BOOKS
05/20/2018 08:00 am ET Updated May 21, 2018

Barbara Ehrenreich Gets Pumped For Death

In her latest book, the 'Nickel and Dimed' author explains why she'll keep going to the gym but refuses to waste her final years in a doctor's office.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Barbara Ehrenreich lifts. And not in some sort of metaphorical, hippie-dippy Up With People kind of way. I mean that Barbara Ehrenreich lifts serious weight.

When you think of Ehrenreich, you think of a deep skeptic, a staunch feminist and a fierce advocate for America’s working class. What you don’t think of ― or, at least, what I don’t think of ― is a gym rat. But the Ehrenreich of Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, her latest book, is a jock who pushes her body to new extremes for the sheer joy of it.  

Natural Causes explains why Ehrenreich, now 76, decided to forgo preventive medical care treatments, like cancer screenings, annual exams and Pap smears, after determining that she was, in her words, “old enough to die.”

“I decided that I was also old enough not to incur any more suffering, annoyance, or boredom in the pursuit of a longer life,” she writes. 

Ehrenreich is not trying to peddle a how-to guide. Rather, Natural Causes is an extended explanation of how she decided not to waste her time or the country’s money. She has made a career as a self-described “mythbuster,” most famously with her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed, in which she went undercover to work various low-wage jobs. The book, her breakthrough, gave Americans in middle and upper classes a rare window into the realities of poverty in the U.S.

Natural Causes is likewise a story of Americans being passed over by the country’s medical system and the luxury “wellness” industry, and Ehrenreich is as righteous and dyspeptic as ever. But we also get to see a lot of Ehrenreich the athlete, someone who in the 1980s decided she needed to see her body as more than “mere scaffolding for keeping [her] head upright.”

Ehrenreich is still very much engaged. When I called her last week, she was not having a great day: Eric Schneiderman, the New York attorney general who had positioned himself as a champion for women, had just been accused of physical violence by four women. 

In our conversation, we talked about how she plans to spend her final years, the cultural obsession with living forever, the wrong reasons for working out, what the medical industry should be doing instead of performing massive numbers of colonoscopies ― and, yes, lifting.

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In the past, you’ve given people a real understanding of what it’s like to be poor in America. In this book you deal more with getting older, health, wellness, those sort of things. What do you feel people are missing with regards to health and wellness when they talk about them?

What initially spurred my interest in this was when I realized that people in my age cohort ― middle-class people, I should say ― were very, very anxious about their health and their inevitable deaths. And pretty obsessed with these things. How old are you?

I’m 30.

Oh, you’re kidding? You’re young. And it concerned me. I could almost cite Allen Ginsberg’s famous line “I have seen the best minds of my generation.” I was seeing the best minds of my generation, people who were progressives and activists, being completely absorbed by their cholesterol levels, their diets, their exercise regimens and every kind of preventive test that they are talked into by their doctors. So that’s what concerned me initially.

If people shouldn’t spend the older years of their life focusing on preventing their death, I wonder what you think people should spend most of their time doing?

If they were doing anything worthwhile before, they should be doing it still. I think there are two big things about the last years of life. One is that you should have some fun and do things that are enjoyable, which means, for me, eating foods that I like and not just foods that I curate and decide should be on my plate.

And also, it means that doing the usual save-the-world kinds of things. I’ve got a pretty full plate, so to speak, with those agenda items.

I saw you talked with a Jezebel writer about people doing all their self-care in almost solitary confinement. Why do you think people don’t prioritize dancing, partying, all those things a bit more in America?

It’s not just America. I wrote a whole book on this, called Dancing in the Streets, about the destruction in hierarchical societies, which is almost all of them now, the destruction of traditional festivities and dance rituals and things that have always given people intense pleasure as well as some kind of ― what’s the word I want? This is what happens when you’re old, you can’t remember the word you want! [Laughs] Some kind of transcendent experience. We don’t have those anymore. Well, I mean we have some ― I would say that was the point of Burning Man until that became a rich people’s thing.

Are you practicing what you preach here?

No. How would I find time! No, I haven’t found the party yet.

You dedicate a not insignificant chunk of the book to your own sort of workout habits, so I wanted to ask you a bit about that. What is your typical workout look like?

[Laughs] I laugh because once I was on the “Charlie Rose” show and talking about some other book of mine ― I don’t know what it was ― but suddenly out of the blue he asked me about my exercise regimen and I couldn’t believe it, so I started talking about that but I thought: “Hey, come on, this is on air. This is a total waste!”

I’ve been doing a modified workout because I have had such bad back problems, some of which I have to say have been accentuated by working out itself. About three years ago, four years ago, I picked up a 45-pound weight from the floor and I did it at a funny angle. Forty-five pounds is nothing to me, but I did it at an angle. Suddenly there was an explosion in my back, and I’ve been sort of slightly handicapped ever since, so I have to work around that and do all the things the physical therapist tells me to do. But I do the usual ― cardio, some weights and a lot of stretching.

What do you enjoy about it?

