A Review of Netflix’s Afflicted: What Happens When 7 Strangers Stop Being Real, and Start Getting Fake-Sick

Like the classic sitcom Friends, Netflix’s new series Afflicted focuses on the lives of a group of attractive, well-off white people. Also like the Friends, the people we meet on Afflicted are healthy, if a bit self-obsessed. But here’s the twist: unlike Joey and Monica, our Afflicted subjects are convinced they have all sorts of hyper-modern ailments that make their daily lives near unlivable. (Joey Tribiani seemed at peace with his obvious mental retardation.) Over the course of seven episodes, we watch as Star, Carmen, Jill, and the rest of the gang complain of highly variable pains, general fatigue, ever-present but also vague breathing problems, and “body buzzing,” in the docu-horror style of Intervention, which the producers of Afflicted also helmed.

Afflicted is a chronicle of how Munchausen Syndrome and extreme hypochondria have mutated to thrive in our modern digitized and polluted world. It presents, largely without editorial comment, the trials of seven people convinced they are suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, multiple chemical sensitivity, undiagnosed chronic Lyme disease,  metal poisoning, and other illnesses that are bonded by a few common elements: none of them can be detected by any widely accepted tests, all of them are treated as suspect by evil “Western” medicine, none of them have consistent constellations of specific symptoms, and all of their sufferers appear physically fine and in fact (at least with this group of people) highly telegenic and poised.

Take Star, an attractive, wealthy 40-something who first introduces herself by listing about a dozen ailments she claims to suffer from. (I have produced The List, which Star recites like a practiced monologue, below at this footnote for you, dear reader[1].) Star hosts champagne parties with her rich besties, enjoys mid-afternoon wine between giggly bouts in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, and suns herself on her condo’s gorgeous deck, only stopping to sometimes – perhaps remembering that she’s supposed to be deathly ill – move her head in an awkward way and lament her “dystonia.” Star is a picture of middle-aged prosperity, from her fun-loving, educated countenance, to her perfectly primped hair, nails, and skin. But she sometimes, so she claims, suffers from discomfort, and so her entire identity has become wrapped up in a search for medical answers which has run her (actually, her husband) around $2.5 million. She is privileged and suffering, lighthearted and brave, all of which she likes to remind people about all day long, and so she is perfect, an elite whose soul has known the depths of desperation, who has both money and wisdom in spades. She is simultaneously shallow and deep.

But at least Star is not half a sociopath, milking the innocent to feed her addiction to being diseased (her rich husband seems like he could give a shit). One can’t say the same about Pilar, a problematic human being who has become convinced that she is deathly allergic to mostly everything, but especially to things that piss her off. Number one on that list is her husband, Jeff, a doting, meathead type who has been written off by his loved ones over his support of Pilar. Jeff has drained his savings account and now drives an Uber while living with his disgusted father, funneling all his money to Pilar’s hypoallergenic apartment from which he has been banished, and to a series of treatments that are absurd even by the low standards of medical treatments featured on the television show Afflicted. Pilar favors phone-based “energy healing” sessions that cost $6.75 a minute and involve picking up bottles of pills, holding them against her stomach, and saying “No more” in a firm voice.

Pilar’s allergies are so connected to her resentments as to be almost comical. She tells Jeff that he smells of contaminants, while she tells us in an interview confession that she does not love Jeff anymore. Jeff, you see, had previously expressed skepticism toward Pilar’s condition – the ultimate sin for these people – and must be made to atone. Pilar thus feels entirely justified in sucking Jeff dry of every penny he makes, even while fully aware that Jeff expects to one day win back her love, which she is not willing to give. I’m not being harsh – Pilar is pretty upfront about all of this.

Late in the series, we meet Jill, who vies with Pilar for worst person featured here. Like Pilar, Jill’s mold sensitivity is intricately connected to shitty things that have happened to her, to the extent that you almost can’t believe she doesn’t recognize this, since she’s a fucking psychotherapist. Discussing the onset of her illness, Jill tells us that as her marriage disintegrated, she began to feel very sad, then she realized that she wasn’t just sad, she was sick, and guess what, the home she lived in with her soon-to-be-ex wife was filled with not just tension but also mold and making her even sicker. At one point, Jill actually says that she was so sad during her divorce that she knew she must be not just depressed but unwell, and sure enough, she finds someone to tell her that she is mold/chemical-sensitive. Now, Jill is allegedly so sick that even hard plastic like Tupperware triggers her nausea and fatigue (“These microchemicals are really strong!” Jill tells us). The extent to which Jill is willing to go to not be seen as depressed speaks to how our culture still views mental illness as a sickness for the inherently weak and fundamentally flawed.

