I sought this out after reading Ehrenreich's L.A. Times essay on her experience with breast cancer. The first chapter of this book is indeed called "Smile or Die: The Bright Side of Cancer." Because I'm shallow, I didn't find the transition from the personal to the political a smooth one. It works thematically; it didn't work for me emotionally.
However, once I got over wanting to hear more about her own life, I understood how valuable this book is. It exposes the cruelty inherent in the positive-thinking movements. "The Secret" is the big one these days; when I was a kid, it was Silva Mind Control (now called The Silva Method).
Allow me to wax bitter for a moment. My parents could never afford to give their children visits to Disneyland, Magic Mountain, Knotts Berry Farm, or summer camp (yes, we lived in Southern California); but all four of us were sent to a three-day, eight-hours-a-day Silva workshop. I was so excited, because we'd been told this class would teach us how to develop mental powers that would allow us to break the laws of physics. By the end of the three days, we would be able to *bend metal with our minds*. Why? Because there was *literally nothing* we couldn't do if we set our minds to it.
So I spent a month anticipating the day I'd be able to fly.
Hey: They said we could do *anything*. They said the laws of physics were for *losers.* Maybe they didn't use that last phrase verbatim, but they sure as hell implied it with their stories of healing total strangers from a distance and bending spoons just by touching them.
So what did we really learn?
A relaxation technique called "going to level," which is a fancy phrase for closing your eyes and timing your breathing to coincide with counting backwards from three. (Whee.) How to never need an alarm clock again. (I'm the type who always wakes up 8 or 9 times a night and check to make sure I haven't overslept.) How to visualize stuff you want and thus take all the credit when your parents give you that trampoline you've been begging for. (Yes, one kid answered "A trampoline" when asked what she wanted more than anything in the world. Apparently, I was setting the bar far too low when I merely wanted to *acquire an actual superpower.* Yes, I'm still bitter.)
I don't remember who I asked about the flying. One of the teachers, I think. I do remember a grownup looking incredibly sheepish when he said that, well, no, actually, that wasn't really something I could do. Nobody could.
"BUT YOU SAID WE COULD DO *ANYTHING*!" I wanted to yell."EVEN MAGIC SHIT! HOW IS THIS ANY DIFFERENT FROM BENDING SPOONS, MOTHER EFFER?"
Okay, I wasn't old enough to be thinking in that kind of language yet. But the sentiment was there.
It turns out that the difference between flying (which humans have been longing to do for as long as we've had imaginative powers) and warping innocent cutlery (which NOBODY wants to do, because it's stupid, plus if you wanted a spoon in a different shape than usual, you could just special-order one) is that a child flying is measurable and filmable and duh-obvious. Whereas in order to achieve the magic of spoon-bending, all you have to do is tell a room full of kids that they can really do this, and then go take an extended coffee break while they use their magic powers. Then come back, admire all the bent cutlery, and compliment the kids on their powers of concentration.
The sad part is no matter how many kids I caught cheating, I never caught on that I was the one being cheated. (Oh, and it's not "cheating" if the kids are hiding their spoons under the table with both hands as they try to bend them. If that helps them "focus," go for it!) I really believed those teachers when they said that bending spoons using the power of your mind was doable. Which meant that if *I* wasn't doing it...well, um, guess who was kind of a loser?
"If you set your mind to it, you can do *anything*" means "If your life isn't perfect in every way, it's not our philosophy that's at fault -- it's you."
So, yeah, I have a bone to pick with "the power of positive thinking." So does Barbara Ehrenreich. And she backs it up with facts and research, not just kvetching. So read this book.