With a scientist’s keen eye, Ehrenreich precisely explains the intricacies of the immune system. She’s equally at home in other disciplines, too, moving seamlessly from biology and philosophy to history and poetry. Her book is richly layered with evidence, stories and quotations from all of these disciplines and sprinkled with barbed humor. Ehrenreich lets nobody off the hook, skewering Silicon Valley meditators and misogynist obstetricians with equal vigor.
You can’t begrudge Ehrenreich her effort to assuage our and her own fears about mortality, even if her historical chapters sometimes read like freshman surveys ... Ehrenreich should know better than to dress up her dislike of doctors as a reasoned excuse to avoid them. To be sure, she cautions, none of what she says 'should be construed as an attack on the notion of scientific medicine.' But actions outweigh words, and her example could lead some readers astray. Doctors do more good than harm. So do nurses. They’d do even more good if more people had access to them. The more than 27 million Americans without health insurance would surely be glad to have the checkups and colonoscopies that Ehrenreich has chosen to forgo. Let us age with grace, but let us not spread the plague of distrust by tarnishing a group of men and women who do what they can for those they can reach, and under increasingly difficult conditions. So here’s my advice, for what it’s worth. Don’t take this book too seriously. It could be harmful to your health.
Her new book is blunt: Nothing in modern life prepares us for the leaving of it ... The wellness movement, as you might imagine, doesn’t stand a chance. She fillets it with ease and relish—revealing the paucity of research supporting the usefulness of everything from annual physical exams to meditation—and dismantles nostrums about the innate balance and wisdom of the body ... Natural Causes is peevish, tender and deeply, distinctively odd—and often redeemed by its oddness.
While an impressive display of erudition, Natural Causes brings something far rarer to the discussion of aging in print: a sense of humor. Ehrenreich is a very funny companion on the aging 'journey,' especially when sharing her own experiences and conflicts ... Her personal story also helps ground some of the sharpest critiques, such as the profit motive in medicine driving treatments that may actually harm more than help ... This light touch is not uniform throughout, and some of the book’s arguments are weakened by what feels like gratuitous snark, a knowing tone gone snooty that can distance the reader, cropping up in parts not leavened by her own experience. Still, even with these intrusions, and despite her own stated intention to offer no guidance, Natural Causes provides insight and solace.
Ehrenreich compares doctors’ examinations to rituals that serve as much to cement the social order and the authority of physicians as they do to advance healing. For women in particular, physical exams have historically been invasive and frequently humiliating, and often with unproven results ... Beyond the doctor’s office, Ehrenreich takes us into the world of wellness, where, from CrossFit to gluten-free diets, we obsessively follow the latest trends that promise eternal health. She traces this 'surge of interest in physical fitness' to the 1980s, when disillusionment with the failure of the 1960s counterculture movement led to an inward turn, a type of self-involvement 'where if you could not change the world or even chart your own career, you could still control your own body' ... In the final section of the book, Ehrenreich, who holds a PhD in cellular immunology, switches to biology to demonstrate the futility of our quest for immortality ... This book takes an important, albeit uncomfortable, look at the health-seeking practices of our era, documenting the tendency toward self-righteous cultural absolutism that has always accompanied American health fads.
At first glance, her new book, Natural Causes, is a polemic against wellness culture and the institutions that sustain it. What makes the argument unusual is its embrace of that great humbler, the end of life ... Barbara Ehrenreich doesn’t meditate. She doesn’t believe in the integral self, coherent consciousness, or the mastery of spirit over matter. She thinks everything is dissolving and reforming, all the time. But she’s not in flux—quite the opposite. She’s never changed her mind, lost her way, or, as far as I can tell, even gotten worn out. There’s the tacit lesson of Natural Causes, conveyed by the author’s biography as much as the book’s content: To sustain political commitment and to manifest social solidarity—fundamentally humble and collective ways of being in the world—is the best self-care.
Ms. Ehrenreich finds reasons to doubt our faith in Western 'rituals' of medical examinations, expensive wellness regimens and a glut of evidence-poor tests—bemoaning precious time spent trying, uselessly, to prevent all manner of ailment ... One of Ms. Ehrenreich’s late chapters is a philosophical whirlwind that begins with a question, 'Who is in charge?,' and ends in utter, graphic despair ... Ms. Ehrenreich’s observations about our culture-wide denial of bodily decay lead [her] down distinct paths of interrogation and discovery. For all [her] research, [she is] not prepared to give us easy answers. Still, [her] dry humor and raw, personal accounts help make thinking about our common fate bearable.
