A romantic longing for an enchanted world — where bad things only happen to bad people — has been a hallmark of health-conscious America for over a century.
“there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken. . . .
the mariners were afraid . . . . And they said every one to his fellow, Come,
and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. . . .
the lot fell upon Jonah. . . . So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth
into the sea:” — Jonah 1:4-15 (King James Version)
Magic fish aside, what strikes the modern reader as odd about the Jonah story is the mariners’ unthinking assumption: that human behavior was to blame for the storm. The idea that the weather could be altogether indifferent to their welfare was foreign to these ancient mariners. The storm had to have a meaning because they inhabited a world that was in every respect meaningful, a world without mere coincidence, a world that was yet to be disenchanted. A romantic longing for that meaningful, enchanted world—where bad things only happen to bad people—has been a hallmark of health-conscious America for well over a century.
In The Laws of Health (1857), for example, nineteenth-century health reformer William Alcott declared that there were at least two things that we could all be sure of: namely,
“that, if the wicked do not live out half their days, it is because of their wickedness”—and, that “if the infirmities of age come upon us, it is because we have disobeyed, either intentionally or ignorantly, the Divine laws.”
Alcott was here articulating one of his Judeo-Christian culture’s most fundamental assumptions.
Philosopher Susan Sontag correctly stressed that in
“the world envisaged by Judaism and Christianity, there are no free-standing arbitrary events. All events are part of the plan of a just, good, providential deity . . . . Every disaster or calamity must be seen either as leading to a greater good or else as just and adequate punishment fully merited by the sufferer.” “Sicknesse comes not by hap or chance,” as one seventeenth-century New England Puritan put it, “but from mans wickednesse.”
It took the West centuries to move away from this moralistic Judeo-Christian worldview toward a scientific one that recognizes the often accidental and arbitrary nature of human suffering. Anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl maintained that
“our distinctive achievement,” as moderns, “was to invent the idea of natural death and actually believe in it.”
“the defining feature of primitive mentality is to try to nail a cause for every misfortune; and the defining feature of modernity, to forbear to ask.”
Continuing this thought, Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky emphasized that the
“concept of the accident rate and the normal chances of incurring disease belongs to the modern, scientific way of thinking. Faced by statistical averages there is no point in my asking why a particular illness should have struck me.”
Douglas and Wildavsky suggested that had Lévy-Bruhl lived to see the 1970s, he would have been astonished to see moderns
“asking those famous primitive questions as if there were no such thing as natural death, no purely physical facts, no regular accident rates, no normal incidence of death.”
In health-conscious America, the older way of thinking—“the primitive mentality”—made a spirited comeback in the twentieth century.
The Meaning of Death in Health-Conscious America
Humans are probably the only creatures that can see death coming for them, so to speak, years before it arrives. The human brain has evolved a capacity for foresight that is, to the best of our knowledge, unrivaled in the animal kingdom. We can anticipate problems and opportunities long before they happen and plan accordingly. In some parts of the world, for instance, people plant and tend to trees whose fruits will be tasted only by their grandchildren. Foresight is an evolutionary adaptation that has given the human species a tremendous competitive advantage. Even so, foresight has its costs.
Humans are perhaps the only intelligent animals that fret about death when they are in perfect health and safety. Most people fear death. Often, they also fear the mental and physical decline that so frequently precedes it. Unorthodox health reformers have consistently taken advantage of these fears. They have informed people that decline is not inevitable and that the human lifespan can be vastly extended.
William Alcott went so far as to claim that the mortal life of a human being need not ever come to end. All death was failure, as far as he was concerned, even that of the famously long-lived patriarch Methuselah, who, according to the Book of Genesis, met his end at the ripe old age of 969. Alcott maintained that if
“Methuselah suffered from what we call the infirmities of age, it was his own fault. God, his Creator, never intended it. The very common belief,” added Alcott, “that old age must necessarily bring with it infirmities, besides being a great mistake, reflects dishonor to God.”
Twentieth-century health reformers were, for the most part, considerably more reasonable than Alcott. Still, they set unrealistic longevity standards that few people, if any, have been able to achieve. For instance, Gayelord Hauser (1895-1984), bestselling author of Look Younger, Live Longer (1950), claimed that if we took care of ourselves we could all live to be 140 years old. Adolphus Hohensee (1901-1967), always prone to hyperbole, believed 180 more accurate.Prevention writers, with relative restraint, usually pegged the “normal” human lifespan at 120. Proclamations such as these gave graying Americans a kind of hope that doctors could not in good conscience provide.
