The pages of history are not often graced with the names of young women. It tends to be the kings, the knights and the priests who still live in the collective conciousness, even thousands of years after they have died. We often know they are married, but sometimes we don’t even know the names of their wives or their mothers. History has privilaged the male experience, and those who are part of the elite for either fighting or spiritual and intellectual prowess. We don’t know many teenage girls names, or anything as complex as what their inner lives may have been like.
Apart from one. Joan of Arc. Her first name probably wasn’t Joan, and her second name probably wasn’t Arc. But other than that we have an extrodinary record of life thanks to the transcripts of her trial and retrial for witchcraft during the hundered years war. What Joan achieved, becoming a major player in an international conflict, in the rigidly patriarchal middle ages is quite extrodinary, even without the “miracles” for which there is evidence of manufacture. Even after her death her brothers tried to keep the story of Joan going by finding a look-a-like and presenting her to France as Joan miraculously resurected to carry on her rescue of France from the hands of the English.
Joan is now Saint Joan, and has become a central part of the story of France. Her image is immortalised in paintings and stuates, and her words in stage plays and films. She is even credited with inspiring the bob, one of the most enduringly popular haircuts for women in the last one hundered years. As a woman who was officially executed for wearing men’s clothes, this is a deliciously ironic turn in her story.
Very few young women can rise to a position of such accliame. It is possible to say that the nearest equivilent we have in the modern day is Greta Thumberg. She certainly appears to inspire the anger and irritation in others that Joan also did, and while climate deniers may stop short of burning her at the stake, the ire and bile she attracts from people online certainly seems to be a modern day equivilent. However I would suggest that there is another type of person who in the modern day is elevated to a secular sainthood, and it is one which there has already been several high profile young women have scammed others into believing that they are. That is a cancer patient.
Cancer is a diagnosis that nobody wants, even though treatments and research is advancing all the time. It is one of the few illnesses where the cure can be felt to be as bad as the disease. It strikes fears into people’s hearts and it can change people irrevocably. Which is why when someone is diagnosed with cancer they are treated differently. I know myself having had a partner go through treatment for Hodgkins Lymphoma that sometimes a cancer diagnosis brings out the worst in the people around you, sometimes the best, and that it is unpredictable how people will react, and how it may change them.
So enter the modern day saint, the young, white woman with cancer. Most famously typafied by Belle Gibbson, who became a celebrity wellness guru who claimed to have had several different types of cancer, including a malignant brain tumour, and to have managed her conditions with exercise, diet and hollistic therapies. She raised money for charity, while also getting cosmetic procedures and going on lavish holidays, wearing designer clothes. Gibbson was fated by others, showered with awards and given large donations, upheld by the media as a shining example of health and wellness, mind over matter.
It is a seductive story, the idea that the thing that is incredibly frightening to many of us, that we pray no one we love ever gets, is actully defeatable. And not just defeatable, but within all our individual power to beat. Science will insist on being accurate and letting us know the reality of a situation, where as Gibbson was able to sell us the idea that if we chose the rights foods, exercise the right amount, meditate, massage and buy into each new wellness trick, we are still in controll. It is true that adopting certain lifestyle behaviours can indeed make us less likely to get cancer. However the idea that our own choices alone once diagnosed, will beat agressive and difficult to treat cancers is false. It’s a thought process that dances close to the idea that we are all individually responsible for our outcomes, and ignoring the structual inequalities which many people have to battle against daily. Belle Gibbson made herself a saint, sold a fairytale a set of miricles and a dangerous ones at that. Gibbsons secular cannonisation crashing down around her when she was exposed as a fraud, never having had cancer, and having also lied about many other aspects of her life.
Enter to the story the most recent cancer fraudster Coco Bearthman. Her trajectory is traced the Believable; the Coco Bearthman Story, from Dear Media and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sara Ganim. Bearthman did not start with cancer fraud, but with something that is equally as serious, sex trafficing. She claimed that her own mother had trafficked her, that she had become pregnant and was forced to have an abortion, after which she saw her baby killed infront of her also saw her mother kill other children, and the first therapist she found having escaped also abused her sexually. It sounds horrific, and it also sounds implausable when written down like that rather than told by the tiny, doe eyed Coco, who interjects it with her girlishly excited obsession with Celine Deon.
Where the story becomes more difficult is when you realise that sometimes, yes, people do go through a series of horrible things. If we see the tales of any women who have been held captive, Michelle Knight who was held captive for ten years, Elizabeth Smart who was kidnapped and knife point and held until police rescued her, or Elizabeth Fritzle, whoes own father keept her in his basement as a sex slave, then maybe Coco’s story is not so preposterous. It’s well known that once someone has become a victim of sexual assault they are more likley to be on the recieving end of other sexual assaults. In 2017 a shocking case in the UK reported of a young woman travelling back home after a music fesitval was sexually assaulted on the train. When she appraoched another passenger for help, the passenger then proceded to sexually assault her.
