Last night saw unprecedented measures of anger, disbelief and absolute exasperation surrounding the 60 Minutes interview with disgraced ‘wellness’ blogger and creator of The Whole Pantry empire, Belle Gibson. For once, I went against my better judgment and watched the interview and as a cancer survivor, I have a few things to say.
Firstly, I forgive you, Belle. I forgive your lies, your shameless attention seeking, your money-grubbing, your terrible attempts at plagiarism, the damage you have caused to countless cancer sufferers and survivors, and the rest.
Over the years, countless people have recoiled at my capacity to forgive, and I’m ok with that. That is their journey and this is mine. But trust me – I’ve had to dig deep within my soul to get to a place where I can give amnesty to a person who has hurt me or the people I love.
Forgiveness can be an acutely terrifying and seemingly impossible process, but I’ve found that it’s requisite to heal and move on. Forgiveness is about you, not the other person. It’s about recognising a person’s humanness. It’s about accepting that vulnerability is a package deal with being human. The only alternative to forgiveness is anger and resentment, and one must forgive in order to strengthen ones spirit. It’s taken some bloody hard work, but it’s been worth it. But there’s one very important aspect of forgiveness that people often consign to the back of their mind, so let me set the record straight: forgiveness does not mean that you have to forget, nor does it mean that you cannot maintain the rage.
As someone who has actually had cancer over a sustained period, just like Belle has claimed to have done, I came away from the interview feeling a little despondent. But after reading the litany of comments following the dialogue, I peeled away with fury. When people paint Belle Gibson as being ‘mentally ill’, as a woman who has suffered with depression (I use the word ‘suffered’, because I truly did), I find the branding of Belle Gibson as being mentally ill really bloody insulting.
That people are throwing around a diagnosis of Münchausen syndrome (otherwise known as Factitious disorder) has riled me no end. It has rattled my cage of compassion because after hearing her trying (and she tried really hard) to rationalise her catalogue of lies, including her stories of having heart surgery, dying on the operating table (that one actually happened to me), having multiple strokes and an inventory of other self-perpetuated medical myths; lying about her age, telling Tara Brown she has two birth certificates and has had four name changes and other fictitious ammunition, there was a moment when I actually burst out laughing. If I hadn’t have laughed, I would have cried. As Brown said, that’s a hell of a lot of bad luck for such a young girl.
But then I thought about my own (real and lived) catalogue of illness, or as I call it, dis-ease. Cystic Fibrosis, double lung transplant recipient, diabetes, osteoporosis, depression, addiction, cancer, dozens of surgeries and more. Now considering I’m writing a book about my life, am I going to be offended should someone ask for direct proof in the form of my medical records? Well, thanks to the virtue of Belle Gibson and other charlatans selling their own brand of snake oil, I would expect a publisher or agent to ask for proof about my medical conditions. Is that right? No. Is it now necessary? Yes. Which appalls me.
Belle Gibson claims she had a traumatic childhood which her mother vehemently denied. Here’s the thing – people survive fucked up childhoods all the time. My own childhood was punctuated by dying and death where I lived in constant fear that my dis-ease would kill me. With C.F having killed over seventy of my friends, through the greatest of odds, I have survived. I’m a compassionate human being who wants to help others, and I’ve never felt a desire to embellish my own suffering, because the thought simply never occurred to me, and to be honest, my own suffering was enough.
People survive the unthinkable – genocide, rape, torture, violent relationships – and still, they grow into exceptional human beings with passion and purpose, determined to create change in the world. They don’t feel the need to weave a tapestry of corpulent mistruths for financial gain and communal pity. But Belle Gibson did. The thing is, I picked her as being a charlatan when a friend told me about her book and app last year. For me, her story just didn’t add up. I’ve known people with brain cancer and in most cases, they do not look the picture of health, whereas Belle always looked remarkably well and fresh faced. I also knew that it was next to impossible for brain cancer to spread to your liver, spleen, uterus and blood, and for a woman who suffered a forty minute seizure at her son’s birthday party, after which she did not go to hospital (instead going overseas not long after), my hackles went haywire. But who was I to question Australia’s wellness sweetheart? It was going to be a waiting game until Richard Gulliatt from The Australian cast serious doubts over her cancer claims after donations promised by Gibson to various charities hadn’t materialised.