I enjoy using my muscles. I enjoy the physical freedom. When I was a kid I was a tree climber. I was a runner ― not a runner in the formal sense ― a bike rider. I loved all those things. But adulthood comes and ― what? We’re expected to sit all day? For me, finding the gym culture and finding that there was this strange kind of setting in which I could sort of be a kid again was very important.

In the book, it seems like you have opinions about the right reasons for exercising and the wrong ones. I wonder if you can distill those down a bit.

I don’t think you should do it with the intention of just adding a few weeks of life to your life expectancy. Like, I don’t go on the treadmill and say, “If I do this for 30 minutes, then I can live for three more minutes in the intensive care unit.” No. I mean, I enjoy it. And, you know, I see a lot of people who are just kind of dragging themselves to do it because they think they have to ― that they’ll die young. I don’t think we can totally control when we die, and I think we should have more fun forms of exercise.

In the book, you take issue with this new idea of “crushing” your workout. But when I work out, I do like to end up feeling like a bit of a sweaty mess. What’s the issue there?  

You like to feel like a bloody mess? 

Not a bloody mess! I like to feel sweaty, though. It makes my dopamine levels go up or something.

Yeah, I know what you mean. But it’s interesting to me how violent the idea of the workout has become, as I’ve been doing it. You know, people used to say, “Have a good workout,” whatever that means. Now they’ll say, “Crush your workout.” Or, “Crush your body.” And then there’s a new class my gym is offering called “shredding your body,” and I find that kind of an interesting case of mind-body dualism, where you are actually trying to kill your body in some way. It’s an assertion of control ― we don’t have control over a lot of parts of our lives so I always think, “Can’t do much about [Donald] Trump today, but I could certainly work on those quadriceps.” It’s sad, as our president would say.

This idea of stopping preventive care ― it sounds like the line for you was as you reached into your 70s. Do you think that’s what works for you, or do you think that’s what society as a whole should take on?

I never recommend anything to anybody. I mean, I say in the beginning, it’s not a how-to book. But I started well before turning 70 ― I was questioning all the things that were being imposed on me, or that doctors were trying to impose on me. I’ve just always been skeptical of most things, especially medical things, going back to my years in what was called the women’s health movement in the ’70s and ’80s.

When you realize that you’re spending more and more of your life just trying to prolong your life, there’s something wrong. Right? Barbara Ehrenreich

So they’ll say, “Hey, you’ve gotta have a colonoscopy.” And I’ll say, “Yuck,” and then I’ll go do research. When I’m doing research, I’m looking to see what the controversies are already within the medical profession. What the issues are. But then I make up my own mind. In the case of colonoscopies, which you won’t get for another 20 years, the thing that affected me was learning that the United States does so many more than other advanced countries. And in other advanced countries, it’s more likely that they would do a noninvasive test first ― like looking for traces of blood in the feces. You can just bring them the feces in a container, and if there’s blood, then OK, let’s go do a colonoscopy. But here we go straight to that and with almost religious fervor! Similarly, mammograms. Oh, my God, the religiosity around that.

There’s certainly a lot of guilt. It makes people feel really guilty ― like they’re failing not just themselves but their families.

Oh yeah, there’s tremendous societal pressure to do all these things.

What about preventive care early on in life?

That’s totally different. There are so many kinds of preventive care we could really use in this country.

Like what?

Like widespread lead-poisoning testing. Like prenatal care. It’s very disturbing to me ― and this came up since I wrote the book ― that the United States is experiencing an increase in maternal mortality. That is, deaths to women during childbirth or shortly thereafter. I mean, there’s no excuse for that.

This is something that’s been going down for decades. We are the only advanced country in the world where it’s going up, so why can’t we have better prenatal care? Especially for black women, because that’s where the increase is most pronounced. No, there are all kind of useful things that we could do with medical resources and medical skills that we don’t do enough of ― but older people, once they’re 65, are insured, and they are a much more attractive clientele than, say, a 19-year-old black woman in Mississippi.

When I first heard of your book, it reminded me of a conversation I’d had a couple of months before with an older man who was talking to me excitedly about technology that could help him live potentially to the age of 120, 130. I think what excited him about it was the prospect of spending more time with his family and seeing his children grow older. What do you think we miss when we try to live forever, or when that is the aspiration?

When you realize that you’re spending more and more of your life just trying to prolong your life, there’s something wrong. Right? It should be about something. In addition to wanting to see my grandkids alive and well and happy as they grow into adulthood, the big thing that I regret is that I will not live long enough to know so many things, to answer so many questions. Like what is the universe made of? I want to know more about black holes. I mean, there is so much I want to know, and it’s not going to be found out in time.

The Larry Ellison line in the book about death making him very angry ― you’re talking about the entitlement that the rich, and particularly rich men, feel. Why do you think it is that they get so frustrated that the only inevitable thing in life will happen to them, too?

