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Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir [Hardcover]

David Rieff
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

8 Jan 2008
In spring 2004, Susan Sontag was diagnosed with the incurable blood cancer which would kill her later the same year. In this fiercely honest and beautifully written memoir, her son David Rieff chronicles the last months of Sontag's life. Sontag had fought off two previous bouts of cancer, against all the odds, and had developed a sense of herself as somehow charmed, able to beat this disease. She also had a huge appetite for experience, and a wild, extravagant desire to live. Rieff details her reaction to the diagnosis, and the way that her friends and doctors responded to her shock and grief.He writes movingly about being by her side during that last year and at her death, and about his own contradictory emotions: his guilt both for not consoling her enough, and for somehow colluding with her in her belief that she could beat the disease. Drawing on Sontag's journals and letters, which Rieff read after her death, and on the writings about death of other great thinkers, "Swimming in a Sea of Death" provides a vivid portrait of Sontag in the last year of her life and a haunting meditation on mortality.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 180 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1 edition (8 Jan 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743299469
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743299466
  • Product Dimensions: 21.8 x 15.5 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,691,638 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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An introspective, emotional account of being with his mother in her final months. -- Sunday Times

Written, with implacable sincerity, by [Susan Sontag's] son, David Reiff, a man of high sensibility and a questioning mind.
-- Irish Times

About the Author

David Rieff is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine. He is the author of seven previous books, including the acclaimed At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention; A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis; and Slaughterhouse Bosnia and the Failure of the West. He lives in New York City --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not swimming, but drowning before extinction 7 Mar 2013
A son writing about his mother's dying. The mother is Susan Sontag, the son a writer. As such you expect this book to be well written, it is. To be a reflection of the blistering honesty that was Susan Sontag. There is a core of looking straight on into the process of dying and the fight to stay alive no matter what. It was difficult to read, although accurately it is a meditation on mortality, death and the process of dying, but does not paint a vivid portrait of the last year of Ms Sontag's life. The portrayal of Ms Sontag remains private in that she is a minefield of no go areas for family and friends. Mr Rieff appears to barely contain disdain for Annie Liebowitz, the photographer and her images Of Susan Sontag's last days. The book reads to me as a description, an intellectual dance of dealing with illness where the participants refuse to accede mortality. "Do not go gentle into that good night" the rage burns so strongly that other competing emotions, grief, compassion, acceptance are subsumed to a sideline or to emerge post death as guilt and incredible sadness of the loss of what might have been said, done and experienced. I was left thinking we all die. We all have conflicting responses to what appears as the last drawn breath before extinction. But from my experience of those going through this process, this book and its attendant philosophy of extinction of ego as the end place was arid. I have seen what Mr Rieff poses as the Buddhist acceptance of the inevitable, enormous dignity and courage and the almost feral battle to hold on to each breath no matter what the cost. Each to their own end and as Mr Rieff rightly identifies, it is something few of us can control in that we all die of something and cancer is certainly one of the hardest something to battle. Read more ›
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Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  22 reviews
33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars For Sontag, death was not an option. 20 Jan 2008
By R S Cobblestone - Published on Amazon.com
How does a son respond when told that his mother is dying? Is there a difference when this is not the first time? What does it mean to the soul when the cure itself kills?

American writer Susan Sontag died in 2004 of a form of cancer brought on by her earlier aggressive treatments for advanced breast cancer. She was told of her fatal condition as she was accompanied by her son, David Rieff. Nine months later she was dead.

Is there any difference between fighting for life and fighting against death? In Sontag's case, it seems that her goal was to survive and to live life to the fullest. She was a believer in a "take no prisoners" approach to her cancer treatments... a serious disease required an equally serious treatment, and a dedication to this treatment. For her, according to Rieff, death was not an option.

"But with the greatest respect [for her oncologists], the brute fact of mortality means that there are limits on how much better we can realistically expect to do" (p. 166).

This is a book of two viewpoints: what Rieff as a son saw of his mother and himself as the MDS progressed, and how Sontag approached life and death during this period.

Both were brave, and reflective.

"During the months I watched my mother die, I was increasingly at a loss as to how I could behave toward her in ways that actually would be helpful. Mostly, I felt at sea" (p. 103).

"She told me at one point that she was tormented by the amount of time she had wasted during her life on what she called her 'Girl Scout-ish' obsession with doing 'worthy' things" (p. 106).

"And in the end, those of us who loved her failed her as the living always fail the dying, for we could not actually do the only thing she really wanted, which was to stave off extinction for just some time longer, let alone give her what I'm afraid is all too accurately called a new lease on life. Only her doctors could do that" (p. 136-137).

