Friday, June 25, 2010

Week 1, #1: Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America

Back Story: This week I was on campus, and I found Barbara Ehrenreich's most recent book in my mailbox. I had no idea why it was there. Now, were I the Secret type that Ehrenreich goes after in this book, I might be tempted to think "free book! Gift from the universe that wills good things to those who wish for them!" Sadly, on the way home I remembered that I'd filled out a survey for a publisher and selected this as my free book thank you about six months ago. Well, sometimes the universe takes its time. Or, as the homicidal nun in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You puts it, God always answers our prayers, it's just that sometimes the answer is no. In any case, I like Ehrenreich's stuff and have used some of it my classes, but the best thing I've read of hers is the essay "Welcome to Cancerland" about how her experience with breast cancer led to "A Cult of Pink Kitsch," the essay that was the origin of this book, so I was excited to take a look.

The Read: Like all of Ehrenreich's work, this is, if I may allow myself to use the bland language of the positive, "a good read." The someone hyperbolic subtitle is about the only wrong note in the whole thing. From her experiences with being told to think of cancer as "a gift" to motivational corporate speakers who show up just before everyone's about to get axed, from the prosperity gospel to the "positive psychology"'s grab for academic respectability, she weaves together stories of a relentless insistence on positivity which is, naturally enough, most often directed to those with the least money and status. My personal un-favorite: a California home security system company whose 'motivational' tactics included breaking eggs on the heads of under-performing salespeople and making them wear diapers. (The punch line: it's not harassment because they did it to men and women!) My reaction to a lot of the book was like what Ann Patchett describes after seeing "Glengary Glenn Ross": it was like a horror movie of what your life would be like if the whole writing/teaching thing didn't work out. People work in offices like this! Every! Day! The last time I temped was over ten years ago and I still have those nightmares. (And I remember that last job too, at some fancy fashion place in the far West Village.) Someone in a class I'd just T.A.'ed for walked in and shot me a look I'll never forget. Actually, I'm sure she was perfectly lovely and I just remember it that way.

To me, though, the most interesting part of the book was her chapters on the origins of positive thinking, in the "New Thought" of the nineteenth century which arose as a response to Calvinism and its many ills. One of the most interesting figures in this story is Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. I remember reading her biography in a book of short bios of exceptional women when I was about nine and how she healed herself and how there was this slip of paper on her bed when she died that said "God is my life." It was a chilling but moving story, then as now: then as now, of course, positive thinking is a way for people to claim power when the world has given them little of it, and it was an attractive option for all those nineteenth century sufferers of mysterious ailments, which included, I learned from this book, not only middle class women but clergymen, who didn't yet have direct marketing empires to conquer. I guess it makes sense when you think about preachers in 19th century literature, like poor old Hooper behind his veil.

The temptation, of course, is react to the emptiness of things like the Secret and the prosperity gospel by seeing the old model of neverending sinfulness as attractive - or at least as admirably rigorous in light of what's replaced it. The book never does this, but it did leave me wondering at times - the mega-churches, for example - so they're light on theology and heavy on guitars and support groups - is this a problem? Of course the calculated optimism the guy who writes Dow 36,000 is dangerous, but what about the ordinary person? Enforce cheerfulness is terrible, sure, but the actual experience of people drawn to these things - it's easy and probably mostly correct to think of it as quiet desperation, but the whirlwind tour Ehrenreich gives us doesn't leave a lot of room for their voices.

Coming Up Next: Fiction. For Real this time, including perhaps, the notorious 20 under 40.

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