David Rieff is the distinguished journalist and author as well as the son of the late Philip Rieff and Susan Sontag. Rieff began chronicling his mother’s confrontation with the illness that took her life in 2004 at age 71 in “Illness as more than metaphor.” I read Rieff’s compelling essay when it was published in the New York Times Magazine the year following Sontag’s death. Learning from Katie Roiphe’s review in today’s New York Times Book Review that Rieff has now written a memoir of his mother’s final illness, I asked him if he would reflect on what he is up to in the book for our readers. He graciously responded:
Swimming In a Sea of Death is my effort to write about both my mother’s death and also her “refusal” of death as starkly and honestly as I knew how. She was hardly the first person to die completely unreconciled to the fact of her own extinction. Restricting oneself just to writers, both Philip Larkin (whose great poem, “Aubade,” which I quote in the book, is probably the greatest rendering of that outlook in art) and Elias Canetti felt much the same way. But my mother was certainly consumed by that feeling — so much so that even after the bone marrow (adult stem cell) transplant she had at the University of Washington hospital in Seattle failed, she was still hoping, still fighting, still refusing to “go gently” — or whatever other formula of resignation or acceptance one chooses to use.
In the book, I try both to chronicle this, and to describe the role her way of dying — which is of course what from a certain perspective it was — caused me to play. For what my mother wanted of me was to share her conviction that she would make it, express it, argue it. This I did, and willingly. For it was her death; she had the right to “die it” as she chose. Of course, the price for me was high: it meant not being able to say goodbye, to have, perhaps, conversations about the past that it would have been helpful to me to have. Even to express to her that I loved her — we were not a demonstrative family — was fraught since, expressed too vehemently the “implicit” “you’re dying” would have been too strong, too evident.
Again, I felt it was the right thing to do — that my interests had to be secondary, even though I had become increasingly convinced that my mother was not going to make it once the transplant had taken place and, basically, everything that could go wrong began to go wrong.
And yet of course I wonder if this was the right thing to do, and, in an important sense, my little book is a series of questions. I have never thought authors were necessarily the best interpreters of their work. As a British writer friend likes to say, “hope this finds you as it leaves me.” But I hope the book is helpful, and I tried to make it honest.