American political thinker Barbara Ehrenreich is a woman on a mission. Her trenchant critique of consumer capitalism has taken a new form after her encounter with breast cancer. In her book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World (Granta, 2010) she has expressed dismay at the way women in the US are compelled to look on the bright side of cancer and to see a positive attitude as fundamental to the healing process. Ehrenreich was angry at her diagnosis, gloomy about the future and preferred sustenance from these darker feelings. Faced with the emotionally numbing experience of having cancer treatment, people can perhaps be forgiven for grasping whatever it is that gives them support but Ehrenreich makes an impassioned case for allowing people to be themselves rather than forcing them to adopt a false sense of bonhomie in order to make those around them feel less embarrassed and uncomfortable.
The imposition of an unfailingly sunny attitude to life can be an insidious way of blaming the victim for the way things turn out. ‘If only she had been more positive about the situation it would have had a different outcome’ is a stance we have all taken but which may not do justice to the complex and interwoven social and economic realities which govern our lives more than we find tasteful.