Susan Sontag was one of the writers who has most influenced my understanding of illness. Her book Illness as metaphor is a classic exporation into the strange world of language and reality that surround this most difficult of human experinces.
What does A good death really mean. It is often an empty phrase devoid of meaning – too complete a concept to be able to be applied to the mess of our actual experience! Is death ever supposed to be good? Many would prefer a sudden and painless exit — but a little warning when it comes to friends and relatives, with time to prepare and to say goodbye.
A Bad death challenges and changes us all – protracted and painful experiences that overwhelm everyone with panic, guilt and bitter regrets.
This book is not for the faint hearted. Sontag’s son describes his mothers death in the most shocking and disturbing detail. Horrific – in almost every way.
It took a long time. Ms. Sontag was diagnosed with cancer in 1975.Three decades of having cancer, being treated for cancer or waiting for cancer to recur. She battled and argues and resisted with every fibre of her being.
“She believed in her own will, and, grandiose though it may seem, in her own star,” Mr. Rieff says in his book. “My mother came to being ill imbued with a profound sense of being the exception to every rule.”
To watch that kind of arrogance and bravery succeed is marvelous; to watch it fail, dreadful. Such was the strength of Ms. Sontag’s giant personality, however, that apparently no one in her coterie of friends, family or physicians was willing or able to help her along the path to accepting the inevitable. She took them with her instead. She never admitted she was dying.
Months of this duplicity left him guilty and miserable, obsessively revisiting every decision especially after she died. On the one hand, Mr. Rieff acknowledges, “she was entitled to die her own death.” On the other: “Did I do the right thing? Could I have done more?”
When it comes to dying writers, William Saroyan said it best: “Why am I writing this book? To save my life, to keep from dying, of course. That is why we get up in the morning.”
This is a book that many people should read – a case study in how not to do it. It is raw and honest and painful – and those are the text’s strength.
We should salute the memory and courag eand honesty of Sontag;