Like all addicts, the subjects of Afflicted are well-versed in manipulation, and on that front, nobody beats Jill. After her divorce, Jill fell in love with Janine. Janine is to Jill as Jeff is to Pilar, an enabler with no equal who drains her significant savings to pay for Jill’s ceaseless supplement regiments and to gut and renovate her dream house to make it less, I don’t know, moldy or something, it’s never made clear exactly. Jill responds to this kindness and dedication by becoming passive aggressively bitchy whenever Janine expresses financial worries. Jill has weaponized her illness to such a fine point that Janine literally can’t finish a sentence about money without Jill harshly proclaiming that she is sick, and she needs to get better, so Janine needs to spend. Can you imagine a cancer patient talking like this? Cries Jill as she and Janine work on their plans to renovate Janine’s home: “If I don’t get special grout…won’t I get sick?”

Afflicted has the odd effect of making one feel appreciative of giant insurance companies, which decline to cover the bizarre, evidence-free treatments we are shown. Freed from the iron fist of Aetna, naturopaths and energy healers are not incentivized to cure their ever-credulous patients, and so a toxic symbiosis develops between healer and sufferer, who are united in the goal of incremental progress that never quite results in functionality. The healer feasts on the financial support of the patient’s loved ones, while the patient taps the inexhaustible human resource of love and sympathy. The whole thing is deeply fucked up.

Eventually, in a frankly amazing sequence, we see how these patients can be successfully “treated”. Consulting with an actual medical doctor M.D. – rare on this show, in which mysterious designates like “H.P.” and “D.C.” follow names of ostensible healthcare professionals – Pilar is told that the indentation of one of her nail beds indicates improvement, but that her other nails are still, sadly, too flat. The doctor emphasizes that they will be working toward making all the nail beds nice and rotund soon, and Pilar seems delighted. Now, at this point, I wanted to shoot this doctor in the face. But as he explains in a private interview, he is quite unashamedly using the placebo effect on Pilar, giving her something to strive for that will be, to her, an indicator of health, even though it will be meaningless in terms of actual medicine. In other words, he is buying into her bullshit just enough to try and force her to feel better. And sure enough, he tells Pilar that soon, she WILL be better – she will be out in the world, not trapped in her hospital clinic apartment, and she will be functional, and productive. And Pilar, because she is not being told she is crazy, totally buys it. It’s awesome.

Other treatments fare … less well. Bekah, who suffers from a mold sensitivity so severe that she must live in the desert except when she seems perfectly fine traveling to cities to visit expensive naturopaths, has her blood “ozonized” in a shaking egg-shaped machine that seems like it was built from spare parts at a grade school science fair, and which fails to even pump the ionized blood back into her body, which seems like the whole point. Bekah is also a fan of holding a metal ring to her stomach which vibrates at a pulse that kills the mold living inside her. Other of our subjects are diagnosed with metal toxicity, autoimmune disease, and thyroid deficiencies based on conversations and a reflex test (the “hit your knee with a hammer” thing). After she stares at some lights on a wall, Star is told: “This data shows us that your brain thinks you’re farther to the right than you are.” You had me at “data,” Doc.

So are any of these people actually, physically sick? Probably not, but Jamison gets the closest to a legitimate diagnosis. He thinks he has myalgic encephalomyelitis (“M.E.”), aka chronic fatigue syndrome, which readers may remember as the subject of a very special Golden Girls episode in which Dorothy is diagnosed and it’s never mentioned again. ME remains a controversial diagnosis, but it’s at least not in the cuckoo bananas realm of being allergic to electricity or laid low by hidden mold. [2]

In a supreme irony, though, once Jamison is finally seen by an ME specialist, he is told that he might not have ME at all – the implication is that Jamison’s problems stem from the emotional and physical trauma of an earlier car accident. Jamison promptly rejects this advice, given by the only doctor who has examined him in person. Jamison wears a shirt that says “Ask about M.E.” in many of his interviews, so he is pretty clearly all in. If an American city ever holds a parade for the “proudly self-diagnosed,” perhaps Jamison can lead the march, from a mobile replica of the bedroom he has refused to leave for two years.

