Ok, so first of all, let’s just clarify: I am not the Sarah Wilson who wrote ‘First We Make The Beast Beautiful.‘
A) She also wrote I Quit Sugar, and I fucking love sugar, so that’s never going to happen
B) I’d never title a book about anxiety something so horrific
C) The book. Oh dear, the book.
I probably shouldn’t be writing this, because I haven’t read the book. What I have read is Deborah Hill Cone’s terrible review of the terrible book, which someone tweeted with the commentary “Man, this was a weird read.” And it is. So, you can consider this a terrible review of a terrible review of the book.
Note: I was about halfway through writing this when The Spinoff published Naomi Arnold’s defense of Wilson and the book. Naomi is infinitely more qualified than me to comment, because not only has she read this book, she’s also read I Quit Sugar and her arguments for the merits of both make sense. I know Naomi well, I respect her deeply, and I’m not really disagreeing with her. In fact, we’re both saying that DHC’s takedown was, to put it eloquently, a bit shit.
My dislike of Hill-Cone goes back to this column she wrote about women journalists in 2013. That was followed by an attack on Alison Mau over a column by Mau about casual sexism. Yeah, it was four years ago, yeah, I should probably get over it. But DHC hasn’t changed, so I’m probably not gonna.
The interesting thing, (and Naomi makes this point too), is that DHC is actually very self-aware. She begins by saying that it “may appear mean-spirited to write a bad review about anyone who has the courage to speak publicly about their mental illness.” But then (and it’s unclear whether she wrote this bit or it’s editorial) “she proceeds to write the bad review.” (Hard to tell if that means negative review, or bad writing – both are true).
So, yes, she’s right. It’s not great to write negatively about someone who’s speaking out about mental health, especially when we need to create a safe environment for more people to do so. But, as I understand it, Wilson isn’t just talking about her own illness. She’s suggesting she can somehow fix yours, in the same way she seems to do with the whole “I quit sugar to manage my chronic illness, so should you” thing. And this is something I get pretty defensive about.
Especially when her approach flies in the face of every bit of advice I have been given and read about anxiety (which is a lot), by people who are actually qualified to talk about it.
But before we get to that, let’s start with DHC’s characterisation of her.
“…she does not strike me as anxious in the grotty, grisly, feeble way most of the anxious people I know are anxious. Yes, I know that’s a terrible thing to say – mood shaming? – like criticising someone because they are not grieving in the right way.”
See what I mean? Self-aware! And yet… SHE STILL GOES AND DOES IT. “I know this is a terrible thing to say, but you know what, it reads good, so I’m gonna leave it in. To hell with how offensive it is to people with anxiety.”
I don’t feel “mood-shamed,” Deborah. I feel pissed off. Cos you know what? Living with anxiety actually makes me fucking strong. There’s nothing “grotty” or enfeebled about me. You have just as much responsibility as Wilson to your readers, and you’re feeding them crap and undermining their self-esteem – exactly what you’re telling her not to do.
This paragraph is astounding: “Wilson acknowledges how “precious I seem to those around me” but she still seems to think you can beat anxiety with brute force. She tapes her lips shut with surgical tape at night to stop her grinding her teeth and considers this a great piece of advice: “I still rigidly control my sleeping arrangements with a white-knuckled grip. I feel I have to…to ensure I can function and run a business and write books and handle other humans and be a passable girlfriend.”
According to Naomi, that’s a misrepresentation of the book. Wilson doesn’t advocate attacking your anxiety with a sledgehammer, which is good, because that doesn’t work. Read all the medical literature on it you like. Anxiety is one of those things that, the more you fight it, the worse it gets. Yes, you have to stand up to it when you can. You have to push it back – but gently. With acceptance.
(Does she actually tape her lips shut though?????? – signed, incredulous of Nelson).
Then there’s this: “Overcoming an anxiety disorder and still being capable of running an international anti-sugar empire, far from being a humbling confession about your fragility, may simply be a new form of boasting. Look at me: I’m so fucked up I can’t go to the loo at my mediation retreat but I still manage to be a global diet guru superstar!”
Where do even we start with this?
I honestly can’t decide who I dislike more, DHC or That Other Woman Who Has My Name. The hilarious thing is that in her crusade to crucify Wilson for her lack of empathy, DHC has just starkly revealed her own. However, I can feel her anger in this paragraph, and I actually get it. Even though I think it’s rude and horrible in its expression, I understand the frustration of being told “I have an anxiety disorder but I do all of these things, awesome huh, and it’s easy, you just have to quit everything you enjoy and tape your lips shut.”
Finally, I have to bring up this picture, because I have a couple big problems with it.
- Placement of one’s own approach to life as somehow better than anyone else’s and something they should aspire to, if not religiously adhere to if they ever want to achieve any modicum of success
- Appropriation of terms such as “dharma” which don’t belong to white people, in the same way we’ve taken things like meditation practices and the word “guru”
I’m going to finish the same way Naomi did, by expressing confusion over DHC’s closing paragraph where she says: “People who are suffering from anxiety are in pain. So you have to treat them gently, gently.” Literally none of us are disagreeing about that, except maybe DHC herself with the casual “feeble” etc insult. And actually, the gently, gently, in that context, is kind of patronising.
Anyway. I found it interesting how a bunch of people can come at one issue with pretty much the same desired outcome – less anxiety for all – and still argue the fuck out of it. Funny old world sometimes, isn’t it.