Harvard nutritionists Elizabeth Whelan and Fredrick Stare maintained that licensed medical professionals were in this instance, as in so many others, competing at a distinct disadvantage. As men and women of science they were obliged to tell their aging patients the unpleasant truth: namely, that some diseases thus far cannot be cured and some suffering cannot yet be alleviated;
“that popping vitamin pills every few hours, or avoiding white bread and refined sugar, is not going to either cure or prevent degenerative disease;” that “there simply are no wonder supplements or magic potions;” and that until “medical science advances far beyond its present state, humans will necessarily continue to die from something.”
Although reasonable, this analysis proved a bitter pill that many Americans refused to swallow. Instead, more and more people came to believe that one could bargain with death. They were encouraged in this belief by the remarkable promises made by health reformers.
For better or for worse, the ideology of natural health has permeated virtually every facet of American society in the last four decades: health-food stores and health clubs have proliferated; anti-smoking campaigns have won astounding victories; breastfeeding and vegetarianism have become much more common; and the demand for organic food, herbal remedies, vitamin and mineral supplements, exercise gear and alternative health care has created massive industries. The ideology has resonated particularly well in the United States because its emphasis upon individual responsibility is, at bottom, largely a secular restatement of deeply-rooted Judeo-Christian assumptions about the meaning of suffering and the capacity for choice.
Health gurus such as Jerome Rodale, Adelle Davis, Carlton Fredericks, and the editors of Prevention—“America’s Leading Health Magazine”—promised much to health-conscious Americans. They maintained, for instance, that aging—a human experience so thoroughly fraught with danger and uncertainty—could be controlled by the right mixture of vitamins, exercise, organic food, dietary restrictions, and positive thinking. Although the natural health movement provided new choices and a sense of self-mastery to many, especially women, its success has spread a new orthodoxy across America, with a harsh and unforgiving approach toward aging, obesity, motherhood, disease and death.
Health reformers such as Robert Rodale helped redefine tragedies such as cancer, heart disease, depression, schizophrenia, crib death and miscarriage as punishments meted out to those who failed to obey the natural laws of health. They promised to free the American people from the tyranny of Western Medicine. Yet they replaced Doctor God with an equally demanding deity: Mother Nature.
When Bad Things Happen to Good People
Every so often, the promises propounded by the preachers of prevention proved problematic. Freshly published results based on a well-designed scientific study might, for instance, demonstrate that a beloved supplement like vitamin C or echinacea does not, in fact, cure the common cold. Still, nothing has proven more problematic than the death of a leader. The death of Jim Fixx is a case in point. In the early 1980s, Jim Fixx was the most well-known fitness promoter in America. His best-known work, The Complete Book of Running (1977), broke numerous records for non-fiction sales. More than perhaps anyone else, Fixx popularized running as sport, religion, and lifestyle. His sinewy physique was legendary. And his superior health was assumed. Indeed, that is why his early death came as such a shock.
Fixx was running along a quiet tree-lined street in Vermont on a sunny July day in 1984 when he dropped dead of a heart attack. He was just 52 years old. Remarking upon the intrinsic irony of Fixx’s death proved irresistible for irreverent late-night comedians such as Denis Leary. In No Cure for Cancer (1992), Leary maintained that Fixx’s death was a refutation of the health-conscious lifestyle. Health enthusiasts were always telling Americans, he claimed, that if they would only give up their bad habits and replace them with good ones they could add an extra ten or twenty years to their lives.
“Hey,” Leary retorted, “I got two words for you, okay. Jim Fixx. Remember Jim Fixx? The big famous jogging guy? Jogged fifteen miles a day. Did a jogging book. Did a jogging video. Dropped dead of a heart attack. When? When he was fucking jogging, that’s when!”
In 2004, twenty years after Fixx’s death, famed running instructor Hal Higdon posted an editorial on his website that took issue with those critics of long-distance running who characterized Fixx’s death as an indictment of the sport. Jim Fixx’s father, Higdon observed, died of a heart attack when he was just 43 years old. Had he not taken up running when he did, it is likely, Higdon argued, that Jim Fixx would have died of a heart attack at 43, too. Running, he maintained, probably added nine years to Fixx’s life.