I was talking about the Silicon Valley billionaires. A lot of them have become immortalists. They’re determined to escape death or to postpone it well into the three-figure area. And I guess if you’re a billionaire and you’re one of the smartest people on earth, or so you’re told, why should you die? It’s annoying. It’s insulting. I don’t know. It’s hubris to an impossible degree. You’re in area code 310, are you in ―

I’m from Los Angeles, but I live in New York now. Why do you ask?

Oh, I just wondered because it is a little different in California.

How do you mean?

I think that this health fixation is much further advanced there. But then, I don’t know if I’m really right. I wonder ― and you can correct me ― whether millennials do not exceed older people in this kind of obsession with their own bodies.

It’s a good question. I mean, I think millennials seem to drink less and certainly smoke less, and a lot of friends I know are pretty into some form of the dreaded wellness industry that you talk about, so I would guess so.

On the other hand, I was interviewed by my old friend Lewis Lapham, who must be somewhere in his 80s, and he reported to me happily that he indulges in strong drink and he still smokes. 

Can I ask you to about the wellness industry? You refer to it as a “class cue,” what most bothers you about that industry?

There are two things.

For most working people, wellness is a pretty menacing word because it’s something a company brings in ― a wellness program, which simply means they are going to be monitoring your weight and your blood pressure, perhaps, and you have to participate in this program or you will be financially penalized. It’s none of the boss’ business. Just like it’s none of the boss’ business whether you smoke joints on the weekend or something, and it doesn’t even reduce the health insurance costs of the employer! So it just becomes another exertion of power of the rich over the less rich.

Then there’s the rich people’s wellness industry, and that’s usually what is meant when you say wellness “industry,” and that has a lot of components ― it has things like luxury wellness spas around the world. I did enjoy reading about some of the places, where you go and you meditate and you chant and you get massaged and have hot stones placed on your body. It’s all about very expensively pampering yourself, rubbing ointments and oils and vegetable derivatives into your skin. Another part of it is the celebrity wellness gurus ― Gwyneth Paltrow is the most famous ― that sell super-expensive things you could apply in some way to your body and offer you procedures you could be doing to yourself that would really take up your whole day. So it’s about narcissism. You want to be a narcissist? Here is what you do, step by step.

The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with being good to yourself, and there are lots of ways in which the wealthy are good to themselves. They spend extravagant amounts of money on food or buy higher-end bottles of whiskey. But is there anything in particular about this sort of practice or this sort of industry that makes it unique in your eyes?

I always, while looking at these fabulous indulgences, keep in mind all the people in the servant class ― who have to clean up after these other people, serving them their neurotically curated little meals, who are crewing their ships or whatever, their yachts. There’s a lot of labor, often low-paid labor, that goes into allowing some people to live these lives of obscene indulgence.

I remember reading a line that you wrote about how the poorest Americans are the greatest philanthropists in the country because they give so much to let other people live such extravagant lives.

Yep.

Can you lay out the main reasons the wellness industry has become such an upper-class phenomenon in American society?

The rest of us can’t afford it. As a journalist, I’m sorry, you will never go to a wellness spa.

Don’t tell me the truth.

You can have a good time with your friends at the beach, though.

Thank you. There is hope for me. You made a distinction between health and wellness. I wonder if you could explain what you mean when you say that.

The only word for a long time was health. It was what we desired and what we tried to get. And I think what happened is that our society became so unequal, so class-polarized that we needed new words. Now we talk about health for the average person or the poor, and we talk about wellness for those who can afford this sort of holistic self-pampering approach.

What do you see as the major connections between the story of health in America and the stories of poverty and class? Is there a major connection there?

Well, yeah. Poor people tend to ― now, especially ― live less long than wealthy people, and the gap has been increasing. Black people have always had shorter life expectancies than white people. But working-class white people have been closing that gap. We’ve learned this just in the past decade through, especially, the research of Angus Deaton and his colleagues at Princeton and other places that white working-class life expectancy is declining ― this, like rising maternal mortality, was not supposed to happen.

The optimistic view was that people would just get better medical care and eat better food and so on, and we would all live longer and that was sort of true for a long time. Now, it no longer is, and it appears that the white working class, which has been stripped of its traditional occupations by deindustrialization, is dying, principally of suicide, opioid addiction or overdoses and the combination of alcoholism and depression. These are all what Deaton calls “diseases of despair.”

I know in your book you said you’re not really going to give how-to advice to people, but I’m going to ask anyway: Do you have any advice for younger people about how to go about living their life as they move forward?

What I always told my children was that they have to be very skeptical about things that are on offer as health- and wellness-promoting. And, of course, my kids are so smart anyway, they know that. And to do what you want to do. Don’t let anything get in the way. You know, sometimes what you want to do is not going to be what makes you a lot of money. If you’re a journalist, that goes without saying. But stick to it. Because you want to do it. This sounds disturbingly like, “Go with your passion.”

Barbara Ehrenreich, the optimist!

I know what I want to do. I know there are things I could have done that would have made me really rich ― maybe if I had written different sorts of books. But no. This is what I like to do, and I don’t let too many things get in the way.

The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

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