Belle Gibson, the inspiration industry, and the willing suspension of disbelief

Belle Gibson_SunriseWhen I stay in a hotel, there is a tacit agreement that I (the guest) will pretend to not know that someone slept in the bed and used the room before me, and in return they (the hotel) will do everything they can to remove any evidence that somebody has been in the room prior to my arrival.

A stay in a hotel is, in its way, something akin to the willing suspension of disbelief.

If we both comply with that little bit of fantasy, it tends to work. But, ultimately, we are all playing a role – actors in a piece of theatre that allows us to dismiss the uncomfortable reality of the situation.

Life is a little bit like that. We go through life playing particular roles that suit the circumstances, while processing information that seems to help us to understand our little piece of existence, and ignoring information (whether consciously or unconsciously) that doesn’t work for us at that point in time.

So, it’s no wonder that for people who have been struck down with an acute illness (or knew someone who had), such as cancer, it was easy for many to believe the story of Belle Gibson.

Gibson weaved a wonderful narrative that appealed to her target market – the colour magazines, the magazine TV shows, and light radio – because she could have been one of them.

She was young. She told us her life had been difficult. She had suffered. Just like we had.

Her story seemed plausible. She used medical sounding words that were familiar, but she didn’t overwhelm us with jargon or complexity.

Her story was reality television; we wanted a happy ending and Belle gave us one, with the assistance of much of the media playing its designated role – keeping “real” reality and messy complexity at bay. She was, we were told, “authentic”.

All in a four-minute interview, between ads for Veggetti™ and fun ship cruises.

She told us a story, and the media helped her by weaving us into its narrative.

And, as any marketer will tell you, narrative is so much more powerful than facts and information. Particularly when compared to the abstract, impenetrable world of science.

Science is complex, remote, and clinical. It requires effort to process. It has its own internal language that often requires a university degree to completely comprehend.

Science talks in probabilities, not in definitive outcomes.

But, the lovely Belle told us stories, and the media helped us to understand those stories by matching them with beautiful pictures of the brave Belle standing next to fruit and vegetables, and sitting, happily in her garden.


Belle’s story felt right to many people who have suffered through the horror of being told you have an illness that could take your life. The hope she provided felt tangible, and the ability to fix the problem using methods that are understandable – changing your diet, buying an app – seemed so much more palatable than being injected with, what is ostensibly, a poison designed to wipe out the matter that keeps you alive; your blood cells.

Chemotherapy is scary.

Eating fresh fruit and vegetables is not.

Belle fulfilled her role as a member of the inspiration industry. She played her part in the inspirational theatre that supports the health and beauty sector. She did what the best products do.

She gave us hope.

In Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, Oryx and Crake, one of her characters asks whether we are “both saved, and doomed, by hope”. It is hope that drives marketing – hope for a better future for ourselves, for our families, for the planet.

Belle was one of those pithy quotes that we repost on Facebook, to show that we are strong, or brave, or some other third thing.

She didn’t talk about cancer in probabilities. She provided a colourful, attractive counterpoint to the complexity and contingencies of science.

Yes, we were duped by Belle. And yes, her lies may have resulted in some people not seeking treatment, and others delaying treatment.

But we were also accessories who were not interested, or perhaps too frightened to engage, in the facts.

In return for being inspired, we entered into a tacit agreement not to think too much about the reality of what Belle was telling us.

It wouldn’t have taken much for someone, anyone, to find her story just a little implausible. As one her friends stated in the Sydney Morning Herald once her story started to fall apart, “I asked her when she got her diagnosis, she said she didn’t know,” “I asked her who gave her the diagnosis, she said Dr Phil. I asked her where she saw Dr Phil, she said he came and picked [her] up from [her] house.”

Her diagnoses for terminal brain cancer (acquired from a vaccine), three heart surgeries, three minutes of being clinically dead, two further brain cancers, and cancers of the blood, spleen, uterus and liver were from a guy known as Dr Phil… who picked her up from her house?

There were plenty of alarm bells, but no one stopped to listen, because we were too busy being inspired by her bravery/courage/guts/determination (depending on which media you were tuned to).

But, I can also understand why nobody felt comfortable asking her to prove it. We are very uncomfortable when it comes to talking about the ‘c’ word. You can’t really ask someone who is telling you that they have recovered from a terminal illness for their blood counts.

In a way, it wasn’t really up to Belle to prove it. It was up to those reporting on it to make sure she was telling the truth. Not by asking her, but by considering the facts, and doing a bit more than selling her brand.

But that would be journalism, not inspirational theatre.

Which brings me to my conclusion (of sorts).

I think we need to talk about cancer. In terms of its cure rates, advances in knowledge, and how people cope with their cancer, but also in terms of its messiness, unknowningness, and complexity. To recognise that it can be positive, but it also can be horrible. And to allow people to respond to it in any way that they want to, at any time.

We need to talk about probabilities. In all of their unpleasant, uncomfortable and infuriating unknowingness.

And we need to remind ourselves that science, and medicine is methodical, complex, and always provisional, but always looking to do better.

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18 Responses to Belle Gibson, the inspiration industry, and the willing suspension of disbelief

  1. rachelmeeks says:

    Best coverage I’ve read on this story – very very well-put. Congrats on Freshly Pressed!

