The Death of Susan Sontag

How illness is perceived by the patient and his or her family and how does one deal with the memory of the dead? Three of my recent reads: Annie Leibovitz’ A Photographer’s Life, David Rieff’s Swimming in a Sea of Death, and Your Medical Mind by Jerome Groopman and Pamela Hartzband highlight these subjects.

David Rieff was Susan Sontag’s son and Annie Liebovitz was her lover.  I found it interesting as to how each of them dealt with Sontag’s death as well as each other.

Although they were together for 15 years, Sontag never acknowledged her sexual relationship with Leibovitz –even though they both lived within view of each other and shared vacation houses as well as vacations.  Rieff acknowledges that Sontag’s apartment was more of an office than an apartment. He mentions Leibovitz only twice in the book about his mother’s death: describing her as Sontag’s “on-again, off-again companion of many years” as well as criticizing Leibovitz’ publishing of Sontag’s body as “carnival images of celebrity death.” Rieff apparently has refused to speak about Leibovitz in subsequent interviews.  When Sontag died, most of her obituaries failed to acknowledge her relationship with Leibovitz (some speculate for fear of a lawsuit from Rieff).  Sontag never acknowledged that she was gay.  Perhaps my main critique of Rieff’s book is it presents a one-dimension caricature of Sontag and fails to acknowledge the importance of Sontag’s relationship with Leibovitz. Leibovitz’ photos in A Photographer’s Life span the course of her relationship with Sontag.  There are photos of Sontag that clearly show an intimate and sexual relationship.  I find Rieff’s prose and failure to acknowledge Leibovitz as vaguely homophobic.

The overwhelming criticism of Leibovitz book is the publication of Sontag’s death photographs. This public controversy is elegantly explored in Catlin McKinney’s article in the Queen’s Journal of Visual and Material Culture Leibovitz and Sontag: picturing the ethics of queer domesticity. I only wish to add a few of my insights to her article.  I agree that perhaps publishing something very private was perhaps not in the best taste.  However, not many people note that Leibovitz was not present at the time of Sontag’s death at the Fred Hutchison Cancer Center in Seattle, Washington. She was attending her father in Florida who was in the last lap of his death.  As a visual artist, I can understand her need to preserve a tangible visual reminder of Sontag.  It is how Leibovitz copes (in the same book there is her father’s death photo which no one criticized.)  I can appreciate the need to preserve in one own way the final moment or object of a loved one.  I remember cleaning my grandmother’s home after her death.  Amongst her belongings was a half burned cigarette. On the outside of this envelope was written in Spanish “his last cigarette.”  It was the cigarette my grandfather was smoking when he collapsed and died at the kitchen table from a massive heart attack.

Perhaps my impression of all three books is how does a family member cope?  I am reminded of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking as well as Blue Nights which chronicle her struggle with her daughter’s illness and subsequent death.  What isn’t documented (although I and other readers suspect) is the denial of Didion’s daughter’s probable alcoholism which lead to pancreatitis (the etiology of the coma in Magical Thinking) her intoxicated fall which caused an intracerebral hemorrhage (Blue Nights).  Rieff never really mentions that most of his relationship with Sontag was spent estranged from her, he never mentions her homosexuality, and never really gives his mother’s final struggle any depth.  He only seems to describe his rather stilted reaction to her unrealistic search for a cure that lead to her death.  Leibovitz’ book, on the otherhand,  acts somewhat as a catharsis (she describes it as a love story) where she finally admits the depth of her relationship with Sontag.

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