It's a familiar step in the dance of a public personal failure of ethics. It's the one done in just the past few weeks by Rachel Dolezal, Brian Williams, Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar. Your misdeeds are revealed, you lay low for a bit -- and then you emerge, exceedingly contrite and carefully rehearsed, for your apology interview. Belle Gibson, come on down.
Until this past March, the Australian Gibson was known as the creative force behind The Whole Pantry, a popular wellness blog and Instagram account. Her Whole Pantry app was featured on the Apple Watch "coming soon" list. She was set to launch a cookbook. It seemed for a while a beautiful reversal for a young mother who claimed to have survived a "terminal cancer" diagnosis of "six weeks, four months tops" to live in 2009, one who'd "put everything I knew along my journey with cancer, nutrition and wellness" into her venture. She claimed she'd withdrawn from chemotherapy in "a quest to heal myself naturally… empowering myself to save my own life, through nutrition, patience, determination and love." Then it all fell apart.
It started when Fairfax Media announced that Gibson had failed to deliver "thousands of fundraising dollars promised to" at least five charities she solicited donations for. As the Age reported at the time, Gibson had in the past "claimed to have given away 25 per cent of her company's profits…. Last year she said $300,000 had already been given to charity but now says these contributions were never made because app sales were not as high as forecast. Ms Gibson was unable to provide a list of organizations that have received money or say how much has been donated to date."
Then more holes began to poke through her story. A former friend said she'd privately admitted "Her diagnosis was questionable" — and her publisher conceded, "It never asked Ms. Gibson for any evidence of her medical condition." She initially "repeatedly refused to address inconsistencies in her life story" but soon after hired the advisory firm Bespoke Approach and did an interview with Australian Women's Weekly to say that "None of it’s true." She said that she'd had a troubled childhood — a claim her mother calls "rubbish" — and explained, "I don't want forgiveness. I just think [speaking out] was the responsible thing to do. Above anything, I would like people to say, 'Okay, she's human.'" I'm human too, and make mistakes, but holy crap, are you kidding?
When the Gibson story broke, I kept mostly quiet about it. But permit me, if you will, a moment of outrage now. Because I've actually had late-stage cancer, and I've also written extensively about it, including in a book that will publish next year. And as both a patient and a writer, wow. I have a drawer full of actual physical printouts of my medical reports, and a few hours' worth of interviews with my doctors and nurses, so that I can back up my words and speak with a degree of authority and accuracy on a life or death experience. That's not just my job as an author; it's my responsibility to other people facing cancer. Yet speaking about Gibson, Cosmopolitan writer Lauren Sams said this spring that "Cancer is so all-consuming, so catastrophic, so final, that to question anyone’s diagnosis would just be downright evil." No, it's journalism, and you're allowed to practice it on people who say they have cancer. In fact, you really should, in the service of everyone else with cancer.
Sams is right, however, that cancer is a terrifying, out of control experience. That's why I will forever hold a special place in my Big Folder of Fury for people who exploit anyone experiencing it. There's also a place in my Smaller Folder of Eye Rolling for people who peddle what the Spectator recently called the dubious "cult of wellness" to anyone who's vulnerable and seeking guidance.
Gibson is now taking the next step in the road back to becoming someday something other than "disgraced blogger," with an upcoming interview on the Nine Network’s "60 Minutes" to air Sunday. It is rumored she was paid for it, but the network will not comment. In a preview, she says that "I’m not trying to get away with anything" and "I’ve been really transparent," adding, "I have lost everything." I don't wish harm or pain upon anyone, especially someone who's got a child to raise. Shaming doesn't accomplish anything and as the Sydney Morning Herald's Michael Lallo sanely advises, "Let's hold our outrage until we've seen it." But I won't watch. Life, I am intimately aware, is short. And I don't need a wellness app to tell me to avoid things that are obviously toxic.