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.”

18 thoughts on “Natural Causes”

  1. YAY Bonnie & Barbara!!! Ditto, ditto , ditto! Thank you.

    Have you read James Hillman’s THE FORCE OF CHARACTER and The Lasting Life? It is so wonderfully age-affirming. The Taos Public Library had one copy, and that one in LARGE PRINT!
    Very warmest to you,

  2. Hmmm…thought provoking….but I am not ready to commit to dying YET!
    There is too much left to do….and it is too rich a life here in San Miguel to give it up willingly!

    1. I obviously didn’t do justice to her terrific book, if you got the impression that this is what she’s saying, Pamela. I suggest you read the book. It’s truly worthwhile.

  3. Hi Bonnie, although I have not read the book, I happened to hear an interview with her about the book recently. While I understand what she is saying, I thought that she didn’t appreciate how being focused on one’s health could improve the quality of life gig heartbeat nombefvof years we have left. Kathy

    1. I hate auto-complete! The end of the post was supposed to say “for the number of years we have left.”

    2. Hi, Kathy — Yes, one can get that impression from short reviews (like mine) or radio interviews, but the book is pretty wide-ranging. She’s definitely NOT against maintaining one’s health for the duration. She just cautions not going overboard and buying into the snake oil [my interpretation]. I think you’d appreciate the book, and I highly recommend that you read it.

  4. I would call her practical. And thanks for this review. (You must’ve known I’d love it!) We watched a movie the other night, “Hostiles.” Captain Joe Blocker was lamenting all the friends he’d lost to the Indian wars. His nemesis, Chief Yellow Hawk, said, “We all die sometime.” If only we realized that no matter what life brings or how beautiful it is, when we die, we don’t miss it. If that’s not a reason to live fearlessly (and without constant fussing through medical intervention), I don’t know what is.

    1. So true, Barb! Yes, “practical,” that’s the word. I think that’s why I liked this book so much. It was so not woo-woo, hocus-pocus, pie-in-the-sky. She’s not afraid to tell it like it is.

  5. I think it was fate that the first blog I was looking at was April, 2018. I’ll read the book you reviewed. It sounds like my philosophy of life and death. It really hit home with me.

    Thank you Bonnie for updating my e-mail address. There are a lot of notifications a person needs to make when using a new e-mail and oops! I forgot some of them.

    Can’t wait to read your new book!

  6. Dear Bon,

    I’m in support of Ehrenreich’s position if a hands-off approach to wellness works for her. I also think it is valid and understandable for a person to want to actively affect his or her own health in every way possible. It’s something we all get to choose for ourselves.


    1. Yes, I agree, Paul dear. She’s not, of course, against efforts to stay healthy; rather, I think, becoming a slave to wellness programs and medical procedures. (She expresses it better than I!) — xx

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