Timothy Noah

Ehrenreich’s Prescience on Komen

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The Susan G. Komen Foundation’s once-spotless reputation is getting dirtier by the minute. First it yanked funding for Planned Parenthood. Then it changed its story about why it pulled the money. (Both versions denied that the reason had anything to do with Planned Parenthood’s support for abortion.) Next it was alleged that the foundation teamed up with a firearms manufacturer in the marketing of a “Hope Edition” handgun with a “DuraCoat pink slide in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.” This, I'm relieved to report, proved untrue; the partnership claimed by the retailer was, a Komen spokeswoman said, a fiction.

One writer who’s been on to the Komen Foundation con for years is Barbara Ehrenreich, whose excellent 2009 book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, excoriates the group for creating a “pink-ribbon culture” that promotes “the redemptive powers of the disease” and “transform[s] breast cancer into a rite of passagenot an injustice or a tragedy to rail against but a normal marker in the life cycle, like menopause or grandmotherhood.” In The First Year of the Rest of Your Life, a collection of breast cancer testimonials with a foreword by Komen Foundation founder Nancy Brinker, one contributor writes, “For me, breast cancer has provided a good kick in the rear to get me started rethinking my life.” This, Ehrenreich observes, is a reaffirmation of Nietzche’s notion that whatever doesn’t kill you “makes you a spunkier, more evolved sort of person,” a construct that Christopher Hitchens, on his deathbed, took strong exception to. “In the brute physical world,” Hitchens wrote, “and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don't kill you, and leave you considerably weaker.” Nietzche himself, Hitchens observed,

seems to have caught an early dose of syphilis, very probably during his first-ever sexual encounter, which gave him crushing migraine headaches and attacks of blindness and metastasized into dementia and paralysis. This, while it did not kill him right away, certainly contributed to his death and cannot possibly, in the meanwhile, be said to have made him stronger. In the course of his mental decline, he became convinced that the most important possible cultural feat would be to prove that the plays of Shakespeare had been written by Bacon. [...] Eventually, and in miserable circumstances in the Italian city of Turin, Nietzsche was overwhelmed at the sight of a horse being cruelly beaten in the street. Rushing to throw his arms around the animal’s neck, he suffered some terrible seizure and seems for the rest of his pain-racked and haunted life to have been under the care of his mother and sister. [...] The most he could have meant, I now think, is that he made the most of his few intervals from pain and madness to set down his collections of penetrating aphorism and paradox. This may have given him the euphoric impression that he was triumphing, and making use of the Will to Power.

Closer to home, my late wife, the journalist Marjorie Williams, spent the last three and a half years of her life trying to get cured of, or at least postpone dying from, liver cancer. After she died I published a posthumous collection of her writings that included an unfinished memoir she’d written about being a cancer patient. I’m afraid the Komen Foundation wouldn’t approve. Far from embracing the Outward Bound-style challenge fate had gifted her, Marjorie flew into a rage when a woman she knew sent her a card to “congratulate” her on her “cancer journey.” The note “quoted Joseph Campbell to the effect that in order to achieve the life you deserved, you had to give up the life you had planned. Screw you, I thought. You give up the life you had planned.” The flip side to this upbeat talk, Marjorie knew, was that if you didn’t make it you had only yourself to blamea principal theme in Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided. (Ehrenreich is herself a breast cancer survivor.) “I can’t count the times I’ve been asked what psychological affliction made me invite this cancer,” Marjorie wrote. “My favorite New Yorker cartoon, now taped above my desk, shows two ducks talking in a pond. One of them is telling the other: ‘Maybe you should ask yourself why you’re inviting all this duck hunting into your life right now.’ ” Shortly before Barbara Boggs Sigmund, the late sister of Cokie Roberts and a onetime mayor of Princeton, N.J., died of melanoma in 1990, she published an op-ed piece in the New York Times that addressed this vile conceit with admirable directness. “I Didn’t Give Myself Cancer,” was the headline. Nor did her failure to beat it indicate any psychological or spiritual deficit on her part, anymore than did Marjorie’s failure, or Hitchens’s. 

To be sure, neither Marjorie nor Hitchens nor Sigmund had breast cancer, which comes branded with special sisterhood-is-powerful uplift that, Ehrenreich wrote in a memorable 2009 essay (“Not So Pretty In Pink”), was becoming for many women a sort of watered-down substitute for feminism. 

When a corporation wants to signal that it’s “woman friendly,” what does it do?  It stamps a pink ribbon on its widget and proclaims that some miniscule portion of the profits will go to breast cancer research. I’ve even seen a bottle of Shiraz called “Hope” with a pink ribbon on its label, but no information, alas, on how much you have to drink to achieve the promised effect. When Laura Bush traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2007, what grave issue did she take up with the locals? Not women’s rights (to drive, to go outside without a man, etc.), but “breast cancer awareness.” In the post-feminist United States, issues like rape, domestic violence, and unwanted pregnancy seem to be too edgy for much public discussion, but breast cancer is all apple pie.

Now it’s knuckling under to the anti-abortion movement. Give Ehrenreich a gold star for seeing it coming.

Update, 2 p.m.: The Komen Foundation today announced it’s changing its policy of not funding organizations (like Planned Parenthood) that are under investigation. Now it will only decline to fund organizations under investigation if the investigation is “criminal and conclusive in nature and not political.” It still isn’t clear whether Planned Parenthood will receive funding in the future because the GOP congressional fishing-trip investigation of Planned Parenthood was only one of two conflicting reasons Komen gave for disqualifying the group. (The other was that Planned Parenthood doesn’t do its mammograms in-house.)

Correction, Feb. 5: An earlier version of this column reported the alleged Komen partnership with a "Hope Edition" handgun as fact, based on the retailer's own claim. Komen authorized no such partnership, a Komen spokeswoman subsequently made clear. Also, a reference to Komen founder Nancy Brinker initially misstated her first name as "Susan." I regret the errors.

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