The Trouble with Belle

The Trouble with Belle

I have been reading The Woman who Fooled the World, an eye-opening expose of Belle Gibson by Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano, the journalists who broke the story.

It’s hard to put down — a thriller that tells us a lot about our own vulnerability to marketing and branding — and to hearing what we desperately want to believe. Gibson is the very good looking young woman whose profile rose along side that of social networking photo-sharing app Instagram. She falsely claimed to have cured her brain cancer through natural healing and nutrition. She also fraudulently claimed to have donated a large percentage of profits from her app and cookbook to charity, garnering huge donations from people who believed in her and her philosophy and misleading those who were desperate for comfort and hope in the face of a cancer diagnosis.

It seems like we all wanted to believe in the happy endings she concocted through slick marketing and beautiful images. From the book, we understand that her closest friends tried to intervene much earlier than The Age online article exposing her charity frauds. They cared about her and wanted to stop her from perpetuating the lies she used to help build a global brand.

The story is shocking, fascinating and by turns unbelievable — much like Belle herself. In some of the articles I have read there is speculation regarding her mental health, but I certainly don’t believe she had — or has, Munchausen’s syndrome. Perhaps it’s more likely that she may have a personality disorder, although of course we can’t be sure.

Although Belle’s dishonesty and willingness to exploit people’s generosity and desperation are shocking, I have been struck by her inability to apologise or take any steps to make amends for her actions other than where she has tried to cover up and escape the consequences. In the days and months following her exposure, she tried to remove incriminating posts, emails, and an online presence that was a combination of wishful thinking and bald-faced lies.

Having become increasingly fascinated by her story, I landed on the 60 Minutes interview with Tara Brown.

Here was a young woman — way out of her depth, being held to account for her actions, and at every turn trying to slip out of responsibility, blame, reckoning or reflection. It was particularly hard to understand her feelings — or her deeper motivations. She was unable to even partially acknowledge what she had done.

In the end, I found it overwhelmingly sad.

Perhaps it would have been too painful to incorporate this less than wholesome self into her self-image. It takes some ego strength to admit when we have done wrong or made a mistake.

Perhaps the whole thing had ballooned into something that she couldn’t control or back out of. Perhaps she even believed some of her own lies. At one point in an interview after being exposed, she appears to wonder who she might be without cancer — or without the acknowledgement and support that her public image has brought. It’s a telling moment where we get a glimpse of what might be internal emptiness behind the glamorous facade.

“It’s just very scary, to be honest,” she says, her voice wobbling. “Because you start to doubt the crux of things that make up who you are. You know, I’m blonde and I’m tall, and I’ve got hazel eyes and I’ve got cancer. And all of a sudden, you take away some of those high-level things and it’s really daunting.”

(From Clair Weaver’s interview with Belle which was originally published in the Women’s Weekly)

It seems clear that she enjoyed the attention — and the benefits of wealth and fame that accrued after the success of her app. But it was all built on something that wasn’t true— she never had cancer. Other interviews conducted after the scandal broke are equally telling — far from being apologetic, she seemed to see herself as the victim of unfair vilification — and betrayal by those closest to her. She may have felt genuinely victimised as those who once supported her shifted sides in the face of mounting evidence.

One incident from the book stands out.

At her son Olivier’s 4th birthday party, she shocked guests and frightened her son by collapsing against the wall and falling to the floor in what seemed to be a potentially fatal seizure. It must have been a terrifying moment for Olivier — and for those who cared about Belle — yet it was all apparently faked. The authors argue that she has factitious disorder and although we cannot be sure, this and other somaticising illnesses involve bodily responses and manifestations that mimic and are experienced by the sufferer as if they are real. It’s hard to know.

People started asking questions. The goodwill and sympathy she had exploited started to drain in the face of increasingly unbelievable, illogical — and even contradictory statements. And yet nothing happened until two journalists started uncovering the extent of her deception through investigating her relationship with the charities she had foregrounded as partners and beneficiaries of her business success. Most had never heard of her. They certainly had not received any money. She argued that the business was having “cash flow problems.”

In bringing down her findings, the presiding judge in Gibson’s court proceedings expresses her anger at Gibson’s behaviour “She has chosen not to explain her conduct. She has chosen not to apologise for it…It appears she has put her own interests before those of anyone else….If there is one theme or pattern which emerges through her conduct, it is her relentless obsession with herself and what best serves her interests.” Perhaps she may have been more prepared to try to understand Belle’s point of view if Belle had fronted up to the hearing.

But we know from the interviews post-exposure that it was just too difficult for Belle to acknowledge how badly things had gone, that her reality didn’t match what was really happening and that she had caused pain to the people who were closest to her. No doubt it would have been too hard to face a court room full of judgement — but she couldn’t escape the judgement of those who had once supported her, and the online communities she had built turned on her in the blink of an eye. Donnelly and Toscano argue that the vilification and shaming of Belle Gibson “crossed a line.”

The extremity of the abuse demonstrated how easy it is to behave online in ways which in our off-line lives we would never consider. We are all a bit tempted by the opportunity that the web offers us to vent and to manifest our worst selves without any apparent consequences. No doubt Belle’s success -and her downfall are all part of the same phenomenon.

Although there is some confusion regarding Belle’s background, it seems likely that her mother allowed her to move from home at 12 to live with a man more than 50 years her senior. Her mother has also appeared to change her own story at times. As related in The Woman Who Fooled the World, the author’s interactions with Belle’s parents paint a picture of unpredictability, a marked lack of both stable identity and moral certainty. They seem to change their position on Belle and her actions every time they call. At one stage Natalie (Belle’s mother) leaves a message of breathy seductiveness which points to a troubling lack of boundaries. Natalie and her husband both claim that they wish to have nothing to do with the press, to be left alone, yet they keep ringing.

Donelly and Toscano posit the possibility that Belle has factitious disorder, and she does seem to have some some sort of somaticising problem, but there is also a sense of narcissism in her narrative. Given the transmission of the idea of narcissism into a kind of generalised cultural bugbear, it’s hard to see it for what it is — a personality disorder caused by trauma and a fundamental lack of identity. People with NPD rely on social feedback to manage their self-esteem — their sense of self. Belle’s need to market and inflate her self-image through the medium of social networks could be seen as part of this kind of strategy. Her apparent exploitative approach to relationships also seems narcissistic — it seems to be “all about her” and how she can get what she needs from the world around her. Her rise to fame could be seen as a struggle to define herself through the markers of worldly success. When it all came crashing down, and the feedback turned negative, she seems to have found it impossible to reconcile internal and external worlds. Built on a fragile base, her inner structure was in danger of fragmenting or collapsing with every criticism.

We have some idea where she has come from and how her upbringing may have contributed to her behaviour, but what will she do now? I wonder, in the end, how she will move on from this. I hope that she can eventually find it within herself to acknowledge what she has done, the pain she has caused and to ask for help.

Amanda Robins, MSW, PhD Psychotherapist

The Woman Who Fooled the World by Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano is out now, published by Scribe.

Click here for a link to the publisher’s website.