Natural Causes is not a Grand Unified Theory of How We Live Life Now; it is Ehrenreich’s reflection on how she has lived her own extraordinarily productive life. The best parts draw their force from her institutional knowledge, her experience of medicine and wellness from the 1950s to the present, and even her grudges. Her theories are so convincing and her prose so captivating because she herself saw the events that contoured wellness culture into its 21st-century shape. To decenter herself and her body from that narrative would have been to write an entirely different book.
Like most polemicists, Ehrenreich is more persuasive when on the attack than when it comes to offering solutions. There is a lot in her book to take issue with: the impatient dismissal of mindfulness, for instance, and the paranoid interpretation of the anti-smoking lobby as “a war against the working class”. Even her essential premise is flawed: yes, death can come even to those who have worked hard at staying healthy, but that’s a given and doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort. And then there’s her animus against gyms, as the locus of a pampered, narcissistic, middle-class elite, when she continues to attend one. Still, she is one of our great iconoclasts, lucid, thought-provoking and instructive, never more so than here. That PhD in cellular immunology, left behind while she went on to write books and run campaigns, has proved useful after all.
In Natural Causes, she brandishes her stiletto against the body of evidence behind the contemporary wellness movement and leaves a rather bloodied carcass in her wake ... Natural Causes also tackles more traditional forms of preventive medicine. Ehrenreich questions the structure of a medical education system that drains the trainees emotionally and depersonalizes the physician-patient experience ... The value of Natural Causes lies not in its particular critiques, some of which will likely age better than others. (For now, this reviewer still plans on getting a colonoscopy.) But Ehrenreich has a gift for enabling readers to recognize their own blind spots—to call into question the very foundations of the ordered universe in which many of us believe we live.
Like Bright-Sided, Natural Causes was inspired by a particular moment in Ehrenreich’s life: her acceptance of her own mortality. But that moment gives way to a broader inquiry into the biological, social, and political implications of the American denial of death. In fact, one reason the book is so compelling is that Ehrenreich moves fluidly back and forth between discussing our physical limitations, our social and political limitations, and the relationship between the two. Ehrenreich begins with microscopic observations of cell behavior to paint a detailed yet accessible picture of the body in conflict with itself ... There are some shortcomings to Ehrenreich’s argument, however. It’s fine for a retired woman who’s financially secure and doesn’t have any dependents to accept the chaos and uncertainty of nature, but many others still have families to think about and so need to keep on living in order to provide for them ... But Ehrenreich gives us something...reminding us how important it is to build social 'utopian' supports that can mitigate the pain of a dystopian body. In this way, Natural Causes is, if nothing else, the culmination (though hopefully not the last book) of a career spent insisting on a common-sense morality that is actually visionar
This book is joyous. It is neither anti-medicine nor anti-prevention; it is pro-balance, pro-scepticism and pro-perspective. And it asks us to show a little humility ... If you are struggling with choices that weigh hope in potential medical advances that damage quality of life against non-treatment and the acceptance of a terminal diagnosis, this may not offer much comfort, but for me, as with so many of Ehrenreich’s books, Natural Causes is a much-needed tonic.
Each of these early chapters could be a book, and in the name, perhaps, of moving things along, sometimes Ehrenreich attempts a rhetorical knockout punch ... Ehrenreich’s complex explanation boils down to a simple prescription, though the medicine may be hard to take: 'You can think of death bitterly and with resignation . . . and take every possible measure to postpone it,' she writes. 'Or, more realistically, you can think of life as an interruption of an eternity of personal nonexistence, and see it as a brief opportunity to observe and interact with the living, ever-surprising world around us.'”
Ehrenreich is well equipped for her mission; she has a doctorate in biology and years of social and political work behind her, as well as decades of writing ... The author of more than a dozen books, Ehrenreich has a reputation for chronicling cultural shifts before others notice them. She delights in confronting entrenched assumptions, popular delusions, grandiose ambitions—and in teasing out their unexpected consequences.
Ehrenreich, who holds a PhD in cellular immunology, offers a healthy dose of reformist philosophy combined with her trademark investigative journalism. In assessing our quest for a longer, healthier life, Ehrenreich provides a contemplative vision of an active, engaged health care that goes far beyond the physical restraints of the body and into the realm of metaphysical possibilities.
The author has a doctorate in cellular immunology, and throughout the text, she employs the erudition that earned her degree, the social consciousness that has long informed her writing, and the compassion that endears her to her many fans ... A powerful text that floods the mind with illumination—and with agonizing questions.
That this knowledgable book arrives in the context of an urgent American healthcare crisis, when many people can’t access or afford healthcare, may irritate some readers. Still, Ehrenreich’s sharp intelligence and graceful prose make this book largely pleasurable reading.