As much as they wish to be seen as brave, these people are not portraits in courage, even on their own terms. Jamison’s ME is aggravated by sunlight, and so he refuses to leave his bedroom, even to go see a specialist in his disease. The idea that some discomfort might be worthwhile in the longer-term project of getting better does not seem to enter his mind. Cancer patients who have undergone relentless chemotherapy in hopes of eking out a few more years of life might fairly be disgusted by, for example, Dr. Nagy, Jill’s doctor, who tells us that she sacrificed in her own struggle with chemical sensitivity by bravely….moving to Martha’s Vineyard. “It’s called survival,” she smugly tells the camera. Jill follows her lead, convincing poor Janine to sell the home they spent $60,000 renovating to be mold-proof, so they can abandon their careers and move where Dr. Nagy tells them to. There is a cruel gambler’s logic to this – you’ve already dedicated your entire personality and financial life to the idea of being a sick person, so why not really go all in?

Dr. Nagy’s work on Jill is but one of this show’s examples of fake illness peer pressure[3], given by both medical professionals and the lay public. Electro-sensitive Carmen, for example, is shamed and berated by a fellow electrophobe for voluntarily wearing the Afflicted production team’s wireless microphone. This never bothered Carmen much before, but when her friend tells her that she should be in pain from the microphone, suddenly she can’t get the thing off fast enough.

Given how wrapped up their identities are in their conditions, it isn’t surprising that some subjects end up embracing nihilism, by refusing to consider getting better at all. Bekah rejects an offer for a free stay at a clinic that says it can cure her – she never explains why, but a talking head psychiatrist Voice of Gods that becoming locked in to a destabilizing mental condition is its own sort of emotional crisis. The implication is that Bekah is a lost cause. Carmen dismisses the idea of any cure or treatment other than total non-exposure to electrical waves (she eventually moves to a radio-free zone of West Virginia, without her family). In many ways, asking patients like Carmen and Bekah whether they want to be “cured” is like asking an Olympic athlete whether they wish to be “cured” of their hyper-athleticism. Why would they want that? Their entire life is built around this and so far it’s gotten them plenty of attention and praise, thank you very much.

Afflicted is profound in many ways. I’m not sure there has been a series as perfectly microcosmic of its time since The Sopranos. As a manifestation of late stage capitalism, Afflicted is nearly perfect. Where else can we see a trip down the detergent aisle rendered as a nightmarish existential crisis, the bright orange Tide bottles ready to jump from the shelves and infect passersby with their toxic contents? Pilar, experiencing a rare abatement of symptoms, tells us that she can even shop in stores again – but “only organic stores, of course,” and it goes unexplained why stores that sell organic products would be built with construction materials less mold and chemical-laden than, for example, Target. The subjects of Afflicted are both victimized by consumerism – in the form of chemicals, WiFi, fumes, fluorescent lights – and ultimately relieved by it, by the organic foods, supplements, custom-built mold-free desert trailers, and blood ozone machines that serve as symbols of their illness and ultimately, their bravery and class status. Are there poor people living in projects who suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity? We don’t see any here.

The illnesses featured on Afflicted couldn’t exist in another time, and not just because they are so reflective of modern technology. Fake illnesses being treated with real money by quasi-real professionals is the ultimate endgame of modernity, the crash at the intersection of two strains of contemporary thought. First, that the world has become too complex – that we’ve lost touch with our humanity, buried it in technology, bread, and circuses. When people say Trump is a “straight shooter,” they are reflecting this anxiety. Second, that whatever our own experience tells us is real, actually is objectively real – whether someone’s microaggression is racist or not, for example, can be deduced entirely by whether a listener perceives it as racist. Much like how the very existence of subjective discomfort means the sufferer is objectively ill. These are the Rachel Dolezals of being sick.

