The “worse off,” whether they be disabled, poor, LGBTQIA or communities of color are largely ignored in the book. It’s a missed opportunity to examine how and to what degree members of historically marginalized groups have access to full, healthy lives so that they, too, might die of natural causes.
Elsewhere in the book, it’s difficult to ascertain what, exactly, Ehrenreich is debunking.
In “The Madness of Mindfulness,” she addresses what she deems is the proliferation of “shrinking attention spans,” citing a graphic from a 2015 Microsoft Canada report that illustrates how the human attention span has shrunk from 12 seconds to 8 seconds, one second less than that of a goldfish. (The statistic itself comes from a website called Statistic Brain.)
“Small screens seemed to have swallowed the world,” she laments. The perpetrator? Silicon Valley, “the high-tech industry that created the tempting devices and social networks that consume so much of our time.”
Ehrenreich points to several factors — Steve Jobs’ “obsessive attention to details and complete withdrawal into himself,” “the unblinking, almost affect-free Bill Gates,” the personalities of the characters in HBO’s series “Silicon Valley,” and even Apple’s slogan, “Think Different” — as evidence that Silicon Valley is “ground zero of the inattentiveness epidemic.”
Given the plethora of research on the topic, her word choice and quotation usage with respect to certain neurological conditions seem odd. “Among the many diagnoses being bandied about are autism, which now occupies an entire ‘spectrum’ of symptoms, Asperger’s syndrome, attention deficit disorder (ADD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — all of which overlap in symptomatology and can markedly affect academic performance.” On the following page, she adds: “It did not take years of laboratory research to get to the likely source of this new ‘epidemic.’”
Does Ehrenreich truly believe that small screens cause autism and diagnoses are being “bandied about”? It would certainly seem so. She fails to mention other possibilities, like the improvement of diagnostic tools over the years or the push for earlier screening. Her theories in “The Madness of Mindfulness” feel a little too much like junk science. Considering Ehrenreich’s significant scientific background (she holds a Ph.D in cellular immunology) her disregard of other possible causes is glaring.
Still, all is not lost with “Natural Causes.” Ehrenreich deftly critiques the phenomena of “successful aging,” achieved through celebrity-endorsed, reverse-aging skin-care products, and exercise, the capitalist and consumer-driven industry that encourages people to contort their bodies into unnatural positions, repeat sequences ad nausea, and fork over cash for flashy fitness centers. Her interrogation of the evolution of wellness centers, which advocate for conscientious (and expensive) measures to reconnect the mind to its seemingly disconnected body, is keen and rigorous.
Besides, none of these absurd exertions will matter when the grim reaper comes knocking. “The organs we nurtured with supplements and superfoods abandon their appointed functions. The brain we have tamed with mindfulness exercises goes awry within minutes after the heart stops beating.” No matter, muses Ehrenreich, for a death at the end of a bountiful life is a kind of victory in and of itself. “Being old enough to die is an achievement, not a defeat, and the freedom it brings is worth celebrating.”
By Barbara Ehrenreich
256 pages, $27