Sontag's philosophy toward treatment was simple in its complexity:

Search for every treatment option.
Take every chance.

She watched friends die because they did not heed this advice. But as the sand inexorably runs through the hourglass, the options disappear, the menu of treatments is taken away, and the final endpoint appears.

Rieff collects his thoughts from his observations and reflections, and from both his pre-death conversations with his mother and his post-death review of her journals. This is not a biography of Susan Sontag. It is a mourning of a son for his mother.

"Mostly, I felt at sea."

It is a tough decision, financially, emotionally, and practically, to be aggressive in fighting disease. Sontag was always a fighter, and her experiences fighting breast cancer shaped her to the end. For Rieff, his mother was... his mother. There is no expectation of a reunion in the afterlife, or a reincarnation and reinvention. You live your life, and then you die.

Sontag refused to be passive in life, and in her approach to the prospect of death.

And she is missed by her son.
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 'She was entitled to die her own death.' 27 Feb 2008
By Grady Harp - Published on Amazon.com
Memoirs written after the death of a loved one can either be elegies radiant with poetic inspiration or they can be self-serving eulogies. David Rieff, a thoughtful and intelligent writer, happens to be the son of Susan Sontag, one of America's most brilliant authors and essayists, a woman of great courage with the gift of exploring concepts of our society that she found in need of our attention while at the same time a being novelist able to spin meaningful tales about the indomitable human spirit. SWIMMING IN A SEA OF DEATH: A SON'S MEMOIR is far more than a rehash of an artist's life and exit from life: this book is a work of sensitive evaluation of not only a great woman but also of the myriad aspects of our healthcare system, both good and bad, and the delicate yet coarsely bumpy path that begins with the diagnosis of a terminal disease and ends with the sigh that completes mortality. From this book we learn not only the trials of Susan Sontag's battle with three attacks of cancer (breast cancer in 1975 with radical surgery and chemotherapy, uterine sarcoma in 1998, and Myelodysplastic Syndrome in 2004), but we also learn about the relationship of a son and mother and the challenges to each in coping with threatening diseases and ultimately death.

What makes this 'memoir' so different is the frank honesty of the author David Rieff. He reflects on the avid love for living that ruled Sontag's life, her refusal to give in when she felt that fighting the odds was better than the alternative of doing nothing. Rieff took on the role of supporting his mother's belief that all of the chemotherapy, mutilating surgery, radiation, bone marrow transplantation - all accompanied by severe physical and psychological pain - was worth the effort if the methods of attacking the disease process held any degree of hope of remission. It is a lesson for all of us who have dealt or are dealing with being there for loved ones who face medical decisions, times when the patient needs the support of those who care and are willing to accept the fact that the patient is very much alive - until life is no longer an option.

The reader comes away from this book with a profound respect for the spirit of Susan Sontag, the courage of her various physicians who respected her participation in her decisions, and the quiet and gentle love of a son who can now see the giant who was his mother as he passes her grave in Paris. Toward the end of this book Rieff quotes form Sontag's journals: '"I write the way I live and my life is full of quotations." Then she adds: "Change it." But she never did.' This memoir is an Elegy. Highly recommended reading. Grady Harp, February 08
35 of 44 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Rieff should get out of the water 14 April 2008
By N. King - Published on Amazon.com
This book is one of the most depressing and pessimistic books I have ever had the misfortune to read. Fortunately, I borrowed it from the library - having finished it, I wouldn't have it in my house.

This is not to say that, purely from the perspective of language and construction, it is not largely well-written, although the numerous rather self-conscious attributions to largely obscure personalities (intellectuals all, no doubt) interrupt the flow at times. Rather, it is the lack of insight into character - Rieff's and his mother's - that leaves me cold.

I have to emphasize that I am not a disciple of Susan Sontag - I think that is the appropriate word. In general, I tend to distrust people who claim, by dint of superior intelligence, education, or reasoning power, to have some special avenue to "the truth", particularly when they broadcast it as widely as she did. All she really provided was (usually) well-reasoned opinion.

I prefer evidence of wisdom. And I do not believe that she was wise.

She loved life? Well - in truth - most of us do. No. She was PASSIONATE about life. Well - many of us are, though we may express that passion differently than she did. We all fear death? Well - no, we don't. Not in the way she did. I don't accept that her overwhelming fear of death - and apparently her son's, for that matter - sprang solely from her putative passion for life.

The living always fail the dying? Well - no, they don't. Sometimes, the dying fail the living.

Where is the personal responsibility in all this rending of cloth?