  2. If you drink enough alcohol while in the hotel room, it negates the “other-people-ness” and nullifies any germs they may have left, such as on the bedspreads, which only get washed once every other Leap Year or so.
    Seriously, though–one has to be a pretty icky person or quite disturbed to think that claiming to have cancer, when one doesn’t actually have it, will not somehow lead to: a) people hating you, and b) some sort of bad karma. Dr. Phil told me that.

  3. Samantha says:

    I think what you said about not wanting to look at the facts is true, and could also be applied to food babe fans.

  4. Belle may have been an inspiration for attempting to cure cancer with food rather than big Pharma chemo-cocktails, and I believe she was on the right track. People die from cancer after they have exhausted their body and resources on chemotherapy too.
    Cancer cures have been around in the US since the 1930’s, but they have been suppressed by the pharmaceutical companies need for money.

    Recent research suggests that cancer is an environmental disease, and other research has described it as a metabolic disease. Cancer can be cured with diet, but not off-the-shelf foods from the grocery store or organic. All cells cancer and normal cells need fuel to live. Glucose id the fuel of choice for these cells, however, fat is an alternative fuel that normal cells can adapt to as a replacement fuel. Cancer cells cannot adapt and they wither and die from malnutrition at the cellular level. It has been demonstrated that a low carbohydrate, low protein, high fat (healthy fats only, please) will cure even stage four cancers.

    Unfortunately, clinics that promote this type of cure are very few, probably because the cure isn’t a wallet breaker.

    If I were to be diagnosed with cancer the first thing I would do is get a second opinion. The second is search for the right clinic that could monitor my diet to provide the proper proportions of cars-fats-proteins.

    Was Belle wrong? Was she leading people down the wrong path with inspiration? I don’t think so. Not everyone is cured by allopathic medicine, and not everyone will be cured by nutritional healing.

  5. ejshoko says:

    I work in cancer research…I would never have bought this story from the beginning. This way of thinking is akin to evil….and with emerging cancer therapies – we are fast moving into scenarios where it’s becoming “curable” with treatments. Belle is more harmful than helpful. You are quite balanced in your writing, which I respect. I would’ve just been pissed!

  6. penonpapergirl says:

    I have a problem with this too among certain people we talk to during our day…they’d rather take the alternative way because it was effective and “natural”. We let them exercise their right to choose, of course, but not prior to educating them re:the differences of traditional vs. Alternative treatment. Also, that Dr. Phil thing…what can i say?

  7. Loved it. Fine line between dream and daydream

  8. Artistic dreamscapes says:

    This is beautifully and very intelligently written, but you make one assumption that makes it hard for me to identify – you make the assumption that anyone who reads your article knows who this Belle person is. Well, I don’t. In a world full of more and more notorious personages, I gave up trying to keep up with the who’s who game. Because I do not know who she is (and probably many other readers don’t, either), maybe you could add to this beautifully written article by giving us a more exact background on what this Belle person did. Did she not have cancer after all? Was she fibbing even to that extent? Or did she have cancer, but her self-treatment failed and she died? In which ways did her story fall apart, as you put it? Just a little bit of feedback for you. This article truly IS impressive, it just needs a touch more clarification 🙂

  9. Artistic dreamscapes says:

    (yes, I do know I could google her, but that’s beside the point) 🙂

  10. Francois says:

    Our love for the miraculous and happy endings make us believe a lot without questions. So her story should make us step back once in a while and consider the methods that led to the miracle.

  11. Reblogged this on Human Relationships and commented:
    Belle Gibson, the Inspiration Industry, and the Willing Suspension of Disbelief

  12. Stacy Moore says:

    I have been thinking lately about how the stories we want to hear affect the way we respond to others. I agree — hope is a huge part of want we want. We want conquering heroes and underdogs who defeat the odds. We want other peoples’ problems (and our own) to be over and done with so we can get back to a sunny reality. We do NOT want things beyond our control or messy, ongoing difficulties that must be faced over and over again. Insisting on that very narrow, reality-denying kind of hope, though, denies people in real messes the help they need on many levels: everything from basic compassion to research funding to sick leave. I would love to hear your conclusion shouted from rooftops — and expanded beyond cancer.

  13. katelharc77 says:

    You are precisely right. I get very riled up about people who spruik any old unconventional therapy and give false hope to vulnerable people who are desperate for answers. As a Cancer patient it makes me furious.

  14. Duane & Todd says:

    Oh the things I would say to this woman’s face if only I had the chance. I will admit that my blog post on this subject was far less controlled, and much more emotional. Despite the “assistance” that we, and the media may have given this woman, in the end (or the beginning depending on how you see things) she is still responsible for her actions, and the consequences of her actions. Maybe, as a health care professional I would have been far more skeptical of her story (had I heard of it before the scandal broke… but I had not). Nonetheless, setting aside all the “checks” that the media and others should have done (but did not) this woman STILL is inherently dangerous. Maybe she is delusional and therefore was not aware of how dangerous she was, but her ability to weave together details into a sellable story lead me to believe that she has far more “smarts” than she would no like to admit to. It’s amazing how quickly the story can flip and she can claim to be a “victim.” It’s time that someone holds her accountable for all she’s done.

  15. Tara says:

    “So, it’s no wonder that for people who have been struck down with an acute illness (or knew someone who had), such as cancer, it was so easy to believe the story of Belle Gibson.”

    Nope, not for me and I am a cancer patient. Sorry, it was pretty darn obvious that Belle was lying and I don’t think you can assume other cancer patients believed her story either.

  16. Hey lovely content please follow back

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