus your thoughts on it, you know, as long as you really, really, really want it. And I think that’s nuts, frankly. I mean, that’s not how we make change in the world. You know, we make change by planning, by thinking and by coming together.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And do you see parallels in the positive thinking movement at the level of political leadership in the country?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, Bush, George W. Bush, was certainly the most optimistic president since Reagan. And, you know, that’s almost what he saw as his whole role. He had been a cheerleader in college. He saw what he was doing as president as a continuation of that, to beam optimism to everybody else.

Now, I know Obama talked a lot about hope, and I’d rather hear about a politician’s plans than his hopes, but I think he is a very thoughtful person. You know, I think he’s not deluded in this way. You know, we have every evidence that he thinks through problems.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And you also helped — in 2006, you launched United Professionals, a group.


SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: What does that group do? And talk about right now the middle class in this country, where it’s at.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, the middle class is in, barely — you know, it’s just been squeezed so much. It almost doesn’t make sense to draw certain lines. So many people who might have considered themselves middle class have been lining up at food banks or applying for food stamps in the last year.

Or — you know, this is another part of my research and reporting, is that it’s a disaster, losing your health insurance and so on, and yet, what they get, again and again, whether they’re turning in — tuning into TV — not your show, but some shows, you know — or so many of these motivational books — a big one in ’06 was The Secret, about how you can have anything you wanted by thinking about it. And they’re just being pelted with this idea, if I just change my thoughts, I could have at all. And, no, let’s — my alternative to positive thinking is not negative thinking or despair, it’s — how about realism, checking out what’s really there and figuring out how to change it?

AMY GOODMAN: In the midst of this healthcare debate, Barbara Ehrenreich, your thoughts, as we wrap up this discussion? You start with breast cancer. You’re talking about the relentless promotion of positive thinking. You have long exposed the vested interests in this country.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, my thought about health reform is perhaps a little bit out of fashion with the way things have been going, but I think that we should have — those of us who are on the progressive side should have stuck solidly to the single-payer idea and not sort of pre-compromised around the public option, which we seem to have lost anyway, thanks to Democrats. I can’t believe it. But better, it seems to me, to stick to your principles and then, if you have to compromise, compromise from there.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Barbara Ehrenreich has a new book out. It’s called Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. She’s a frequent contributor to Harper’s Magazine, to The Nation, has also been a columnist at the New York Times and Time Magazine.

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