The best way to skewer bullshit is to hold it in contrast with vivid reality. This is the trick Molly Young pulled off in the New York Times Magazine, delicately needling the health potions industry without a single nasty word. I am in awe.
The piece is called “How Amanda Chantal Bacon Perfected the Celebrity Wellness Business.” Here’s how it begins:
The amount of time I waste finding and consuming alternative-medicine supplements for “brain function” has made me at least 10 percent dumber, and that paradox is not lost on me. It was this impulse that made me pause last year at a fancy store in Brooklyn when I spotted a glass jar labeled “Brain Dust.” It had the kind of packaging that signals discreet luxury: minimalist matte label, custom type, the word “organic.” A 2.2-ounce jar cost $55. “This adaptogenic potion lights up your brain and increases mental flow,” the label said. “Neuron velocity and vision are fine tuned by toning the brain waves, in particular the alpha waves that connect to creativity.” It seemed like the kind of item that might be a prop in a comedy sketch about millennial idiots, or something a person would be duped into buying on a hidden-camera prank show.
Breathes there anyone with soul so dead as to remain unmoved at the mention of an “adaptogenic potion” stimulating “neuron velocity?” (My neurons move at the same speed as my skull; do yours go faster?) Young has determined the perfect way to demonstrate the absurdity of this business: simply to describe it in detail. Put your invective away, because passages like these are all you need:
In late 2010, Arianna Huffington moved into the sphere, with a TED Talk in which she explained that people should sleep. On the strength of the talk, which went viral, she published a book, “The Sleep Revolution,” and started a wellness venture called Thrive Global, whose website features articles like “How a Broken Arm Cured My Chronic Multitasking” and “Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death.” Huffington’s site also sells a gratitude journal, a treadmill desk, a “Wellness Ball” and a miniature wooden bed with satin sheets that you’re supposed to tuck your phone into at night.
Laughed out loud (literally), repeated passage to my wife at the breakfast table.
I met [Brain Dust creator Amanda Chantal] Bacon, on the West Side of Los Angeles, where she lives in a 4,000-square-foot home concealed from the street by plants and stairs and a patio containing a Japanese soaking tub, a string of prayer flags, a trio of scooters (belonging to her son, Rohan) and a tiny metropolis of painted rocks (also Rohan). Birds chirped as I climbed to the front door. . . .
The front door stood open, and Bacon sailed around in the kitchen ahead. An assistant sat at the countertop typing on an iPhone. I am accustomed to New York City kitchens the size of a bathtub, but this one was majestic by any standard. Every surface stretched gleamingly into the distance: the countertops, the professional range, the island with its basket of gourds, French press and sticks of burning Frankincense. I hollered hello and hesitated at the threshold a moment, waiting to be asked in, but the two kept working, so I entered without a summons. “One thing,” Bacon called out, as a greeting. “Shoes.” I removed them.
“I’m about to Dust your coffee,” she said, skipping introductions. Bacon, who is 34, wore a wispy white gown that wafted after her, with a thick untied braid trailing over her left shoulder. Her skin was, indeed, glowing; her cheeks had rose-petal qualities. The kitchen windows faced a hillside resplendent with tropical plants. Acorns occasionally scattered to Earth outside, landing at the feet of a stone deity, who sat among moistly dripping ferns.
Bacon’s assistant evaporated out the door as her boss set a plate on the kitchen counter: strawberry-rose-geranium bars, tiny “doughnuts” made with mushroom and quinoa and a cinnamon bun that looked as if it were forged by a chic cave man with primitive tools.
A tiny metropolis of painted rocks? Sailed around in the kitchen? Every surface stretched gleamingly? “I’m about to Dust your coffee”? Young has plunged us directly into the moment. As in a romcom or a horror novel, we know exactly what’s coming and still we deliciously anticipate.
“There’s a lot of Power Dust in that,” she said, pointing to the coffee. Power Dust, like Brain Dust, is a formula of stevia-sweetened powdered herbs that Moon Juice sells in an attractive jar. I would describe the taste as “soil-forward.”
Young, being human, is not completely immune to the charms of Bacon and her Dust.
By the time I left Bacon’s house, I wanted to scrub off my makeup and swaddle myself in white cottons and let my hair tumble down my back in sun-lightened coils like hers. I wanted to move to California and eat bee pollen, even though I think bee pollen tastes like the reptile section at the zoo and California is the state where I was born and spent 18 years plotting my escape from, and it can’t be denied that I benefit strongly from makeup. But all of that was wiped away within minutes of meeting this woman, whose ability to perform every action with charisma — whether pouring coconut milk into a pot or requesting a strategy meeting with her staff — seemed a direct result of her dietary choices.
When faced with bullshit, learn this trick
Our political analysis is filled with screeds, including mine. It’s tedious. We are surrounded by bullshit, and it is natural to meet bullshit with rage and further screaming.
But Molly Young is smarter than that. She faces it, instead, with accurate descriptions and vivid similes (she describes one potion as tasting like “mild Ovaltine mixed with floor sweepings”). It’s not exactly nice, but it’s not mean, either. It’s accurate. And by accurately describing the absurdity, she fully reveals it.
The paintbrush of her prose is more lethal than the bazookas deployed on the op-ed pages and Facebook rants. And there’s no possible riposte. Are you going to say that the potion doesn’t really taste like floor sweepings, or that Bacon’s cheeks don’t actually have rose petal qualities?
I’m in love. And it’s not with Amanda Chantal Bacon.
Read this piece and learn from it.