Monday, May 03, 2010

I suppose they'll stop running the ad now.

These are always touchy situations because it could easily appear that one is taking delight in the misfortune of another, so let me assure you that such is not the case. I am not a man who dances on graves, even in cases where people would appear to deserve such callous treatmentwhich, again, is certainly not the case with the subject of this post, the very fine actress (and seemingly very nice lady), Lynn Redgrave.

Ms. Redgrave, who famously made the public-service spot wherein she thundered, "I refuse to die of breast cancer," died yesterday of breast cancer. I took a great deal of flak for my early skepticism of Redgrave's uplifting crusade, and I'll probably take more here. Still, there's a very important point that cries out to be made, and we can't let the opportunity pass.

That point is this: A PMA may be a nice thing to have, and I can vouch for the fact that it helps the day seem brighter.* But the operative word is seem. We should not delude ourselves about its powers. And we only set ourselves up to look foolish by trumpeting the kind of faux positivity at the core of the Redgrave ad. Because let's face it: For all its inspirational panache, that ad has now been revealed, unmistakably, as a lie. Redgrave's I-know-I-can-beat-this campaign will survive her as a permanent, indelible testament to a very public fraud. She died of the disease that we all knew would almost surely kill her in time, just as that incomparably perky prof, Randy Pausch
who preached in his internet-phenomenon "last lecture" that nothing is unattainable if you truly set your mind to itcould not set his mind sufficiently to beat the pancreatic lesions that took his life within months. This goes back to what we were saying a little while ago about pop culture's need to overstate, often wildly, in the interest of being appropriately "resonant."

So if you want to be optimistic, say something like "I plan to do everything I can to try to beat this" or "I'm going to keep hoping that they find a cure before the disease wins." But don't say "I refuse to die of breast cancer." You simply don't have that power. Not to mention what a crushing disappointment your inevitable death becomes to those who took you literally! (Which, by the way, is one reason why it's a mistake to assume that all cancer patients would naturally line up behind Redgrave. Read, if you haven't already, this Harper's column by cancer survivor Barbara Ehrenreich. It was the "inspiration," if you will, for her current best-seller, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.**) When we construct ad campaigns (and books, and seminars, and on and on) around the idea that your PMA will carry the day
that you can simply opt out of, or "refuse," a disagreeable realitywe take society's eye off the ball, misleading impressionable (= gullible) people, the young in particular, about the true ingredients of success.

No matter what the late Lynn Redgrave or Rhonda Byrne or Joe Vitale or James Ray tells you
, there is no push-button relationship between the reality that you "choose" for yourself and the reality that ultimately chooses you.

* Yes, boys and girls, believe it or not, your host is one of the most upbeat people you'll ever meet.
** Alert readers may detect some similarities between Ehrenreich's subtitle and a certain other book published back in 2005.


NormDPlume said...

Almost nine years ago, I came down with a funky illness that nobody has heard of; one which also had no-known cause ("ideopathic" was the fancy term for it) in addition to no formal treatment protocol. The chance of my early demise was very real, especially since seven weeks in the hospital had me no healthier than they day I went in.

When folks would invariably if would "beat it", I would honestly respond "Shit, I don't know! I'll try, but we are really just winging it." And that response (being 100% truthful) would really annoy people - they wanted an assurance, damnit, that I was not going to get my ticket punched with young kids at home.

Nobody wants to be around a person with a debilitating disease: nobody wants to catch it - they feel awkward, vulnerable and on-the-spot, as if they are supposed to utter same something profoundly comforting. And really, they've got nothing deeper than a Hallmark card missive. The wise ones stay quiet. So the healthy-for-now let the dying person assure them that everything is going to be just dandy. That usually means the sick person has to lie his ass off and proclaim "I'll beat this thing!"

It's an obligation of the dying to try to comfort those with more time. And if you want anybody to show up at your funeral, you can't go around saying "I am going to take you with me." in your last months.

Laura said...

I understand where you are coming from with this, but I wonder if there is really a downside to the concept of denial up to the last moments.

If I truly got myself to believe that I would never die, that would be one less thing to worry about. And at the point where I was proven wrong, I suppose I would be beyond caring.

The survivors might be disheartened. But they have their own choices to make about how to approach mortality. I agree in practice, it is unfortunate that people might be conned into thinking they can do something about impending doom, especially when it is to the benefit of a scam artist, but people choose, against all evidence to believe all kinds of unlikely things. It seems to me that we accept beliefs based on how they serve us individually, not how accurate or practical they are. Isn't PMA like Santa Claus? As long as rational people know, and their is clear and available evidence to contradict it, if some people like to believe, why not?

Steve Salerno said...

Laura: Thanks for stopping by. Though clearly you intend your closing question as rhetorical, I think there's a huge "why not." Browse the blog or Google a piece I did once called--I think--"The Downside of Being Uplifted." Or read Ehrenreich's piece.

