The book’s three authors have a distinguished background. Carol J Adams is author of the pioneering book, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (1990). She also co-edited Beyond Animal Rights: A Feminist Caring Ethic for the Treatment of Animals. Visit caroljadams.com for more of her thoughts on veganism, eco-feminism and more. Patti Breitman is director of the Marin Vegetarian Education Group – http://www.marinveg.org – in Marin County, California and cofounder of Dharma Voices for Animals – http://dharmavoicesforanimals.org. Virginia Messina is a registered dietician who has also co-authored Vegan for Life and Vegan for Her. I am a regular reader of her ‘the vegan r.d.’ blog – http://www.theveganrd.com. Thus, I was not surprised when I read about this book’s theme.
The book can be summed up as follows. Being vegan brings many benefits, including kindness towards nonhuman animals, environmental protection and increased human health. As to the health benefits, while being vegan reduces health risks, vegans do fall ill. Thus, we should avoid blaming, including self-blaming, vegans who become sick. Instead, we should care for them (and ourselves) and when necessary help them (and ourselves) prepare to face death and to leave behind a legacy that will continue their compassionate efforts.
Even Vegans Die serves as a useful corrective to the general trend in works produced by vegans, which tend to give the impression that eating vegan provides some kind of magic shield against ailments of any kind. Examples of these rather one-sided advocacy works include films, such as What The Health (A.U.M. Films & Media, 2017), books, such as How Not To Die (Greger & Stone, 2015), and web resources, such as the five-times-a-week blog, NutritionFacts.org. Michael Greger is the main force behind How Not To Die and NutritionFacts.org. Thus, it was gratifying to see that he wrote the foreword for Even Vegans Die, in which he acknowledges the value of the Adams, Breitman and Messina book.
Even Vegans Die has three parts. Part 1 is titled ‘Vegan: The myths and realities’. In this part of the book, the authors caution against use of the words “cause” and “prevent”, because health is complicated, so much remains unknown, and even vegans who eat right, and do other things right, such as meditate and exercise may, nonetheless, die of cancer and other diseases linked to diet. So, yes, yes, yes, being vegan does help our health, but being vegan is not an ironclad guarantee of perfect health forever and ever, of boundless energy, of Olympic level athletic achievement and of no wrinkles, even at age 115.
“We set up veganism for failure when we make promises about a vegan diet that we can’t keep. If someone gets sick, [etc.], then the very thing we promised about veganism has turned out to be untrue” (p. 22). These unrealistic promises lead to unproductive feelings of shame among vegans who do not achieve the ideal image, and to unproductive blaming of these non-ideal vegans and of non-vegans who experience health problems for causing their own problems. The authors quote Susan Voisin, of the Fat Free Vegan blog, “I’ve been worried about ‘coming out’ as a vegan with cancer for fear that non-vegans would see it as proof that a vegan diet ‘doesn’t work’” (p. 25).
On the hopeful side, the authors quote a vegan with adult acne who found that her health problem may have helped her connect with non-vegans, who might have seen her as less threatening and less judgemental, “It’s my experience that there are many compassionate people who are willing to look past the surface to see the real issues at hand. Maybe these are the people most ready to consider a change [of diet]?” (p. 32).
Adams, Breitman and Messina argue that modern technological culture puts independence up on a pedestal. Being healthy gives us a false sense of being independent, while being ill and caring about the health of others (as vegans care about the wellbeing of nonhuman animals) makes us dependent, which is incorrectly seen as being weak. The authors believe that we greatly underestimate the extent to which we all are interdependent, depending on other humans and the planet’s other inhabitants for our survival. Thus, we have an obligation to do our share by caring for those who need our assistance.
In particular, in Part 2, the book guides us as to how to care for our fellow humans, as well as their animal companions. The authors offer a list of do’s and don’ts for caring for those who are seriously ill or dying. These include (pp. 42-48):
- Learn to be comfortable with your discomfort about what is happening to the person … to actual engagement with the actual person
- Protect their privacy, e.g., ask permission before you disseminate information about the person, for example, via a CaringBridge link – https://www.caringbridge.org
- Accept whatever role you are invited to have, and understand that that is the most essential thing you can do, even if it does not bring direct contact with the person who is ill.
- Be an active listener and keep your judgment and needs out of it. Offer comfort and support. … Comfort is not advice. Comfort is not opinion. Comfort is not what you feel.
- Shame or blame. Don’t ask, “What did you do wrong?” … It is blaming the victim. If we see the person as failing at something, we may be seeing reassurance that it won’t happen to us. … Dying bodies are not shameful. Illness and dying are natural and certain, regardless of our diets and lifestyle choices.
- Say to a vegan, “You must have cheated”.
- Say, “But you’re vegan”.
- Demand information.
- Give unasked-for advice. Something may have some anticancer properties, for instance, but this does not mean it can cure cancer.
Part 3 of Even Vegans Die is titled ‘A Vegan’s Guide to Death and Dying’. One of the opening stories in this story-filled part of the book has a humorous twist, recounting how a dying vegan activist continued her advocacy for the animals by telling her non-vegan friends, that the medications had impaired her eyesight and then, asking them to read aloud vegan-related articles to her. “I’m dying,” Lisa Shapiro recounted. “What are they gonna do, say no?” (p. 63).
The book’s advice to those facing death or helping those in such a situation includes:
- Be very clear and detailed on our wishes about our care (and the care of any animal companions), what will happen with our body (including greener options), what is to be done with our assets and how to access our IT accounts and devices.
- Learn about how other animals, including fishes, mourn.
- Consider writing our own obituary or leaving notes for those who will write it.
- Remember that young people also die. Thus, it is seldom too early to start on preparation for our deaths.
Adams, Breitman and Messina conclude the book with these wise words (p. 115):
Human exceptionalism is reinforced by meat, dairy, and egg consumption. Vegans challenge our culture’s denial of animals’ death. Why, therefore, have vegans not been in the forefront of challenging the general denial of death that undergirds a denial of our animality? We may simply be mirroring and enacting our culture’s position. … If we saw acceptance of our death and its corollary—the needed preparation for this eventuality—as part of our vegan activism and living, would we find it easier to accept our future deaths and act accordingly? Perhaps the next step for vegan activism is to model a different way, not just in relationship to animals, but to death.
Adam, C. J. (1990). The sexual politics of meat: A feminist-vegetarian critical theory. New York, NY: Continuum.
A.U.M. Films & Media. (2017). What the health [motion picture]. Santa Rosa, CA.
Donovan, J., & Adams, C. J. (Eds.). (1996). Beyond animal rights: A feminist caring ethic for the treatment of animals. New York, NY: Continuum.
Greger, M., & Stone, G. (2015). How not to die: Discover the foods scientifically proven to prevent and reverse disease. New York, NY: Flatiron.
Messina, V., & Fields, J. L. (2013) Vegan for her: The women’s guide to being healthy and fit on a plant-based diet. Boston, MA: Da Capo Lifelong.
Norris, J., & Messina, V. (2011). Vegan for life: Everything you need to know to be healthy and fit on a plant-based diet. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
Adams, C. J., Breitman, P., & Messina, V. (2017). Even vegans die: A practical guide to caregiving, acceptance, and protecting your legacy of compassion. New York, NY: Lantern Books.
Reviewed June 2017 by George M Jacobs, President, Vegetarian Society (Singapore)