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‘The Woman Who Fooled The World: Belle Gibson’s cancer con, and the darkness at the heart of the wellness industry’ — book review

The con was reprehensible. Can we learn to not let it happen again?

The story at the heart of The Woman Who Fooled The World: Belle Gibson’s cancer con, and the darkness at the heart of the wellness industry, by Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano, has all the trappings of a riveting detective novel: a compelling set of characters, a conventional narrative that’s progressively shot full of holes, and a moral imperative that infuses it all with real stakes.

In Belle Gibson’s game, though, everyone plays for keeps, and the losers stand to lose quite a lot more than they realized.

In the fall of 2010, Gibson was a new mother, raising her son Oli and struggling to make ends meet in Melbourne, Australia. By October of 2014, she was the face behind a multinational brand, The Whole Pantry. She had a lucrative book deal with Random House, one of the most successful apps of all time on the Apple Store, and a branding agreement with Apple on the new Apple Watch.

In her debut smartphone app and cookbook, Gibson provided her readers and followers with an easy-to-adopt lifestyle. The Whole Pantry included digital recipe conversion tools and 50+ gluten-free, paleo, and vegan-friendly recipes. To Gibson, the intention behind her app was not just about recommending a healthy diet. “TWP” was about reducing stress, achieving wellness, and promoting a healthy, fulfilled lifestyle. By 2015, The Whole Pantry brand, cookbook, and app had earned Gibson half a million dollars. Her app on the Apple Store was downloaded more than 300,000 times.

At the core of her wellness brand were Gibson’s own health problems. She claimed to have received a terminal diagnosis of cancerous tumors spreading from her brain to her blood, spleen, liver, and uterus. As any practicing oncologist will tell you, this is an extremely unlikely set of events.

Even more shocking was that Gibson claimed to have survived aggressive brain cancer for more than two years without treatments from any licensed medical practitioner.

Along the blood vessels that supply the brain with oxygen, there is an intricate labyrinth of cells called the “blood-brain-barrier.” While not completely understood, it’s generally thought this barrier makes cell movement in and out of the brain very difficult. Any cancer cell that wants to metastasize from the brain to any other organ must first pass through, which is why it’s so astronomically uncommon to see a brain cancer spread to other organs, rather than the other way around. As detailed in The Woman Who Fooled The World, an oncologist can probably expect to go their entire career, treating hundreds of thousands of patients, without ever seeing a case like this.

Even more shocking was that Gibson claimed to have survived aggressive brain cancer for more than two years without treatments from any licensed medical practitioner. For reference, the median survival time of glioblastoma (by far the most aggressive and common form of brain cancer) is a little over one year, but that’s also after undergoing extensive surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Gibson also lied about her age, her troubled childhood, her history of aggressive heart surgeries, her involvement in writing her app’s software, and, worst of all, her donations to numerous charities.

On one level, it’s despicable and reprehensible to lie to millions of people about a fake cancer diagnosis, giving sufferers of complex, often terminal conditions false hope in exchange for a few dollars. But lying to that same vulnerable population about where the money is going, and using it instead for personal gain, is in an entirely different ballpark of immorality. It’s reflective not only of Munchausen syndrome or a personality disorder, but of a deep moral and ethical failing.

Reconciling these discrepancies in a very complex and tangled web of lies is a formidable challenge. Donelly and Toscano, though, manage to disentangle this web in expert fashion, drawing on journalistic methods to create a timeline of events and providing insight into why grand promises in the wellness industry are especially attractive to scam artists. For this feat alone they deserve praise.

Starting with Gibson’s childhood and following through high school, with her history of tall tales and mysterious disappearing illnesses, Donelly and Toscano create a roadmap of Gibson as a larger-than-life ingenue, always striving for more notoriety and sympathy from her classmates. From her first claim of open-heart surgery to her first brain cancer, Gibson’s childhood was anything but typical.

Through interviews with Gibson’s former classmates, friends, and boyfriends, her tenuous relationship with the truth becomes quickly apparent. As an entree into the larger narrative, these chapters were particularly enticing. From this point on, the train wreck of Gibson’s misdeeds was impossible to look away from. I was hooked.

If there are any places where The Woman Who Fooled The World falls short, it’s in this ordering of events. The book is structured well to grab reader attention, which results in a logical flow, but at times things appear misplaced or out of order. Hearing about Gibson’s discombobulated world from so many different perspectives and people can get repetitive, and potentially loses the reader in the weeds of detail.

Largely, events are described in a chronological order, but Donelly and Toscano take the reader on occasional detours to understand Gibson’s childhood with narcissistic image-obsessed parents and troubled relationships with close friends who come in and out of the picture. This ordering does create narrative tension, as the reader fills in gaps, but also creates confusion in the meantime.