Misguided PMA is not as benign as it seems.

Anonymous said...

"Uplifting"? IN this content? Was that intentional?

Steve Salerno said...

No, Anon, it was not intentional. Jesus.

Martha said...

My dad's last words were, "I'm alright." Then it was lights out. Not entirely sure what my point is, but it seems apropos here.

I didn't know she died. (So wrapped up in all the other U.S. and global delusions lately)

As always, great column.

Steve Salerno said...

Martha: Short but classic. I wish I could say as much in as few words.

Pink Ribbon said...

The first breast cancer awareness stamp in the U.S., featuring a pink ribbon, was issued 1996. As it did not sell well, a new stamp with an emphasis on research was designed. The new stamp does not feature the pink ribbon.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve - What you call Ms. Redgrave's lie, I would call her folly, and it is one that is very widely shared. I think that most people deny the inevitability of their deaths. Not intellectually, perhaps, but emotionally, the very notion of one's own mortality is shoved to the deepest, darkest corner of their consciousness, with the justification that "if I acknowledge that I'm going to die, I'll be wasting 'alive' time."

If Ms. Redgrave had been selling a promise of victory over disease or some magical process that claimed to destroy that disease, I would have been much less kind in my reaction to her, but what I believe she was offering was encouragement and comfort. She was telling people not to give up hope, even as she continued the best available treatments.

Claiming that she refused to be killed by cancer was, IMO, simply an act of bravado, albeit an ultimately false bravado. It is not unlike a military unit preparing themselves for a seemingly impossible mission, proclaiming their inevitable victory before the first encounter with an enemy. Would they be better served by stating that they were all likely to be killed, and their mission a failure? In their hearts, they might well realize that it was over before it began, but the very folly provides them with the resolve to strive for victory, nonetheless. I'm inclined to "forgive" such people their deceit.

We recently attended an event celebrating the release of a book we helped to create titled "Always Hope." It was a collection of stories of people who had suffered devastating events and circumstances, yet found within themselves a faith that things would improve. Our client (a dear friend) was inspired to create the book in response to her own sister's having been unable to face severe physical challenges and ultimately committing suicide. Our friend wished she had been able to give her sister something that would help her be strong enough to not give up. Not miracles... just a seed of hope. Even if her sister had never been able to completely recover from her physical injuries, the mere hope of finding happiness might have sustained her and averted her decision to end her life.

Bottom line (at least as I see it) is that if one's positive mental attitude helps them get through a potentially devastating period of their life, or to find a sense of peace as they approach its end, I think they should be allowed their folly. And if their folly helps others to find the same sense of peace, I think we might be wise to allow the deceit to go unchallenged.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: Thank you for that typically measured and insightful addition to the blog.

I think we differ only in the question of degree. I'm certainly not arguing for depriving cancer patients (or victims of just about any debilitating disease with a generally poor prognosis) of all hope. I'm arguing against the almost-knee-jerk invocation of hyperbole, which seems to be an increasing tendency throughout American society. Hyperbole is dangerous, and not just in medicine. Hyperbole presented in the guise of fact is often used as justification for building consensus behind a (so-called) plan of action whose outcome is far less certain than as presented. It hasn't been that long, after all, since we were told by a certain president that we were "gonna smoke 'em out," blah blah blah. Even in the realm of cancer research (which a previous commenter brought up), the funding outreaches always make it sound like we're this close to a cure, and we just need your paltry $20 to get us over the hump...

And how long now have we been this close?

Just stop lying to people. That would probably be good a good motto in all walks of life. But especially stop lying when there's money on the line. As it happens, my next piece for Skeptic at least inferentially discusses all the lying that goes on in the healthcare realm with respect to the odds that a given "accepted treatment" will actually extend your life as advertised. Most of them don't. And it's about time we told people that. We also tend to forget that breast cancer is an industry in this country; the more you sustain false hope, the more victims (and their families) are inclined to keep throwing good money after bad.

Even on a very small scale--and I think I've mentioned this before--I still rue the fact that we lied to my father about his prognosis when he was lying in a dingy Brooklyn hospital, expecting to "go home soon." If we'd told him the truth--"Dad, you're going to die"--would he have chosen to spend his final weeks in that hospital, getting further "treatment"? Or would he have preferred to take in one last ballgame or, if nothing else, down one final extra-cheese pizza with a six-pack of beer?

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve - Had you told your father that he was dying, and had he become deeply despondent upon hearing the truth, would your act have been more kind than maintaining the illusion of impending recovery? And can you state with complete assurance that he didn't see through - and even appreciate - your deception, anyway?

You acted from your heart and did what you thought was best at the time. I think that's the best anyone can do, and don't think you serve yourself - or your dad's memory - well by dwelling in "if only..."

And no, I won't belabor you with a repeat of the fable of the merchant and the turtle. :-)

Anonymous said...

I think you'll like this Steve

Karl said...

