Shaming Belle Gibson's supporters is as useless as it is unfair

Date

Sarah Darmody

Belle Gibson will be pursued by Consumer Affairs Victoria.

Belle Gibson will be pursued by Consumer Affairs Victoria. Photo: Garry Barker

In 2009, I shopped the story of my 'not-quite-cancer' miracle to Australia's biggest publisher, and received a warm welcome. A very beautiful book was created, and a national book tour complete with banner ads in major airports and bookstores was deployed in service of my book. Some of the world's best-loved female authors and personalities joined me in donating their time, their stories and their good names to sit beside my own. Mine, a stranger whose story they believed. From Jamie Oliver's wife, author Jools Oliver, to literary cool girls like Marieke Hardy, bestsellers such as Marian Keyes, Kate Holden and Sarah MacDonald, multi-industry powerhouses like Mia Freedman – even author Elizabeth Gilbert took the time to answer me privately and wish me well (although Gilbert was already, at that point, too famous to be allowed to write a sentence in service of anything not cleared by a team the size of The Hague).

My 'not-quite-cancer' miracle was on Sunrise, on 9am, on Mornings with Kerri-Anne, in magazines and more radio than I can remember, the SMH, the ABC – the works. I was young, blonde, healthy and pictured at one point reclining in an iconic egg chair with legs for days ending in red-soled Louboutins. As the key-note speaker at a Crown Casino fundraiser, I talked about cancer and illness while projecting a vision of radiant health in a pale-pink vintage dress, flanked by two enormous pink-dyed poodles in a ballroom. There was a book launch with the Australian Girls' Choir and what seemed to be a thousand donated cupcakes with edible glitter that someone had been up all night baking to get ready. The support for my fundraising endeavour was overwhelming, and everyone involved - including celebrity writers in three nations, their agents, their publishers, my publisher, my agent, booksellers, TV producers and entertainment industry professionals - only ever had one question for me: "How can we help?"

My 'not-quite-cancer' miracle was what is now handily referred to as the 'Angelina Jolie' surgery - a prophylactic double mastectomy and reconstruction due to what was at that time considered a new and unusual diagnosis of a genetic mutation in the BRCA gene. This gene greatly magnifies the risk of breast cancer. It resulted then, and much more commonly now, in a kind of 'pre-cancer' cancer operation. Why the book?  The highly specific research which led to my diagnosis was funded almost entirely by public donations to the National Breast Cancer Foundation – a pink ribbon here, a morning tea there, et voilà, the scientific breakthrough culminating in a life-saving operation for me.

Sarah Darmody, author of 2009's <i>Thanks For The Mammaries</i>.

Sarah Darmody, author of 2009's Thanks For The Mammaries. Photo: Supplied

After my recovery, I didn't want to raise awareness or start a wellness program. I wanted to raise cold, hard, cancer-fighting cash to continue the ground-breaking research I had so directly benefited from. I asked people, a lot of people, for their time and their money. They gave it to me in good faith to help others. I spent a year talking about cancer while looking well. No one ever asked to see a letter from my doctor. No one asked where my surgery was performed. No one questioned why I looked so healthy after enduring what amounted to a debilitating double amputation. No one asked who my physiotherapist was. No one suggested that my then strange-sounding malady might be self-serving bollocks. No one asked to see my scars.

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So when I read comments that the well-meaning publishers and supporters of Belle Gibson should have been somehow icily vigilant; that Gibson's apparent health and youth and unusual-sounding diagnoses should have led to immediate fact-checking and distrust, I want to ask, how? How exactly do you say to a young person who tells you that they were ill and are now looking to help others, "Sorry, I just don't buy it..."? Because the ghoulish hand-rubbing over Ms Gibson's high-profile supporters and publishers that amounts to a collective "Ha ha! Bet they're sorry now!" is a pretty wretched reaction. Of course this young woman's supporters would be feeling sorry; sorry as in sad, disappointed, confused and bewildered by whatever has actually happened here, if it is less than the truth they believed. But to demand contrition from those supporters?

Faking an illness, embellishing a truth, mishandling donated funds – these things are not rare. But they are not common either. The world holds together largely through social contracts; on a willingness to believe in the best of each other. In 2009, our fundraising book Thanks For The Mammaries was powered by trust and goodwill, and headed by a deliberately glossy version of myself who was determined to represent the health, vitality and hope I wanted to give to others. It was often hard to talk about my health. I deserved to be taken at my word, and our book did a lot of good. The desire to shame Belle Gibson's supporters as foolish or naïve is the enemy of that good, for all of us.