I have a friend who is a psychic. She has a handful of celebrity clients and performs at bachelorette parties. I had never tested her predictive abilities or asked for any kind of telepathic favors until a couple years ago, when I was torn about quitting my job, and I called her, frantic, a few hours before I was supposed to give notice. I should mention here that I am agnostic when it comes to anything that could loosely be categorized as “spiritual.” I sometimes read my horoscope, but only because it’s free. My psychic friend told me, “It sounds like you want to quit your job,” which was true but made me furious. She had done a psychic’s equivalent of pleading the fifth, and I wanted an answer—The Answer. I had called her because I wanted the decision to be an easy one.
I thought about this moment while I watched Goop Lab With Gwyneth Paltrow, which premiered on Netflix last week. Paltrow founded Goop, a website and “lifestyle brand,” in 2008. It is an online boutique, valued at upward of $250 million, that sells expensive clothes and skincare products. But some years ago, it turned its attention toward health, or “wellness,” and began to feature interviews with mental health professionals, life coaches, and healers and gurus of various and confusing stripes, like a Medical Medium who communed with the dead to identify your problems. They offered a clear diagnosis and quick solution for the messy, inchoate challenges of being a person—a woman, in particular. You were exhausted because of inflammation in your gut, or overactivity in your thyroid, or a sad liver, and what you needed was a cleanse, or some extra vitamins. For $27, you could buy a bottle of Psychic Vampire Repellant; just a few mists would “conjure up positivity” and quiet your mental noise: available exclusively on Goop.com. Doctors issued warnings about some of Goop’s wares. The watchdog group TruthinAdvertising took it to court in 2018, and Goop was ordered to pay a $145,000 settlement for selling a $66 jade egg to be inserted into the vagina. (Goop said the egg “increased feminine energy”; doctors said it could cause toxic shock syndrome.)
According to The New York Times, Goop has since hired a full-time fact-checker, but, for the most part, it has been undeterred by the accusations of being charlatans in cashmere sweaters, and the Netflix show seems designed to bait its detractors. Paltrow—or G.P., as everyone on the show seems to call her—explores a plethora of therapeutic practices, all of them considered with equal legitimacy, whether they are psychedelic drugs undergoing clinical trials at New York University or an “energy healer” that made the dancer Julianne Hough cry. Any vote of confidence counts. Goop staffers take workshops with a psychic medium, the charming and profane sex therapist Betty Dodson, and “Iceman” Wim Hof, who has them leap into the freezing-cold water of Lake Tahoe to reduce inflammation and anxiety.
In the past, when someone criticized Paltrow or Goop for advocating something kooky (vaginal steaming, frog venom, healing stickers), the company’s defense was, basically, that they tried it, and liked it, and didn’t die. The Netflix show gets more argumentative. Most episodes feature two guests, the roguish therapeutic hero and his or her more reputable, if boring, sidekick. The Great Energy Healer John Amaral, a boyish-looking chiropractor who can help his clients to emotional catharsis without ever touching them, is accompanied by a Santa Monica–based physician, Apostos Lekkos, a real doctor, we’re reminded repeatedly, who has apprenticed himself to Amaral. “Just because something isn’t proven doesn’t mean it doesn’t work,” Lekkos says. The psychic-medium Laura Lynne Jackson, dressed in a witchy red caftan, appears on the show with Julie Beischel, who holds a Ph.D. and has an official job title at the official-sounding Windbridge Research Center, an institute for studying the afterlife. The casting is effective, if obvious—if Beischel, with her efficient haircut and sensible glasses, trusts this medium, then why wouldn’t you?
If you think to yourself, “But what is the Windbridge Research Center anyway?” (according to a quick Google search, it appears Beischel and her husband, Mark Boccuzzi, are its sole researchers), then maybe you’ll be convinced by watching Goop staffers experiment on themselves by doing drugs, acupuncture, and yoga in their bathing suits in a field of snow. (It’s called “Snow-ga,” obviously.) In the show, G.P. often volunteers to be the guinea pig, but when she’s busy, other Goop staffers step up, even the ones who identify as “skeptical.” It’s confusing to watch beautiful people doing psychedelic drugs on a beach in Jamaica and having so little fun. They have selected themselves for this experiment to recover from creative blocks, process a parent’s suicide, learn to accept romantic love, and better understand “the universe.” These are noble, if heavy, reasons to get high. And when they come to, after a long night of giggling and sobbing on yoga mats, they feel different, they say, more “open.” What the experience really seems to offer is a useful narrative device, an easy way to start a new chapter heading in the stories they tell about themselves. That’s what everything that falls into the category of “wellness” shares—a metaphorical refresh button, the feeling of midnight on New Year’s Eve but anytime, anywhere.
When Paltrow describes Goop—the brand, the lifestyle—she says, “It’s all laddering up to one thing, which is optimization of self. We’re here one time, one life: How can we really milk the shit out of this?” Like many modern workplaces, Goop’s has its own dialect. (“Ladder” here is a verb meaning to connect or build.) I was particularly taken by its use of the word “trauma” as a synonym for hardship or pain of any kind. “Being the person who people perceive me to be is inherently traumatic,” Paltrow says, in the episode about psychedelics. I can imagine that extreme fame, like Paltrow’s, could be acutely isolating; how any act of kindness would feel a little suspicious, how fearsome and claustrophobic it would feel for everyone in the world to presume they know you, and how frustrating to accept that constant low-grade wrath from strangers is an unavoidable by-product of female success. But what does it mean to use the word “trauma” to describe her everyday experience in the world, to equate it with abuse or a near-death experience? Paltrow comes across as irreverent and pleasantly spiky; she’s not self-pitying, except when she’s on a cleanse that forbids her from drinking coffee. But she and her staff see pain or discomfort of any kind as a problematic, “traumatic” thing to be solved: They are an army of attractive soldiers set to obliterate worry lines from the world.
William Siu, a psychiatrist who studies psychedelics, tells Paltrow at one point, “I’ve been in mental health seven years and this earth for 39 years, and I don’t think I’ve met a healthy person yet.” Perhaps his—and Paltrow’s—bar for being “healthy” is a bit too high? Anguish is unavoidable, as suboptimal as that might be, and some pain is like a second heartbeat that one cannot spritz away. Before watching the show, I had understood Goop’s success as a sign of a widespread mistrust in the medical system and that the line between popularity and authority had collapsed under the weight of Instagram and social media. But after watching all six episodes, I saw Goop’s popularity as a sign of another cultural phenomenon, pain avoidance: Whether through drugs or endless scrolling, there always seems to be an alternative to feeling bad, and at Goop, at least, those alternatives often smell great.
I did end up quitting my job. My psychic friend was right: It was what I wanted. But there was a reason it wasn’t an easy choice. Freelancing can be difficult, anguishing even. But she knew, not because she’s a psychic, but because she’s my friend, that it was the kind of pain I could live with.