In 1987, three years after Fixx’s death, health writer Carlton Fredericks, famous for his syndicated radio show “Good Health,” also died of a heart attack. He was 76 years old, which is not a particularly good score for a health reformer. But it was an open secret by then that he had been smoking heavily on the sly for years, so his death was fairly easy to explain away. The death of Prevention magazine’s founder Jerome Rodale was, by contrast, much more problematic.
Jerome Rodale once argued that all of the teachings of health guru Horace Fletcher (1849-1919) were inherently suspect because of his untimely demise. Fletcher, famous for his advocacy of extreme mastication, was 70 years old when he died.
“To be proof of his system,” Rodale maintained, “he should not have died before 90.”
Thinking along similar lines, Prevention‘s executive editor claimed in 1974 that the teachings of 80-year-old health promoter Gayelord Hauser were to be heeded because his longevity and vitality were
“a superb testimonial to the value of the nutritional principles he has been writing and lecturing about for over 50 years. If more of us followed his simple advice,” he added, “we might also find ourselves as ageless and vital as Gayelord Hauser.”
Jerome Rodale said that he intended to live until the ripe old age of 102, so that he could say that he had lived in three different centuries (he was born in 1898). He insisted that his healthy lifestyle would allow him to achieve this goal. Alas, he suffered a massive heart attack, in 1971, while he was being interviewed on the Dick Cavett Show.
Though the episode was never aired, Cavett recalls that Rodale was a splendid guest:
“He was extremely funny for half an hour, talking about health foods, and as a friendly gesture he offered me some of his special asparagus, boiled in urine. I think I said, ‘Anybody’s we know?’ while making a mental note to have him back.”
Among the many remarkable things that Rodale said on the show, Cavett remembers these as the most startling:
“’I’m in such good health . . . that I fell down a long flight of stairs yesterday and I laughed all the way.’ ‘I’ve decided to live to be a hundred.’ And the inevitable ‘I’ve never felt better in my life!’”
Rodale slumped over slightly to one side while Cavett was interviewing another guest—Pete Hamill, a columnist for The New York Post. Initially, Cavett thought that Rodale had fallen asleep. With characteristic wit, Cavett exclaimed:
“Are we boring you, Mr. Rodale?” The studio audience burst into laughter. Of course it soon became clear that Rodale was not sleeping. Like Robert Atkins, Jerome Rodale was 72 years old when he died. His passing sent shock waves through health-conscious America. “Rodale,” as one panicked follower put it, “has ruined the health-food industry by dying.”
The death of Adelle Davis three years later was even more problematic. At the time of her death, Davis was by far the most well-known health guru in America. As with Jim Fixx, her superior health was assumed. Even so, Davis died of bone cancer at the age of 70 — in 1974, when the life expectancy of a white woman in America was 76.7 years. Mean-spirited critics were quick to note that not only did Davis fail to improve upon her expected longevity; she barely even made it into her seventies.
Detractors of the natural health movement had a field day with the deaths of Jerome Rodale and Adelle Davis. These deaths were a public relations disaster that required a great deal of energy to explain away. In much the same way that Hal Higdon defended Jim Fixx in 2004, defenders of Jerome Rodale insisted in the wake of his death that he had in fact lived a virtuous life, but that the congenitally weak heart that he was born with could only take him so far.
The argument had merit. Rodale’s father, Michael Cohen, died of a heart attack at fifty-one. Eerily, his oldest brother, Archie Cohen, also died of a heart attack at fifty-one. Cardiac arrest claimed his brother Solomon at sixty-two, his brother Joe at fifty-six, his sister Tina at sixty-four, and his sister Sally at fifty-eight. Given this dismal family history, Prevention writers maintained that Rodale would have in all likelihood died in his early fifties, had he not taken such good care of himself. He had added twenty years to his life. This was cause for celebration. Rodale’s death at seventy-two, they argued, was nothing that the health conscious need be ashamed of.
Explaining Adelle Davis’s death was more difficult. She had died at the relatively early age of seventy, more than six years below the national average. How could someone who lived such a healthy life develop bone cancer? Davis was initially shocked when she received the diagnosis in 1973. But she soon came up with an explanation that left her belief system intact. True to form, Davis blamed herself. Her cancer had come about, she argued, as a result of two important lapses in judgement.
