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A Son’s Memoir

by David Rieff

Pub Date: Jan. 8th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-7432-9946-6
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Death be not proud: an affecting and discomfiting account, by her son, of Susan Sontag’s last days.

As a writer and intellectual, Sontag lived much of her life in public, and often glamorously, courting controversies and participating in literary brawls, jetting back and forth between Paris and New York, filling pages. In private, like her idol, Bulgarian-born novelist Elias Canetti, she feared death inordinately, writing in an early journal of “not being able to even imagine that one day I will no longer be alive.” Having survived one bout with breast cancer, she was amazed, a quarter-century later, to find herself stricken by myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), which her doctor, “as if he had a family of village idiots sitting in front of him, [called] a particularly lethal form of blood cancer.” That announcement, writes her son Rieff (At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention, 2005, etc.), seems to have stopped Sontag cold, at least for a moment: The woman who had taught herself about the inner workings of volcanoes, epidemics, film, photography and more topics now seemed incurious, particularly about her illness. Rieff wonders, rightly, whether more pointed inquiry would have brought Sontag solace. He concludes that despair would have been the likely outcome, and that his mother’s expectation of him was “an adamant refusal to accept that it was even possible that she might not survive.” She did not, of course, and, as Rieff relates in detail not for the squeamish, hers was not an easy death, for all that she had written wisely and bravely about death in the abstract. Rieff, who admits that he fears dying, writes thoughtfully about a child’s duties in the time of dying.

A useful handbook of a sort, as well as a concluding chapter to his mother’s life.