Natural Causes

The subtitle of American author Barbara Ehrenreich’s newest book, Natural Causes, sums it all up: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and our Illusion of Control.

I would encapsulate her message to her readers this way: Hey, get real. We’re all going to die. Aging is not a disease. Don’t buy the wellness industrial complex’s shtick [my words, not hers] that you can prevent age-related illnesses indefinitely; and if you fall ill and die, it’s your own damn fault. Just live your life, knowing you don’t have complete control. …

I applaud her spunk. In fact, this is what she’s best known for and why I bought and read her new book. Ehrenreich even describes herself as “a myth buster by trade.”

Perhaps the best known of her more than a dozen myth-busting books is the 2001 best-seller, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, a memoir of her three-month experiment as an undercover journalist attempting to survive on minimum wages as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing-home aide, and Wal-Mart clerk.

The New Yorker described Nickel and Dimed as an exposé that put “human flesh on the bones of such abstractions as ‘living wage and ‘affordable housing.’” Newsweek said it was “full of riveting grit.”

This new book, too, is gritty – and blunt — and I loved it for all that.

At 76, Ehrenreich has decided that she’s old enough to die. She forswears annual exams, cancer screenings (even though she’s in remission from breast cancer) and other (expected) measures. No more mammograms, no more wellness lectures, no more pawing physicians. “Not only do I reject the torment of medicalized death,” she says, she also refuses to accept “a medicalized life.”

As the New York Times’ book reviewer put it, “Ehrenreich is irreplaceable to the culture, with her rigor and skepticism, her allergy to comforting illusions.”

Science lovers will appreciate her deep dive into the cellular level to make her case. She holds a PhD in cellular immunology from Rockefeller University, so she knows whereof she writes. In Chapter 8, “Cellular Treason,” she focuses on “treasonous” macrophages, which have the ability to both save lives and promote deadly tumors. “What, after all,” she asks, “is cancer, other than a cellular rebellion against the entire organism?” It seems that, in some sense, cells have minds of their own.

Not everyone will see things from her point of view, of course, or be swayed by her case; but I believe everyone who reads this book will be made to rethink their stance toward aging and dying. As Ehrenreich puts it:

“We would all like to live longer and healthier lives; the question is how much of our lives should be devoted to this project, when we all, or at least most of us, have other often more consequential things to do.”