Review: Swimming In A Sea Of Death: A Son's Memoir


By David Rieff
Granta, £12.99

‘In the valley of sorrow, spread your wings,” wrote Susan Sontag when receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer 30 years before her death. “Be cheerful, be stoic, be tranquil.” Facing her last illness, Sontag was none of these things, and David Rieff records his complicity with his mother’s denial of the fatality of her condition. Sontag, famous intellectual, critic and writer, could neither imagine a world without her in it, nor summon up any reserves of spiritual strength for that final journey.

Jews share some concepts of a “world to come”, if only the shady spectre of Sheol. But, however hazy we are on the next life, we share a strong sense of meaning in this life, with a moral imperative to make the world a better place, le’shem shamayim. Susan Sontag, though Jewish, shared none of this. It might have helped her cope since, for her, being alive was about ideas, new sensations, less a sense of purpose towards others, more a sense of what had to be experienced, written, analysed.

Her anger and her despair after the diagnosis of MDS are well chronicled by David Rieff. But the book’s main theme is his collusion with her denial of her impending death. Pervading the whole volume is the sneaking sense that being truthful might have been easier for those left behind.

Rieff queries their collusion with her, giving her the chance for a transplant despite its almost nil rate of success, allowing her to die covered in sores, filled with tubes, in pain and — on learning that the transplant had not worked — in despair.

The book is an almost self-indulgent account of coming to terms with the death of a parent, but is redeemed by Rieff’s unflinching honesty. It is also a tale of American medicine at its best and worst. Sontag survived cancer twice in her life. Third time unlucky. Third time full of lies. Sontag, so keen on meaning in her life, missed out entirely on meaning in her death, and left her son even more bereft than he would otherwise have been as a result.

Dishonesty does not pay; it leaves the mourners with their farewells unsaid. We Jews have a tendency to deny that we are dying but, with modern chronic conditions, we may be doing ourselves, and our children, no favours. Ultimately, we have to accept our impending death, whenever it comes, organise ourselves for it, put our emotional and practical affairs in order, and say our goodbyes. 

Julia Neuberger’s latest book is Not Dead Yet: a Manifesto for Old Age (Harper-Collins £18.99)

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