Last night, a few of us headed down to Books and Books in Miami to see Barbara Ehrenreich. I've been reading her work for most of my adult life. I think a lot of my fellow adults weren't aware of her until the publication of her amazing book, Nickel and Dimed, the book where she describes trying to live on the money earned in the types of jobs most likely to be held by women who recently left welfare behind.
As an undergraduate Sociology major (I doublemajored: Sociology and English) back in the mid-80's, I asked my wonderful favorite Sociology professor, Dr. McDonald, "Aren't there any female sociologists?" I'm pretty sure that he gave me one of Ehrenreich's books. I've been reading her ever since. I count her, along with Molly Ivins, as one of the writing voices that kept me sane during the Reagan years and the Bush years (father and son).
Now she's back with a book that looks critically at the American pop religion of positive thinking. At the reading last night, she described her experience with breast cancer and her increasing anger at being told to be cheerful and to imagine her immune system attacking the cancer cells. With her wry wit, she said, "I have a PhD in cellular immunology. I don't bring this up very often because it's rarely relevant, but in this case, it is. Your immune system is not going to attack the cancer cells. Your immune system is there to attack microbes, foreign invaders. Your immune system will not recognize the cancer cells as the enemy, because, frankly, they're you, part of your body."
She went on to talk about other areas where she's seen an increasing demand that we all be cheerful. She's especially critical of the Corporation, where we're not allowed to be negative at all. She succinctly summed up why this cult of positivity is dangerous: we delude ourselves about how bad life can be ("Cancer is not the best thing that ever happened to me, and if cancer is your idea of a gift, take me off your Christmas list"), we're mean to those of us who aren't curing their cancer or finding jobs with the power of positive thinking, and we don't work for the social change that would make us truly more cheerful and safe.
She didn't offer many solutions, but she did compare current citizens to the founding fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence and knew what they were risking (charges of treason, hanging, that sort of thing). She called for us to embrace courage, not positive thinking.
It was thrilling to see her, although the time she spoke was too short, and the audience members who asked questions tended to talk too much about themselves and never really ask a question. If you want a taste of her ideas, for your reading pleasure, go here for some great choices.
We headed down to Miami early, which we always do, since we can't ever count on traffic conditions. We planned to eat dinner at Books and Books, which we did. It was cool enough to eat in the glorious courtyard. At one point, I looked up and said, "When I was little, this is what I thought grown up life would be like." Unfortunately, my adult life is not like last night, not every night. But happily, I live in a place where I can see inspiring authors after an evening of great food, wine, and coffee. And if I had the energy and the money, I could have several evenings like that a week. I'm a lucky woman!