Even so, pulling apart Gibson’s lies isn’t what solidifies The Woman Who Fooled The World as an enduring presence on my bookshelf. Instead, Donelly and Toscano’s unflinching examination of the wellness industry as a whole gives their book prescience and longevity.T

hey accomplish this through a set of insights that I’ve yet to see so well-described or in such extensive detail. To give this review context, I’ve detailed below their most important points:

Wellness, as a surface-level premise, sounds like a force for good. But the jargon and lingo of the industry mean different things to different stakeholders. 

  • Corporate stakeholders see “wellness” as a commercial trend, ready to be exploited for untapped consumers who will buy anything that promotes the right buzzwords in the right proportions.
  • Brand opportunists (Instagram influencers, gurus, lifestyle authors) see “wellness” as an innocuous idea ready for expansion, a set of ideas they can capitalize on. It can’t be bad when they’re just hawking herbs and dieting advice, right? It’s not really medicine, right?
  • Consumers often see “wellness” as a clean, safe, and easy to follow set of instructions toward a better life. And some even see “wellness” products as an alternative to conventional medicine.

Whole-lifestyle wellness brands often operate like old-fashioned, new-age, 1970s-era cults of personality.

  • The guru at the top of the pyramid acts like a religious figure, and has a zero-to-hero narrative to embody this role.
  • The entire premise of whole-lifestyle wellness is based on the notion that “you too can live like this.” The life of the guru must be intricately managed and presented as a Platonic ideal of living, an impossible one.
  • In this quasi-religious world, experts are determined by:  follower count, put-togetherness (a sheen of production-quality photo filters), and adherence to the collective narrative trend.

It isn’t mysterious who becomes a successful lifestyle guru. The trends of consumption mirror the inherent prejudices of our global society.

  • Lifestyle gurus are usually young, attractive, fit, white, and female. The messaging of media and advertising ingrains this ideal in everyone, cross-culturally, and regardless of socioeconomic status.
  • The narrative of a guru is usually of an “every-woman” who has no special qualifications, to reinforce the idea that anyone can benefit.
  • This “everywoman” narrative mirrors similar trends in nationalist and socialist politics. The target audience in this case, however, is the young professional or stay-at-home spouse, instead of the worker.

The recent spree of wellness scams is made possible by modern technology.

  • Social media grants a democratizing platform to anyone seeking status as a social guru, guaranteeing a massive audience to anyone able to master the ever-present algorithm.
  • Anonymity enables outlandish claims with little-to-no backlash. This anonymity works for the benefit of the guru in both directions. It’s more difficult to verify the guru’s claims, and more difficult for the guru to know the impact of their actions.

The similarity of the messages of wellness gurus is not an accident.

  • Weight loss is an implicit component of the product, but “dieting” is a much less attractive word than “wellness.” It’s a continuation of a decades-long phenomenon.
  • The inherent prejudices and biases of consumers are represented here as well. “Cleanliness,” “simplicity,” “hidden benefits,” and “nature” are ubiquitous necessities. The vague nature of these terms only serves to amplify their impact.

The health claims of these gurus are unregulated, because they are so often implicit and couched in weasel words and ignored disclaimers.

  • For suffering patients facing terminal disease and seeking any hope available, these vague statements leave room for hope.
  • “Hope lives in the asymptote.” Survival curves of terminal illness always show a very small minority of patients living longer. It’s in this region that vulnerable patients put their hope, and where wellness gurus thrive.

The fault of these phenomena is not entirely in the hands of gurus themselves.

  • Paltry, ineffective, and unenforced regulations are also to blame.
  • Low-quality science reporting by the media helps to perpetuate these cons.
  • Ineffective or insubstantial publishing standards failed to properly fact-check Gibson’s book.
  • The most understated blame rests on the shoulders of scientists and doctors.
  • Sick and dying young women gravitate towards gurus like Gibson in droves, not just because they peddle attractive ideologies, but also because conventional medicine is so often poorly-communicated.

These seven insights are reflective of Belle Gibson’s con, but their reach does not stop where her saga ends. Gibson is not the first wellness guru of this generation to scam millions of people out of their money on falsely saccharine premises and extravagant delusional promises, and she will definitely not be the last.

There are probably very few, if any, words capable of describing the depth of depravity detailed in The Woman Who Fooled The World. The most deeply resonant insight of Donelly and Toscano’s is that “scam” is too light a word to describe what Gibson did. It’s a moral and ethical imperative that we, as a society, reflect on her saga and what it says about our relationship with truth, lies, and “wellness.”

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AiPT! Comics cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.

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