I have a recording of a one day seminar held jointly by Dr Wayne Dyer and Byron Katie called "Let thoughts work for you." In it Dyer states emphatically that he does not allow sickness and ill health into his life.

Oops. In 2009 Dyer announced that he had Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia.

Poor Lynn. I think her exuberance and sense of the theatrical were inherited from her father Sir Michael and her rather unconventional sister Vanessa.

Anonymous said...

I understand what you're getting at but I really think this is in very poor taste. You didn't have to run this on the day the woman died.

Anonymous said...

"No matter what the late Lynn Redgrave or Rhonda Byrne or Joe Vitale or James Ray tells you, there is no push-button relationship between the reality that you "choose" for yourself and the reality that ultimately chooses you"

Steve, what makes you the definitive expert to make that declaration for all people and as "the truth"? You are using rehtoric to define reality just as the people you are saying are making claims about reality.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon: No. I am basing my remarks on empiricism and application of the scientific method. Remember, it is not up to me to disprove, say, the Law of Attraction. It is up to its proponents to prove it. Until such time, it remains unfounded.

Or let's look at it another way: If I said instead, "No matter what anyone says, there is no Easter Bunny," would you come back at me with the same rebuttal?

Anonymous said...

You are entitled to use the points of views termed "empiricism" and "scientific method" , that is your choice. I take no issue with that. Those selected points of views will give one a certain view of the world, no more valid nor less valid than any other as a point of view.

But "Remember"??? Are you asking me if I "remember" all your personal points of views and the points of view you personally find attractive and subscribe to?

Can we be meticulous with our assertions here Steve? Besides you, who says it is not up to you to disprove, say, the Law of Attraction and that it is up to its proponents to prove it and that it is unfounded?

"If I said instead, "No matter what anyone says, there is no Easter Bunny," would you come back at me with the same rebuttal"

If you spoke in absolute terms as you appear to be here, yes I would.

Steve Salerno said...

OK, I see where this is headed--echoes of Landmark.

And they shall know us by our sophistry...

Steve Salerno said...

(...and tedium).

Anonymous said...

Wow, first time at this blog... so I read a couple of articles hoping for some useful and interesting skepticism, science-based discussion, etc. and this is what you write about? really? calling out a dead woman for giving people hope - not selling them magic crystals, not tossing out alterna-med crock cures, but just saying "I'm fighting a disease and I'm fighting hard" in so many words.

Stay classy.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 1:41, you're entitled to your opinion, but since by your own admission it's your "first time" on the blog, it would be nice if you looked a little deeper before issuing your condemnations. Of all the posts to pick out in encapsulating me and SHAMblog, this is the one you seize upon? (I'm a little bit surprised you didn't say you disliked the font I use for my date headers...)

Sounds awfully trollish to me.

Anonymous said...

You find a way to portray anything that dismisses your content as "trollish". Is everything "fair game" except the blog itself? How is a person taking offense at the use of a recently diseased person not a highly valid part of this convo? And what is this sloughing off of the person with a "you're entitled to your opinion" talk? You need to check youself Steve, you are running a North Korean type discussion here and you are playing the part of Kim Jong-il. Grow up.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 9:04, you're gliding right by my main point. You concede that it's your "first time" here. (Or at least that's what you allege. Somehow I'm dubious: Your voice is eerily reminiscent of another Anon from whom I routinely got these sorts of snarky objections a few months ago.) Yet in the next breath, you dismiss the value of the entire blog on the basis of a single post--which, by the way, is linked to a previous post that I think makes clear the relevance of my objection to Ms. Redgrave's ad. If you spent any time at all going back through "SHAMblog history," you'll find all sorts of detailed, aggressive journalism that confronts the most objectionable elements of the SHAMscape point by point. But no. You focus instead on this one post...perhaps because it suits an agenda you had, coming in?

I ask you: Is that fair on your part? Of the two of us, who's really being "dismissive"?

What's more, I'm not really saying anything different here than Barbara Ehrenreich--herself a cancer survivor--took a whole book to say in her recent best-seller about the pitfalls of boundless PMA. She and I agree that this kind of magical thinking is deceptively dangerous--all the more so when it's presented in a format, like the cancer ads, that people feel squeamish about attacking.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon: OK, whatever. I let you have your say. Let's move on, shall we?

Anonymous said...

I took the time to surf random posts on your blog Steve, and there is a consistant pattern of you back on insults towards almost all nonconforming contributers.

Steve Salerno said...

(On reflection, I've deleted that last comment because I think it may be the handiwork of someone who is spoofing our actual Anon 4:07/9:47/etc.
--call me Kim)

roz'sdaughter said...

I was actually searching for the commercial when I came across this site. I remember it well. Lynn Redgrave said, "I don't want to die of breast cancer, I want to die because I dance too much, and laughed too long."

The message was to live in spite of the diagnosis. Some people die long before they are dead.

Steve Salerno said...

Roz's: Nicely put. Good comeback.