Few of us lose a parent without regret and some self-reproach, some sense of things undone or injustices unredressed; it is a natural component of grief. The literature of memoirs by children of their parents, from Father and Son to Mommie Dearest—whether by Edmund Gosse or John Stuart Mill, Sean Wilsey or Francine du Plessix Gray—may be affectionate, angry, or ambivalent, but such works inevitably contain conscious or unconscious expressions of the reservations and differences essential in a parent–child relation if the child isn’t to be submerged in the parent’s tremendous identity. David Rieff’s memoir of his mother, Susan Sontag, has all of these qualities, which perhaps accounts for its power beyond mere eulogy, elegy, or complaint.
Swimming in a Sea of Death is narrowly focused on his reaction to her death in 2004 from a rare blood malignancy, and on the medical issues around it, some of which she had also written about, though only very generally, from the point of view of a cancer survivor. Rieff now gives his account of her nearly thirty-year battle against three potentially fatal cancers, and its effect on him. Besides being an eloquent record of grief, it raises a number of issues pertaining to cancer, its treatment, and our attitudes toward the language of illness and dying—subjects long of interest to Sontag herself.
In 1975, Sontag, then aged forty-two, was diagnosed with stage-four (advanced), metastasized breast cancer. Doctors explained the “hopeless” prognosis to Rieff, then twenty-three, but she herself was not directly told the medical facts, a reticence common at the time. One can be sure, however, that she knew the grim statistics perfectly well, because she looked them up. In her famous essay “Illness as Metaphor,” first published in these pages in January and February 1978, and later as a book with “AIDS and Its Metaphors,” she says:
All this lying to and by cancer patients is a measure of how much harder it has become in advanced industrial societies to come to terms with death. As death is now an offensively meaningless event, so that [cancer] widely considered a synonym for death is experienced as something to hide.
She herself was no exception to this reluctance: Rieff emphasizes that she hated talking about death and “loved living,” had an “avidity” for life. Her unwillingness to accept her own mortality continued onto her deathbed, and Rieff didn’t dare bring it up, a fact that most curiously reflects his own ambivalence about her attitude toward illness. Her denial of impending death, which he wished to respect, versus his sense of what she should know, discuss, face, and accept, is one of the themes of his book. Another is the language of such discussions, and the sincerity with which it is deployed, which was central to Sontag and Rieff’s experience with doctors; and the last is the larger metaphysical question, and
in the end, that is the question that haunts me. Had Stephen …