In the end, Afflicted makes the viewer consider what “illness” even means. There is no doubt that these people are physically well, or at least, not afflicted with the things they believe. But are they mentally healthy? If not, are they morally culpable in the damage they do to the people around them? This is the more timeless aspect of Afflicted. I keep going back to addiction. The addict is a sick person, and they can’t change that. But they can combat their sickness, they can take steps toward freeing themselves from the prison of addiction. The subjects of Afflicted are uninterested in taking this journey because fundamentally, they will not accept that their illness is emanating from their psyches, that their bodies have not been invaded by toxins and electromagnetic waves. They luxuriate in their misery, and the people around them are all too happy to play along, robbing them of any motivation to get better. This is a new form of an age-old dynamic, the pity party and the enablers in attendance, the caretaker types who live to comfort and the emotional succubi who feed on that kindness. As Pilar’s doctor realizes, the only way to successfully treat them is to essentially lie to them, to out-manipulate the manipulator.

If the show ever really expresses an editorial opinion, it is this: it doesn’t really matter whether these people are crazy or not, because in the end, they are suffering and need help. That’s true enough, but it evades the central dilemma of fake illnesses. How can sufferers receive the treatment they need – mental health care by trained mental health practitioners – when they refuse to understand the root and cause of their problems? To throw your hands up and say, well, pain is pain, is a cop out. However sincere their beliefs, patients can’t be freely permitted to take the clinical loophole of “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” and rapidly fuck it with a sharp stick. Medicine without a basis in scientific truth isn’t medicine at all – there must be a limit to how far we go just to validate people’s sincerely held beliefs.

These are not idle concerns. The seven individuals we follow have collectively spent millions and millions of dollars tilting at windmills (while, I might add, the government of New York City covered up the actual lead poisoning of 820 children living in housing projects). The lives of their loved ones are ruined and discarded. They suffer no consequences for their actions – indeed, if Afflicted is any indication, these sorts of unending Kafkaesque illnesses exclusively effect people with tireless support networks. And now, of course, they get to be the stars of a documentary series that, like everyone else in their lives, also refuses to call any of them to account. Even a review like this one will be attacked for being insensitive to the plight of Lyme sufferers, the electromagnetically sensitive, the mold-averse – to some, to speak these obvious truths probably even seems hateful. And where does that leave us? Unwilling to condemn, unable to accurately treat, we are in the same position as Jeff and Janine. We tell the un-sick how brave they are, we say pain is pain, all lives matter, subjective experiences are objective realities, the center cannot hold, the falcon cannot hear the falconer. And the world becomes a little less real.

Credit where credit is due, though: six hours of televised craziness and not once does anyone say vaccines cause autism.

 

[1] Star: “I have a very unusual situation…I’ve been diagnosed with numerous autoimmune diseases, including Celiac disease, Hashimoto’s, Raynaud’s disease. They found that my phospholipids are attacking my body and my collagen complex, which is connective tissue, is attacking my body. I also was diagnosed with dystonia, which is a neurological disease, which causes involuntary muscle contractions and breathing issues as well for me, personally. I was also diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia, and we believe there is some sort of disruption with my vagus nerve. I also have found that I have a reactivated case of Epstein-Barr virus, among a few other types of viruses which are in the herpes family. I also was diagnosed partially with possible current Lyme infection but we’re still not sure about that, as well as a staph infection called MARCoNS disease, which is a multiple antibiotic-resistant staph infection that has housed itself in my sinus and nose area.” Mic drop.

[2] I’ve been contacted by some very nice members of the ME/CFS community who are upset with this paragraph, so I do want to clarify something: ME/CFS is DIFFERENT from the rest of the conditions featured on Afflicted. I am not about to get into a debate about scientific evidence – feel free to go do the research – but based on what I’ve read, there is far more scientific and biological basis for ME/CFS than there is for the other Afflicted syndromes. In other words, ME/CFS is not “in the head.” I thought I was pretty clear on this, but I want to make it explicit, particularly because in a way, it’s unfair of the Afflicted producers to lump in ME/CFS with MCS and the like. My issue here is that Jamison is unwilling to consider that he might not even HAVE ME/CFS, when the show tells us he was only examined by ONE doctor, and the doctor told him he might not have it. Now, I have ALSO been told that the producers of Afflicted left some stuff out on this that would clarify it. I might be addressing this in a later post. Feel free to email me if you have inside information about what was cut or ways the show fucked with the truth in service of a narrative.

[3] Pushy Dr. Nagy also convinces Jill that she is electro-sensitive. Jill is like, “I knew it!”

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