Annabel Crabb: I won't join the Belle Gibson lynch mob

Facing a possible $1m fine, disgraced blogger has again failed to turn up to court for her own case.

Facing a possible $1m fine, disgraced blogger has again failed to turn up to court for her own case.

Is there anyone in the world for whom fewer people right now feel sorry than Belle Gibson? There are parking inspectors, puppy-farmers, war criminals who would be more likely to get a smile in the street than the twenty-something lady from God-knows-where who now, for the rest of her life, will carry the multifacetedly dreadful sobriquet "disgraced wellness blogger". Belle Gibson, caught red-handed cheating cancer sufferers, has achieved (and this is rare) a Full Sympathy Reversal, in which every ounce of goodwill directed her way by people who believed she had cancer has now been recast as rage and contempt.

So reprehensible is her conduct, so black-and-white her crime, that there's barely a person alive unqualified to despise her; tax-dodgers, movie piraters, all manner of catchpenny fraudsters can tsk-tsk in comfort, knowing they'd never do anything that bad.

"Please don't feel sorry for her," a perfectly sensible person warned me on Twitter a few days ago. And yet, I do a bit.

There are two things I'd ask you to consider before you set out for my house with a lighter and a kerosene-soaked rag wrapped around a stick.

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The first is the fascinating irony of what's going on here.

This woman has gone to some lengths (though, given the surprising credulity of some of the people with whom she had professional dealings, the lengths turn out to be quite a bit shorter than you might have expected) to convince all and sundry that she was profoundly physically afflicted, and to harvest, opportunistically, the generosity and sympathy that accrue to those in the circumstances she fabricated.

What's happened in recent weeks is that her claimed maladies fell away, one by one; first the blood and uterine cancers, and finally the claimed brain tumour, the original lie from which the others, over the years, metastasized and from which, she tearfully confesses in this month's Women's Weekly, she never suffered at all.

As the case for her physical affliction crumbled, though, the story that emerged built an indestructible case for another kind of illness entirely.

And mental illness tends to generate a very different kind of response.

Settle down; I'm not suggesting Belle Gibson should be given a leave pass to behave abominably on the basis of having a special page in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I just think that a very particular part of her punishment is that she will now – among everything else – be seen as a mentally ill person rather than a physically ill person, and our society's treatment of those two classes of people is extremely different. (Ironically, mental illness is a realm in which sufferers are most likely to be urged to undertake "natural" remedies: Cheer up. Snap out of it. Get some air, and so on.)

One of the saddest and most shocking things I've read in some time is the fashion photographer Russell James' account – published last week in the West Australian – of his eldest daughter Emily's frightening and lonely struggles with mental illness, drug addiction and self-harm. James articulates – with a power I've not seen before – the failings of the health system as again and again his distressed, sick daughter was admitted to crisis psychiatric facilities plagued by poor resourcing, and non-existent continuity of care.

"If Emily was admitted to Royal Perth Hospital naked, beaten and in psychosis, the hospital would find no record of a previous admission to Fremantle Hospital for a suicide attempt," he recalls.

James compares Emily's experience to that of his other daughter Lola, who as a child was diagnosed with the rare cancer neuroblastoma and immediately received intense and ultimately successful therapy from a highly-co-ordinated team of experts. As well she should have. But the contrast is striking. Read the article and see if you agree.

The other point I would make is about punishment.

There's a lot of shouting about how Gibson should now face fraud charges as she is "getting away with" her deception. I wonder about that. Social media – an intensely modern phenomenon – has actually done something quite counter-intuitive to crime and punishment. It's reintroduced a strong thread of medievalism. Jon Ronson's brilliant new book So, You've Been Publicly Shamed, visits dozens of people whose lives have been destroyed by incautious remarks or stupid jokes which have spiralled into global storms of internet shaming. The human instinct to band together and throw stones is just as powerful as our instinct to pitch in and help a stranger. Belle Gibson (whose transgressions incalculably outstrip the telling of an off-colour joke) first enjoyed disproportionately the benefits of the latter human tendency, and now must accept the former.

And for a person who craves nothing more than massed sympathy and attention and to be thought good and wholesome, can you think of a worse punishment than lifelong infamy and contempt in the very world she sought to conquer?

I can't.

Annabel Crabb is an ABC writer and broadcaster. She tweets at @annabelcrabb

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