So much of Susan Sontag’s life has become both mythical and familiar—her early years, fueled by quotes from André Gide and a fervent desire to escape childhood; her miserable marriage to Philip Rieff; her brilliant son who grew up sleeping on coats at New York happenings; her love affairs with women; her vaulting ambition and arrogance; her loyal circle of devotees and the detritus of bitter former devotees; her resounding critical gifts; her pretensions; her cancer; her strength; her beauty and charisma; her photographs; her sometimes unreadable novels; her hair; her genius; her sharp tongue; her Paris; her Sarajevo; her gallant, frightened death.
The peculiar intimacy cast by Sontag’s celebrity has only intensified since her death in 2004 at the age of seventy-one. Obituaries, then memoirs, shared the salacious details, recited the list of cultural accomplishments, celebrated the icon of American intellectualism with her restless intelligence and streak of white hair. When the first volume of Sontag’s journal, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963, was published in 2008, her legend was so firmly established that it was not very surprising to discover that Sontag was already Sontag when she was fourteen years old.
One memoir that notably escaped the celebrity shadow cast by the Sontag myth was Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir, the remarkable work of devastated love by her son, David Rieff. Now, Rieff’s former girlfriend, the novelist Sigrid Nunez, has also published a memoir about Sontag. Sempre Susan was conceived as part of a collection of stories about writers and their mentors. By all logic, then, this memoir should be lurking in the deepest recesses of Sontag’s mythological shade. The familiar Sontag landmarks are there, certainly, but this fresh and touching book turns out not to be about Susan Sontag, Myth, at all. Nunez’s book covers the years 1976 to 1978, when she lived at 340 Riverside Drive with her boyfriend and his powerful mother. This is the story of Susan Sontag, Mother-in-Law.
It is this aspect of Nunez’s experience—the boyfriend’s-powerful-mother aspect (so human, so common, so belittling and overwhelming) rather than the emphasis on Sontag’s literary stardom—that makes this memoir come alive. That and the gossip.
The gossip about Sontag and her son was so potent that it made its way on winged feet even to someone like me, a clueless medieval history major at Bar- nard just at the time this memoir covers. I barely knew who Susan Sontag was, yet I had heard rumors that she and her son had an incestuous relationship. Even then, it sounded like an urban myth, like the bouffant hairdo that housed a swarm of bees or the microwaved poodle. One friend, Nunez writes, “laughed and said, ‘Everyone imagines the most outrageous scenarios when in fact what you’ve got is your classic possessive, controlling mother and guilt-ridden son.’” But picture living with a boy …