Can We Talk About Susan Sontag's Death and Then Maybe Our Own?

01/14/2008 11:49 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In this feverish season of Hillary watching, Simon and Schuster has just offered up the story of another remarkable American woman, Susan Sontag, for us to analyze and interpret through the eyes of her son, journalist David Rieff. His memoir of his mother's final year battling cancer, Swimming in a Sea of Death, is riveting, provocative, and heartbreaking. It forces us to ask ourselves how we deal with the terminal illness of a loved one, and makes Rieff's private burden public: how to care for a demanding mother who refused to accept even the possibility of death, much less its imminent certainty.

Having recently witnessed the death of both my parents, I, too, have had to swim in this sea, to live with guilt and regret at what I didn't do and wish I had done. Few of us weather the death of a loved one without second thoughts. Rieff's book is a moving account of his own situation, and might serve a larger cause by encouraging conversations about the complicated art of dying. Now that we're beyond shame in talking about sex and money, candor about dying could be our last great taboo.

Sontag, who died of cancer in 2004 at 71 years old, had an identity that's rare in American life: the celebrity intellectual. Though this label was never bestowed on her, I'd say she was also one of our most famous single mothers. In 1958, at 25 years old, she refused her soon-to-be-ex's offers of child support and alimony, choosing to support herself and her six-year-old by magazine editing and the hope of income from writing.

In the unlikely event anyone failed to notice her when she was alive -- on the front covers of her own books, in magazines, on Nightline -- Annie Leibovitz's lavish Photographer's Life: 1990-2005, made that oversight easy to correct. And it raised plenty of eyebrows with shots of Sontag's body in her coffin. Those who wondered how Rieff felt about these pictures will find only a single seething phrase in his memoir. He believes his mother was "humiliated posthumously by being 'memorialized' that way in those carnival images of celebrity death."

There's little else in Swimming in a Sea of Death that smacks of anger or revenge except Rieff's rage at the euphemistic language of some medical brochures. In fact, he tells us that during this year of tending Sontag, he consciously decided to take no notes, wanting instead to feel the experience head on. And what an experience it was: Diagnosed with a blood cancer for which there is no treatment, Sontag refused to go gently. She discovered an experimental treatment involving a bone marrow transplant, which her doctor recommended she have done at a clinic in Washington state. Rieff doesn't say so in his book, though he reported in an article in The New York Times that Medicare and Sontag's health insurance company refused to pay for the treatment. To be admitted, she had to give the hospital a cash deposit of more than $250,000.

Having beaten cancer twice before, she was certain she would beat it again, though her chances were miniscule. Long before she was bedridden, she was so consumed with anxiety at the possibility of her "extinction," she needed company around the clock. Even tranquilizers didn't calm her fears. Throughout months of toxic treatments that destroyed her immune system, even through her ravaged final weeks, she refused to accept the truth.

Rieff writes that "... almost until the moment she died, we talked of her survival, of her struggle with cancer, never about her dying. I was not going to raise the subject unless she did. It was her death, not mine. And she did not raise it. To have done so would have been to concede that she might die and what she wanted was survival, not extinction--survival on any terms. To go on living: perhaps that was her way of dying." Rieff, though, often felt like "an accomplice," and the most moving material in the book is about his ambivalence in the role she demanded of him and others: to confirm her magical thinking.

Because Sontag never wanted to face her death, she and her son never said goodbye to each other. Nor did she express any wishes about what would happen after. All he knew was that "she had a horror of cremation," and so he chose to bury her in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, near the remains of Simone de Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett, a choice, one can't help but feel, she would have applauded.

Never having had said proper goodbyes to either of my own parents, I know some of what it is to swim in this dark sea. But because I knew Sontag only from a distance, through her writing, what others have written and said about her, and now, through her son's eyes, I see her without the weight of guilt, anger, and love. Her brilliance shines through, as does her charisma, her love of life, her ambition, her despair, and her particular brand of narcissism, a thundering self-involvement that forces those around her into the roles of flatterers and abject enablers in the maintenance of her fantasies. Rieff wonders throughout the book whether he should have confronted his mother with the reality of her death, instead of pretending it would not happen. One can only imagine that if he had, she would have refused to listen.

He writes: "My mother had always thought of herself as someone whose hunger for truth was absolute. After her diagnosis, the hunger remained, but it was life and not truth that she was desperate for. I hope I did the right thing in trying to give it to her, but I will never be sure. But she was clear about what she wanted and to the extent that I am consolable about the role I played, this is what consoles me: She was entitled to die her own death." (102)

Of course she is. There should be nothing more elemental than our right to chose our death, whether we fight to the bitter end or take our lives to spare ourselves and our loved ones the horrors of crushing illnesses. What's truly sad about Sontag's choice is that as a mother, she could not look beyond her own fears and consider what this choice meant for her child, not to mention her other loved ones.

The tragedy for me in Swimming in a Sea of Death is not Sontag's death but her having left her son this self-centered bequest: instead of her love, her anger at the fact of having to die. Like a child herself, it's as though she died stamping her feet and crying out, "This is so unfair to me!" Is it any wonder that Rieff feels such guilt? Any wonder that he is burdened by the thought that parents often have when a child dies: "There are times when I wish I could have died in her place." My heart breaks when he writes that he wishes he could have suppressed his "own interests in the furtherance of hers" and when he says, "I wish that I had lived, while she was alive and well, with the image of her death at the forefront of my consciousness."

There is nothing that narcissists do better than force the rest of us to see our own lives through the prism of their lives, to sign up for their delusions and self-centered wishes. From all the evidence, from Terry Castle's essay, "Desperately Seeking Susan" in the London Review of Books to Rieff's memoir, Sontag excelled at making herself the center of attention. In his interview with Terry Gross on "Fresh Air," Rieff revealed that his mother sold her diaries to UCLA and that he is editing all three volumes. As she did in life, during her final struggle with death, and now that she has been laid to rest, this dazzling woman -- writer, provocateur, celebrity, single mother -- will engage us for a long time to come. Ironically, through her son's bold, unflinching account of her refusal to accept her "extinction," she may even help us begin public and private conversations about dying that are long overdue.

Elizabeth Benedict is the author of many books, including the novels Almost, The Practice of Deceit, and Slow Dancing, and The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers. For a copy of her essay, "What I Learned About Sex on the Internet," please click here.