It’s a sad story, the Belle Gibson one. Revelations of misappropriation of funds and fabricated claims have many of us shaking our heads in disbelief and thirsting for more information and answers.
The story seems impossible, unfathomable and particularly of interest to the online community. The hunger for details has media sites putting their Belle updates behind pay-walls faster than you can say ‘The Whole Life”. (Google thewholelife.com and you’ll find the next part of the master plan waiting to roll out).
Let me say firstly that I have spent some time with Belle, before all this blew up. We chatted and had fun. We talked food and other stuff. We talked about kids.
She’s close in age to my daughter and I felt a kind of fascination mixed with confusion when we hung out: I worried for her (because she was apparently going to die and I don’t want young people to die, especially when they are mothers). I admired her energy and focus (because she had systematically carved a path through the online world in a way that made her success almost a given). And yet… I wondered how all this could be happening in her life, how could she be on this jet-setting juggernaut when she was suffering from multiple cancers?
So, I had my doubts, but it didn’t seem possible that they could be based on anything other than my own pre-conceptions about what sick people looked like and how they might communicate/behave. In short: I must be a mean girl for even thinking that way and shame on me.
I tried to push the doubts aside and stop thinking about why Belle looked so glowing-with-good-health all the darn time. She was a young mum, as I had been and she deserved my solidarity and support, I chided myself. SHAME. ON. ME.
Belle seemed like a creature from another generation (she mid twenties, and I’m, err… not) and we were poles apart. She was also from a whole other world where they spoke a different ‘language’, that of alkalinity and crystals and turmeric and inflammation. I put my Belle-story-confusion down to my own ignorance and a pretty big age gap, mostly. But the doubts lingered, they really did.
When Jess Ainscough died, my doubts turned into something bigger. Anger, really. I felt that Belle was promoting #thewholelife as a way to thrive/survive with cancer and the passing of Jess was a reminder of how dangerous that kind of misinformation about health can be.
As I tried to reconcile all of this, it all blew up and the whispers about Belle were suddenly something louder. Allegations and accusations began to flow freely after The Age’s story on Sunday night (and The Australian’s equally compelling piece on Monday). Theories that had once been secretly aired between Belle’s friends/acquaintances were suddenly in print and online.
I admit I could not stop reading. I had been feeling totally nuts for having doubts and suddenly I felt like less of a mean girl and more like a sleuth. (A sad sleuth, but a sleuth all the same).
The more I read the more confused I became. Why was this happening? What could the motivation be? Was she okay? How have other cancer sufferers been impacted? How could she be so callous? Is she getting the right advice and ready to take responsibility? Could all this ‘she said’ ‘he said’ be true? While it’s fascinating to read, I’m certain that many people are holding their breath, waiting for some irrefutable facts.
And as we wait for more information, it’s hard not to think about how it has felt to be Belle.
If the stories sourced from those that knew her at school and around the 2008/2009 period are to be believed, it seems that Belle always wanted to be noticed, interesting and successful, all while somehow fitting in. (Truth be told, many of us can probably relate to those feelings – but not to what followed, obviously).
It’s also obvious that Belle has searched for her ‘gang’ since high school. – be it in online forums or on Instagram. Belle very quickly found a way to not only be noticed and belong, but to become an authority and gain instant respect. Whether her health claims are true or not, they gave her the kind of influence (and sympathy) that she obviously craved the most.
Taboos around discussing health, and especially terminal illness, protected her for MANY YEARS, as did her dreamy responses when questioned about anything particularly personal. Belle spoke in riddles that gave her an other-worldliness – a (probable) faux wisdom that seemed to signal she’d been through a lot and most certainly deflected deeper discussion or dissection of her claims.
As we wait to hear the improbable truth, there is so much more to ponder.
The questions this case raises about how we find our ‘experts’ and assume authority are important ones for sure, but there are other questions too.
In an age where ‘successful’ online life is dominated by notions of growing followers, establishing a personal brand and acquiring influence – why are we so surprised when young people who’ve grown up online go off the rails, stopping at nothing to gain status and power?
We really need to reevaluate our definition of success and authority.
* This piece was submitted by a writer who wished to remain anonymous, which I totally respect. She asked me to post for the sake of contributing to the conversation and helping people to understand the drama and why it matters.
On a personal note, this piece reminded me why we must trust our instinct and emotional intelligence.