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Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff

Erika Nanes

The subject of Rieff's book is not just Susan Sontag's death. It is also the ways in which our willingness, or refusal, to acknowledge impending death affects our relationships with the people around us.


Swimming in a Sea of Death

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Subtitle: A Son's Memoir
Author: David Rieff
Price: $21.00
Length: 192
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 0743299469
US publication date: 2008-01
Amazon

One of the most difficult human experiences is the death of a parent. While it is undoubtedly wrenching to undergo this experience as a child, an adult mourning a parent suffers not only a profound loss, but also a shock to everyday ways of ordering the world. To put it another way, losing a parent profoundly reshapes the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. It is a singular and, often, an indescribable event.

Swimming in a Sea of Death, David Rieff's memoir about the death of his mother, Susan Sontag, nonetheless attempts to describe this experience. In particular, he details the events immediately following Sontag's diagnosis with the virulent form of leukemia that would cause her death only nine months later. The book's narrative arc is, essentially, chronological: it begins with the moment that he learns of her illness and progresses to all that follows, including the process of collecting information about the form of cancer with which she was diagnosed, a failed bone marrow transplant, and, finally, the last minutes of her life.

Periodically, Rieff interrupts this narrative with anecdotes from Sontag's two previous bouts with cancer. He does so in order to underscore his primary claim -- namely, that in all three cases, Sontag refused to confront her own mortality, and he complied with this refusal.

The subject of Rieff's book, then, is not just Sontag's death. It is also the ways in which our willingness, or refusal, to acknowledge impending death affects our relationships with the people around us. Early in the long process of Sontag's final illness, he notes, it became clear that "she did not literally say that she wanted to be told that she would make it . . .[but] her actual wishes were self-evident to anyone who really cared about her". So he went along with her wishes, spinning each grim diagnosis and discouraging piece of information so that it conveyed hope rather than defeat. This determination often led to near-comic cognitive dissonance: visiting Sontag in the hospital, for instance, where she might be "covered in sores, incontinent, and half delirious", he would nonetheless go on "at great and cheerful length about how much better she seemed to look/seem/be compared to the day before".

But even he could not maintain this scrupulously false cheerfulness all the time. At several points, he describes moments when he found himself unable to say anything in the face of his mother's grief. A particularly poignant scene occurs when Sontag breaks down during a telephone conversation with him. Rieff's response is to freeze: "Say something, I kept thinking. But I could think of nothing to say".

Rieff's attempt to recreate his constant self-consciousness during this period means that the book contains more exposition and analysis than action, and that this analysis manifests itself in ever-more complex, intricate syntax. As a result, the book has an oddly claustrophobic feel, as though the reader is inadvertently eavesdropping on Rieff's conversation with himself. Rieff may have been attempting to conjure just such a mood, to immerse readers in the sense of constraint, of powerlessness, that he experienced. But there is a fine line between stifling one's emotional responses and detaching from them altogether, and Rieff, in demonstrating his compulsion to do the first, too often seems to do the second.

It isn't hard to guess that Sontag might have regarded emotional display as precisely the sort of “appeal to the subjective” that she loathed; in fact, given the difficulty of discussing death without resorting to bathos, it isn't hard to understand her point. To convince readers that you are restraining your emotions, though, you must allow them to see just how strong these emotions are. Although Rieff sometimes alludes to strong feeling, as when he notes that his relationship with Sontag could be quite difficult, his tone never breaks or wavers, so that we, like Sontag, are never forced to confront anything other than the official version of the truth.

Detachment is the mother of irony, though, and Rieff is at his best when parsing the rhetoric of medical pamphlets circulated by such organizations as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. He deplores the false hope offered in these pamphlets, a sentiment that he characterizes as being "sandwiched between the language of the laboratory and the language of self-help". He reserves his greatest scorn for the numerous ways in which the pamphlets qualify the limited hope they offer, the "'may's" and "'can's" that pollute them like "worms injected into burnished supermarket apples then covered in plastic wrap". Anyone who has ever attempted to wade through such brochures will appreciate the precision, and acid wit, with which he dissects them here.

The book ends with a single sentence, set off in its own paragraph: "I still can't believe there was nothing I could do to help". This understated yet resonant ending exemplifies the guilt of the survivor. In its constant invocation of the conditional, its unceasing second- and third-guessing, Rieff's book demonstrates the consequences of that guilt. If only he had allowed us to experience more of it for ourselves.

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