Leaving the Lemons

Barbara Ehrenreich bursts the bubble of positive thinking in America

the arts | stage |

Photograph by Sigrid Estrada

By Leilani Clark

Y2K be damned. Since the dawning of the 21st century, Americans have become obsessed with the power of positive thinking. From the New Age abundance fest of The Secret franchise to the “God wants you to be rich” brand of Christianity exhorted by evangelist Joel Osteen, the idea that we can change negative to positive through the sheer power of our minds has become a nearly unchallenged belief in the United States. With her new book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (Metropolitan Books; $23), acclaimed feminist author Barbara Ehrenreich aims to pop the bubble of brightness that she says has led us down the road to recession and mass delusion.

Ehrenreich has long been a literary rabble-rouser. Her bestselling book Nickel and Dimed saw the author going undercover to the true lives of the working poor. Her brilliant Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers pamphlet, co-written with Deidre English, has been a required text in feminist studies classes since its publication in 1972.

On Oct. 23, Ehrenreich speaks about the themes in her latest book at Dominican University of California in an appearance sponsored by Book Passage. She was inspired to write Bright-Sided after being diagnosed with breast cancer, when she was overloaded with exhortations to think positively as a way to beat the disease. Ehrenreich decided to explore the origins of “the cult of cheerfulness,” that distinctly American way of being that encourages us to look at the bright side, despite the encroaching dark times surrounding us. Ehrenreich discovered the origins of systematic positive thinking among a collection of philosophers, mystics, lay healers and middle-class women of the 19th century. She traces the evolution of that line of thinking to today’s belief among the Christian right and many other “patriots” that Americans are chosen people and the United States is the greatest nation on earth, even as we dominate the global market for anti-depressants.

Wall Street denizens and their ilk have a voracious appetite for positive thinking, according to Ehrenreich. In the book, she asserts that this making of lemons into lemonade is the very thing that has led us down the road to economic implosion. In a time when the answers to the world’s problems seem to lie always out of reach, Ehrenreich brings her own theory about the crummy state of American capitalism to the table, one that she hopes will helps us recover from the “mass delusion that is positive thinking.” That’s a secret, indeed.

Barbara Ehrenreich speaks on Friday, Oct. 23, at Dominican University’s Angelico Hall, 50 Acacia Ave., San Rafael. 7pm. Free. 415.927.0960.

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