The neologism “wellness” (preferably in upper case) has assumed enormous significance beyond its eight humble letters, having spawned an enormous and lucrative industry facilitated by those who have the time, income and disposition to mount a concerted attack on the scientific principles of modern medicine. Based on a revulsion against scientism, a disdain for rationalism and an obsession with the mega-narcissistic role of the individual, it comes as no surprise that a house built on such sand should set itself up to be taken down, hook, line and sinker, by an adroit confidence trickster. I speak of Belle Gibson (above), the woman who found much of the world prepared to believe wholesome vegetables can cure cancer.
Gibson has by now been thoroughly exposed, but her lie-strewn career continues to attract attention, with the BBC documentary Bad Influencer reviewing an extraordinary fraud that sucked in many thousands of wellness enthusiasts, to say nothing of the seriously ill.
The story is a testament to the huge power of the internet to perpetuate synthetic memes, regardless of their factual reality. As a sobering lesson on the breadth and depth of gullibility and misplaced faith in ‘experts’ it is worth bearing in mind the next time you hear the world will melt if global warming isn’t stopped.
Gibson claimed to have cured multiple cancers after conventional treatment failed by adopting a healthy diet. Her book The Wholeness Pantry achieved spectacular sales and Apple set up an app to go on its latest phones. As her fame escalated, Gibson rode the well-worn celebrity path of talk show appearances. Those with marketing skills noted the resonance of ‘wholeness’ and ‘wellness’, the buzzwords of the market she was tapping.
And tap it she did; it was like striking an oil field. The hits poured in to her website and she rapidly ascended to online superstar status. There were frequent expressions of admiration for her courage and inspiration she provided to the wellness set. Gibson soon became a superstar “influencer” – that internet phenomenon allowing people with nothing worthwhile to become instant celebrities – her winsome looks and slick jargon oiling the appeal.
In a burst of psychobabble that revealed more than intended, Gibson explained her weltanschauung (for lack of a better term), telling her followers “there’s not enough honesty out there”. It’s human, she said, “to feel sick, ask questions and search for answers”. Having been self-conscious and sheltered, she now embraced “rawness and honesty”. A nice slick line of platitudes.
Gibson, possibly reading the runes, was soon announcing there had been a recurrence of her illness and a difficult time lay ahead. This prognostication was only accurate in the second half of the statement. In March 2015 it emerged that money she raised had not been given to charities as promised and, a rude shock to her disciples, Gibson did not have, and had never had, any kind of cancer or any other serious illness. There was nothing wrong with her. Well, not physically.
Gibson, it turned out, had a history of lying that went all the way back to childhood, frequently claiming to have non-existent illnesses. Her carefully crafted public image crumbling at breakneck speed, it turned out she had lied about, well, just about everything — her age, personal life and history. It was difficult to find any truth at all in her utterances. Her pious mendications for numerous charities notwithstanding, she led an upmarket lifestyle, renting an beach-suburb mansion, driving luxury cars, having cosmetic dentistry, wearing designer clothes and holidaying overseas.
The online rage of the many followers taken in by her story was spectacular. Hell has no fury like that of dupes who realise they have backed the wrong horse. To the wellness set, illness is a personal failing for not having followed the recommended lifestyle precepts. Gibson’s fall was a revelation of their own moral bankruptcy in choosing what they want to believe regardless of evidence, logic and past experience.
Following the revelations, Apple reluctantly accepted the inevitable and deleted the iPhone app. Her publisher, Penguin Australia, also ran for the hills, but the videos the publisher had shot in preparation for her book’s publicity tour raised questions as to why nobody had the wit to rumble her deception much earlier. Gibson, unsurprisingly, focused on immediate damage control. After a blather of obfuscations she went to ground, closed her web sites and complained – oh, the schadenfreude – that people were making unkind comments about her.
Is it not a feature of the age that the carefully orchestrated media presentation is now the confession booth where mea culpas are uttered before thousands or millions? Demonstrating the moral vacuity and insistent psychobabble of her type, Gibson blamed her childhood in an interview with a women’s magazine, saying she was now doing the responsible thing in ‘fessing up, that admission in her eyes presumably erasing the massive fraud she had perpetuated, and further requesting that people understand her humanity – whatever that means. But any kind of apology, or anything resembling an apology, was notably absent.