Gibson manipulated the public with intent and great skill over a sustained period of time. She cultivated an empire that would ultimately be her undoing – one of lies and gross mistruths about her supposed battle with brain cancer and how she cured it by eating whole foods and engaging in alternate therapies such as coffee enemas. As she created this false empire, she made a great deal of money and inadvertently (or perhaps knowingly), lured people who actually had cancer away from evidence-based medicine, instead drawing them into her world of fantasy-based medicine and therefore death.
Perhaps she has complicity lead people to their deaths, just as Jess Ainscough did. We may never know. Ainscough touted herself as being the ‘wellness warrior’, also creating an empire based on woo (fantasy-based medicine), and while I do not wish to speak ill of the dead, her belief in woo, such as Gerson therapy (which ultimately killed her mother who had a treatable form of breast cancer), ultimately cost Jess her life. Aincough’s fanbase will debate otherwise, but the truth is, this ‘medicine’ has no basis in reality or science. What’s just as disconcerting, is that Belle Gibson attended her funeral as a fellow ‘wellness warrior’. She mourned with Jess’s family. How must they feel?
Healthy eating and Gerson therapy was not going to cure my vulval cancer. Only surgery and the option of chemotherapy was going to save my life. Thankfully, I had world class surgeons who managed to remove all the cancer, so I didn’t need chemotherapy. By excising (cutting) all the skin away from my clitoris to my rectum, extensive skin grafting from my left thigh, as well as redirecting my bowel into an ileostomy (a poo bag), I survived. But only just. The aftermath of the surgery very nearly killed me and my family were told that I may end up in a vegetative state. That aside, I survived to see my 31st birthday. I am now 38, and had I not had the surgery, I would be long dead.
Gibson has fabricated her empire of lies for the sole purpose of gaining attention and garnering money to live an unsustainable lifestyle that she would not have enjoyed unless she had duped people into buying her ‘lifestyle’ app ‘The Whole Pantry’, followed by the publishing deal with Penguin and finally, her app appearing on the Apple watch. For me, this is unmitigated fraud masquerading as mental illness. Belle claims that she ‘cured’ her brain cancer with whole foods and alternative therapies, except that she didn’t. We all now know that she never had cancer, or any other of the medical conditions she lied about on skateboard forums and what not.
I have to ask – at what point are we not responsible for our actions? Many people would say when we no longer have the mental capacity to make safe decisions for ourselves. But does this absolve us of moral and ethical responsibility? It’s a very grey area. Belle has undoubtably harmed others by offering false promises and platitudes to the point where evidence-based therapies are called into question and oncologists are made to look like big Pharma pariahs for their trouble. The thing is, doctors take an oath when they begin practicing medicine, and we can only hope they honour it (primum non nocere, or ‘first, do no harm’).
While Belle claims to have ‘lost everything’, I remember thinking the same thing after my cancer surgery, but I soon realised that I had come away with my life. If only Belle would come to the same realisation and tell the truth.
I do not know what will become of Belle Gibson. There is a part of me that understands the witch hunt, but I also feel an immense sense of compassion for her. Or perhaps my compassion is just misguided pity. Compassion and pity may be poles apart, but today both burn deep inside me. Does she deserve to be punished? I believe so. There are still so many unanswered questions, and after another soul rummage, I know that we may never know the truth, because Belle certainly doesn’t. Or does she? In a messy little corner of my mind, I can’t help but wonder how many people Belle has literally made sick. And what of the voiceless who can no longer speak their truth because they have died after believing her misguided and inexpert ‘advice’? People may be willing to forgive. Let us ensure they never forget.