A former NBC News correspondent writes about subjects that include death as a growth experience
Here’s the Bright Side: Of Failure, Fear, Cancer, Divorce, and Other Bum Raps. By Betty Rollin. Illustrations by Jules Feiffer. Random House, 109 pp., $14.95.
By Janice Harayda
One of the most poignant sections of a recent memoir by four 9/11 widows described the cruelty of people who urged the women – even before the smoke had cleared over Manhattan — to look on the bright side of their husbands’ deaths. Some reminded the widows that they still had beautiful, if now fatherless, children. And a doctor told one of them: “It could be worse – you could be thirty-nine and fat with shingles” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/24/.
How could people be so crass? Part of the explanation may lie in the avalanche of books, articles and news shows that take a promiscuously upbeat approach to human suffering. The latest book-length recipe for lemonade is Here’s the Bright Side, which has a format appropriately resembling that of Mitch Albom’s books. It is a huge disappointment coming from Betty Rollin, a former NBC news correspondent whose books include the trailblazing breast-cancer memoir First, You Cry.
Rollin cherry-picks anecdotes and statistics as she makes the case that “within each form of misery” there is “a hidden prize waiting to be found.” A “bright side” of divorce or widowhood is that you might find “a swell new mate,” she says. “Have you ever encountered the particularly dipsy-doodle joy of a newly married widow or widower?” she asks. If not, maybe it’s because second marriages have a higher divorce rate than first marriages. On the subject of getting old, Rollin is no saturnine Nora Ephron. Her “bright side” of aging is that “major depressive episodes” are “highest among 25- to 44-year-olds and lowest among those over 65.” That might sound good until you consider that when the episodes occur, they’re doozies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that “suicide rates increase with age and are very high among those 65 years and older,” with the highest rates in the country found among elderly white men.
You might wonder if there’s any harm in yet another book that says, as the dust jacket of this one does, that “clouds truly do have silver linings.” One problem is that some research suggests that trying to look on the bright side doesn’t work if you aren’t naturally inclined to do so. That research has found that we have a happiness “set point” and that, even after extreme changes such as winning the lottery or becoming disabled, most people return to it after about six months.
Anther problem involves what Barbara Ehrenreich has called the cult of “brightsiding,” which she describes in “Welcome to Cancerland” in The Best American Essays of 2002 (posted on Breast Cancer Action www.bcaction.org). “Brightsiding” can lead to what’s usually called blaming the victim. If you can make yourself feel better by seeking the “hidden prize” in every disaster, isn’t it your fault if you can’t or don’t find it? In her essay Ehrenreich describes the hostility she faced, after developing breast cancer, from women who had the disease. Some suggested that she was only hurting herself by expressing her anger about possible environmental causes of cancer instead of echoing the popular view that “cancer made my life better” – a theme also of Rollin’s book. But experts agree that anger is a near-universal “stage” of grief. And Rollin doesn’t acknowledge that people may short-circuit the process by rushing into the brightsiding that she recommends.
Nor does Rollin’s one-size-fits-all view reflect that some forms of sorrow or suffering might defy her approach. Here’s the Bright Side appears designed partly for the gift market. But it could be beyond cruel to give this book to, for example, fourth-degree burn victims or parents who have lost a child to murder, suicide or the war in Iraq. Here’s the Bright Side came out just before the world learned of the horrific invasion of the home of a Connecticut doctor whose wife was raped and strangled and whose daughters died in their burning house. Would Rollin tell him, as she tells us, that “no matter what, there is usually a bright side up for grabs”?
Best line: In the strongest part of this book, Rollin sticks closely to her own experiences and doesn’t prescribe. She says after her first mastectomy in 1975, only a small, now defunct firm would publish her memoir of the experience: “Of course I was forbidden to use the word cancer or breast in the title, so I called it First, You Cry.”
Worst line: Here’s the Bright Side is the latest book to deal , in part, with what might be called “death as a growth experience.” As Rollin puts it: “Is there, then, a bright side to dying? There can be.”
Consider reading instead: When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Avon, $9.95, paperback), by Harold M. Kushner, a rabbi’s exploration of the problem of evil, inspired by the death of his young son. First published more than 20 years ago, this wise and thoughtful book has become a modern classic that appeals to all faiths. Other good books on topics covered by Rollin include these memoirs: Joyce Wadler’s My Breast (Pocket, $14.95, paperback) www.simonsays.com and Brendan Halpin’s It Takes a Worried Man (Penguin, $13.95, paperback) www.brendanhalpin.com, both about breast cancer; Wendy Swallow’s Breaking Apart (Hyperion, $19.95) www.wendyswallow.com, about divorce; and Ruth Coughlin’s Grieving: A Love Story (Random House, varied prices), about the last months in the life of her husband, Bill, who died of liver cancer, and her subsequent widowhood.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.