Natural Causes: Life, Death and the Illusion of Control by Barbara Ehrenreich
“Barbara Ehrenreich is an award-winning American columnist with a penchant for telling America what it does not want to hear,” said John Carey in The Sunday Times. In 2009’s Smile or Die, she derided the “positive thinking” craze surrounding cancer treatment. Now, in Natural Causes, she takes aim at the multibillion-dollar “wellness” industry and the medicalisation of old age. Although occasionally “eccentric”, this book shows a “wit and fighting spirit” that will delight Ehrenreich’s admirers.
Her starting point is that whatever we may tell ourselves, we have little control over when we die, said Blake Morrison in The Guardian. And yet Americans are encouraged to believe that “anyone who makes an effort” will live a long life. Ehrenreich has fun mocking health gurus and fitness sages, with their mantras about the “wisdom of the body”, and the “death-deniers” of Silicon Valley, who believe that technology will fix mortality. And she doesn’t have much respect for doctors, who she claims subject the aged to a battery of unnecessary “tests and procedures”, making them “sick in the pursuit of wellness”. Some of Ehrenreich’s points are hard to agree with, such as her “paranoid” dismissal of the anti-smoking cause as “a war against the working class”, or her suggestion that people should take psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms) to help them approach death with equanimity. Yet overall, Natural Causes is an “instructive and thought-provoking” work by a great iconoclast. Despite its scepticism, the book’s message is ultimately “joyous”, said Yvonne Roberts in The Observer. Ehrenreich suggests that once we accept that we may depart the world at any time, we’ll be free to celebrate “what life, in all its arbitrariness, has to offer”. She provides a “much-needed tonic” to the dangerous bromides of self-help.