So could Coco be telling the truth? I imagine that while living in Utah it was difficult for the people who met Coco to verify her story, as most of it took place in the country of her birth and citizenship Germany. However Dear Media leaves no stone unturned and flies out to Germany, employs a translator and tries to dig deeper into Coco’s story. It does appear that Coco may well have been sexually assaulted as a child in Germany, and that her relationship with her mother was indeed tense and difficult. However the extreams of murder and forced abortions do not appear to have much to back them up.
This is where Coco’s story becomes difficult. Of course anyone who has been sexually assaulted, particularily those it happens to when so young deserve empathy, compassion and support, but everytime Coco embelished her story, made it more grandiose she also harmed other survivors, by making it harder for people to believe them, and belief is extreamly important in helping survivors heal.
Several people on the podcast say they think that Coco would not have been so succesful, and people would have questioned her story more and verified facts if she had not been a petite blond white woman. There is probably something in that as we have seen this before. Elizabeth Holmes, who was recently jailed for fraud managed to scam billions out of others with her fake breakthrough in diagnosising a range of illnesses from one drop of blood. There was no technology that could do this, yet Elizabeth managed to get savvy business people, experienced politicans and many, many others to give her money for her revolutionary snake oil. People who should have known better.
When TCF reviewed differing podcasts on Elizabeth Holmes, her looks, her blondness, her youth were all suggested as reasons why people who we expect to ask more questions and look for more proof just took her word for it. Just like Coco she took people’s trust and faith, with some people recieving potentially life changing and threatening diagnosis from machines that did not work, and a process that did not exist. If we go further back in history it is likely that both Bearthman and Holmes would be said to have bewitched these men, used some magic, some unholy power to gain controll over them. Probably in a pact with the devil. Strangely it does seem like that.
However the truth is more that Bearthman targetted people who were predisposed to forgiveness, who held central values about helping others, and also a large amount of women who she appeared to try and slot into a motherly role in her life. In contemporary society we do not talk about bewitching, but it does feel like Bearthman and Holmes were able to cast some sort of glamour on those who came across them. Until you consider the media involvement. Both women were fated by the media, held up as shinning examples of womanhood, just as Belle Gibbson (sometimes also blond) was. And now it looks like they are less magical beings, and more people who by genetic lottery were able to leaverage the unconcious biase of the age and a media where investigative reporting has shrunk incredibly over the last few decades and were too exhausted, enamoured or any other number of things to do a fundemental part of their job. Fact check.
Coco’s manipulation of others only became criminal when she sensed that her story was crumbling and so shored it up with the ultimate claim of saint-hood – cancer. She claimed that she was at Stage 4, the final and last stage, one where miracles can and do happen, but also where the journey ends for many. And of course Coco used this to ask for money. As soon as people gave her money to treat a cancer that she did not have she was able to be charged with fraud. However Ganim discovers that the procescuters are apathetic, and Coco gets off what feels like incredibly lightly to all the people she has hurt, and is currently under supervision living in Salt Lake City today working for, you guessed it, a charity.
From the investigating that Ganim undertakes she tries valiently to be as fair as possible to Coco, it appears as though Bearthman is addicted to attention, and that there may be some kind of personality disorder in play. She has pulled the wool over the eyes of people who have given her a home, welcomed her into their families, have helped her build a charity, have made the effort to help her feel safe so she can heal. None of that though, was a crime. The survivor, third sector and religious communities which she made herself part of, feel deep betrayal and anger over her manipulation and lies.
It is so easy to see why there may be reason to hate and pile on her, especially given the seriousness of the crimes she reported and the damage she has done to survivor communities. However others point out that false reporting of sex trafficking and sexual assault is very, very small, and that not believing victims is something that can compound the damage done to them. One interviewee tells us that so great is the harm through disbelief that she would rather believe everyone and be a bit embaressed by getting it wrong later, than no believe anyone and further damage people who need help.
Ganim spends a considerable amount of time trying to balance the story of Coco’s lies and manipulation with the imeprative to believe victims. It is not an easy balancing act when Coco’s action have done so much to damage people. Some people have given up councilling work, other have stopped doing advocacy after tangling with Coco. It does not matter what sort of help, support or charity that we comes across, there are always grifters who want to take advantage of others kind hearts. It is unfortunately a fact of life. Perhapse the real act of sainthood and the real miracle is what Ganim has achieved. To not hold hate in her heart against Coco, but to see her for who she truely is, both victim and villan. A confused young woman who is in desperate need of mental health support, and someone who also needs to make amends and face the damage she has done.