Her protestations came too late. Gibson became a non-person to her followers. Her web presence vanished except for one blog under her alternate nom de maladie of “Harry Gibson” on the Master Fast System website, which espouses New Age fasting and cleansing. But old habits die habit, so Gibson was soon gushing about a marvellous diet that had led her to evacuate two tapeworms, one of them said to be more than half a metre, in the course of losing 4 kilos. For good measure, she also insisted her new health regime had filled two dental cavities and changed her eye colour. One imagines the hapless nematodes she expelled considered this to be a lucky escape. To add to the humiliation, the crank site promptly removed her entry.
The incident showed that, despite a precipitous fall from grace, Gibson was still driven to plunge into the festering pool of dubious and dangerous health “remedies”, driven by an unrelenting need for attention.
More recently, Gibson showed that, if nothing else, there is no end to the ingenuity she will apply to continue her path of deception. Announcing that she had converted to Islam, she donned traditional garments and attached herself to the local migrant Ethiopian community, adopting the Afaan Oromo name of Sobantu. The bemused community, as if they did not have enough to deal with already, was not pleased to learn of her past and her involvement with them came to an end. Her days as the heroine of the wellness community now well behind her, it can only be wondered what shape her next incarnation will take.
While Gibson considers her next role, she is not without heirs and it will only be a matter of time before another epigone fills the large gap she has left. Many have theories to explain the behaviour of Gibson and this will continue in future; her personality is a matter to be dealt with elsewhere.
REGARDLESS of what Gibson hoped to gain, every fantasist of this magnitude needs a mark to gull. In the age of the internet, a manipulative self-promoter enjoys access to a vast audience, and the wellness set, told what they want to hear, were waiting for her. Smug, hypocritical and utterly judgemental, adhering to a shallow intellectualism and profound anti-scientism, they have the luxury of pursuing fantasies denied with an unswerving belief in their own rectitude.
The pursuit of wellness, as opposed to illness, is an activity done by those who have the income to support it; the poor, unfortunately, have other priorities. It is a cult of shallow individualism combined with near-mindless belief that a good lifestyle can cure anything. Lifestyle, it seems, means thinking positively, eating a healthy organic diet and exercising regularly (if possible, wearing a fashionable gym outfit and a device to measure your vital functions). More than anything, it means ignoring the dry and depressing statistics from doctors that lifestyle factors (with the exception of smoking and alcoholism) play a negligible role in illnesses.
The wellness industry, like any cult, requires its leaders, priests and mystics. Thus the emergence of that twentieth-first-century phenomenon, the “lifestyle coach” – the movement’s field soldiers, so to say – who convert self-obsessive narcissism into a career. Anyone can put themselves forward without even a basic knowledge of psychology and the disastrous results are already evident.
The wellness phenomenon into which Gibson tapped so successfully has a tendentious alliance with the prevailing victim culture in our society. Being a victim – provided it is the right kind of victim – has a special cachet. And in the hierarchy of victimology, what better to have than cancer? After all, you don’t suffer from it the way you do, say, impacted haemorrhoids or halitosis: you battle it, the now-universal term to indicate the cancer sufferer’s heroism.
The founding dogma of the wellness set is intensely puritanical, if not savagely judgemental. Tolerance for human weakness or frailty, a feature of the Judeo-Christian ethic for two millennia, is out the window. If you don’t follow a healthy lifestyle, then you only have one person to blame when you fall ill or don’t get better – yourself. So much for the Hippocratic ethos of not blaming the patient for falling ill. But then, to the intense narcissism of the committed wellness initiate, if you don’t come up to expectations, you deserve what you get – you are truly sick.
With a slight adjustment of the group in question, Scott Fitzgerald had it right:
They were careless people – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made
Robert M Kaplan is writing about Helen Flanders Dunbar, the founder of psychosomatic medicine.