The first was acquiescing in numerous x-rays over the years. Insurance companies required them for periodic examinations, but, she reasoned, they were carcinogenic and she should have known better. Davis claimed that the second transgression took place long ago in her youth. She maintained that she had eaten well on the Indiana farm where she grew up, but that she had turned to junk foods when she left home for college. She had continued upon this nutritionally unsound path for much of her twenties. She insisted that her life since then had been thoroughly virtuous. But clearly, she lamented, the damage was already done.
Davis concluded that she was now paying for the sins of her youth. Prevention magazine accepted her analysis and praised “the great lady of the natural health movement” for battling it out better than most. In her death, Adelle Davis maintained the principle of personal responsibility, appropriately so because she was one of the health reformers most insistent on placing it on individuals. As luck would have it, health-conscious America’s nemesis Fredrick John Stare managed to outlive all of his lifelong enemies. He died in 2002 at the ripe old age of 91.
Uncertainty and the Moral Imagination
A healthy respect for uncertainty has been conspicuously absent in health-conscious America. And it is here, I think, that the psychological origins of the movement’s heartlessness are to be found. To put it plainly: If you don’t believe in luck, you probably don’t believe in compassion either. True compassion stems from an awareness of your own limitations, and from a careful assessment of the limitations of the person you wish to judge; it stems, as well, from an honest appreciation of the good fortune that has helped you achieve whatever it is that you have achieved.
“To respond with compassion,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum rightly observes, “I must be willing to entertain the thought that this suffering person might be me”; viz., compassion requires “a sense of one’s own vulnerability to misfortune.”
Thinking along similar lines, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argues, in Émile (1762), that the moral imagination of a child ought to be shaped by an awareness of “the vicissitudes of fortune”:
“Make him understand well that the fate of these unhappy men can be his . . . . Unsettle and frighten his imagination with the perils by which every man is constantly surrounded.”
Only thus, avers Rousseau, can a man be made humane. Yet this is precisely the kind of moral reasoning that has been consistently opposed by the leaders of the natural health movement.
Luminaries like Adelle Davis and the Rodales claimed, time and again, that good health is not a matter of luck or fate; it is a decision—a decision made by self-disciplined individuals. A healthy physique is, in health-conscious circles, an accurate indicator of a person’s moral worth. Conversely, a diseased body is seen as fundamentally aberrant; “it is foolish to be ill,” thunders Adolphus Hohensee. “We can have health,” declared another, “or we can have disease. It’s all up to us.” Of course it’s not all up to us. Things fall apart. People get sick and die, often for no apparent reason. The world we inhabit can be an unpredictable place. This horrifies most of us. So we ignore it when we can, and deny the evidence of experience when we cannot. When all else fails, we embrace illusions of total control. Health consciousness is just one of those illusions. There have been others in the past, and so long as our desire to control the capricious revolutions of the Wheel of Fortune remains intact, there will be others in the future.
In The Future of an Illusion (1927), Freud argues that our colossal attempts to make sense of suffering and death are ultimately fueled by a childish fear of growing up. We are afraid of leaving the home where we “felt so warm and cozy.” We do not wish to come to terms with the arbitrary nature of existence. Illusions fulfill this wish. They coddle us, stunt our psychological growth, and allow us to prolong our childish fantasies well into adulthood. All of this renders us, at least as far as Freud is concerned, pretty pathetic:
“A person cannot remain a child for ever; eventually the child must go out into what has been called ‘hostile life’. The process might be termed ‘education for reality’.”
The resigned realists of the future would, Freud hoped, resolutely reject all infantilizing illusions. Like St. Paul, they would “put away childish things.” This widespread cultural maturation would lead, in turn, to the dawning of a more enlightened age led by sober scientists. But alas, the somber souls that Freud idealized remain—especially in the United States—little more than a melancholy morbid minority. Freud’s adults cannot help but feel like misfits and outsiders in 21st-century America. Even in these difficult economic times, their pessimistic worldview places them at odds with the morals and mores of the mainstream. The same could manifestly not be said about health-conscious Americans. Their ideas are, at present, a central feature of our shared experience. Between 1970 and 2015, millions of Americans embraced concerns that were once the exclusive province of a quirky subculture. Visit them if you like: they’re there, right now, on the blessèd isles of health-conscious America, quixotically asserting their freedom over fate and fortune. Freud would be horrified by their optimism. Rousseau would be horrified by their lack of compassion.