Rieff maintains that to have told his mother that she was terminally ill would have sent her spiraling into an abyss of despair and madness. But where has she sent him? Most of us of a certain age have lost one or both parents and other loved ones, sometimes to protracted and painful illnesses. But almost four years after the event, Rieff is obviously still in his own pit of despair (if not madness). Is this an appropriate legacy for a mother to leave a son?

What I find most ironic about this book is that, although Rieff makes reference on a number of occasions to Jerome Groopman, M.D., calling him a family friend, he seems to be peculiarly ignorant of Groopman's own views. Groopman, himself a deeply religious man, has written several books based on his personal experience with illness, and experiences with patients who know themselves to be terminally ill. He has a unique idea of what constitutes "hope", and how "hopeful" dying patients can be - not about cure, or even remission, but about whatever they themselves define as hope when given the opportunity. Rieff should remember the source of the title of Groopman's first book, The Measure of Our Days: "So teach us the measure of our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom" (Psalm 90). Even better - he should read it.
25 of 31 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Drowning 6 April 2008
By C. Hartmann - Published on Amazon.com
The New York Times review of this book concluded that Susan Sontag's death was the kind of death most people would want to avoid--a hard death. Yes, but that aside, this book by her son offers readers little other than the chronicle of one unreflective perspective on a series of difficult events.

To begin, the book is poorly edited, which is a great shame. (One brief example: "Remembering how my mother had behaved during her previous cancers, her close friends also began to search online, and were soon e-mailing to Anne the most informative or promising materials or links that they had found online.")

Also, it is highly repetitive in content. One entire chapter is almost exclusively focused on maligning a brochure put out by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Rieff devotes page after page to berating it for essentially adopting his own attitude toward his mother during her illness: "a refusal to write as if bad news were bad news and despair were despair." Additionally, he revisits in almost every chapter the main theme of the book--that he does not know whether giving her the answers that he thought she wanted to hear (that is, lying to her about her chances for survival) was what he should have done. Once, or maybe twice, would have been poignant. But one can surmise that a briefer treatment would not have given this volume the length to justify publication.

In addition, the narrative portrays Rieff's experiences in detail but with little insight. He attempts to present his mother's thoughts about death, but since he did not know her well, he could only do this through a conjectured reading of her diaries. Interestingly, he does write that during her illness she talked with others about her approaching death but not with him, which calls into even greater question his ability to generalize from the perspective of his admittedly strained relationship with her. He writes that he is still angry about her death, but he does not attribute this to the process of grief. For him, grief does not seem to be a process at all but rather an onslaught of emotions which he would much rather suppress. Why then did he write a book about grieving?

And, finally, Rieff insists that both his and his mother's reactions to her experience were universally applicable. He belabors the other choices they both could have made. He describes other paths his mother could have taken. But in the end, he presents the past as inevitable and his mother's decisions as largely correct. (Reacting other than with despair upon being given a terminal diagnosis would be "insane," according to Rieff.) In doing so, he does a severe injustice to the myriad of experiences possible under similar circumstances, and in the process he runs the risk of alienating readers whose choices were or will be different, whose reactions do not mirror his or his mother's own.

Susan Sontag was a justly famous person. This book sheds light on an aspect of her life that her writings may not have revealed: her myopic failure to accept an important part of her own humanity. Had her son been able to look beyond her limited perspective, this would have been a far better book.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "A deep refusal of death" 22 Feb 2008
By Kerry Walters - Published on Amazon.com
So David Rieff describes his mother Susan Sontag's relationship with her own mortality. A two-time cancer survivor (she was first stricken in her early 40s, and went through brutal therapy), Sontag never lost her deep repugnance at the thought of her own extinction nor her equally deep conviction that the only reasonable response to death was to resist it to the final breath.

Rieff's memoir of his mother's last and losing struggle against an especially aggressive form of leukemia is a touching and at times profound reflection on the fragility of life which. It reveals much more than Sontag's own struggle with mortality. It is equally revelatory when it comes to her son's own discomfort with death. It ponders on whether some ways of entering into dying are better--for oneself as well as one's family and friends--than others. Finally, it invites readers to reflect on our culture's obsession with beating death, or at least holding it at arm's length.

Rieff reiterates throughout the book that Sontag resisted death as mightily as she did because she so loved life. "She reveled in being...No one I have ever known loved life so unambivalently" (p. 143). But Rieff's descriptions of Sontag's mental anguish, her strategies of denial, and her demands for comfort and company and false hope during her last months inevitably raise the question of where a love of life that resists death ends and a desperate terror of death which clings to life any any cost begins. Might it be that a genuinely celebratory love of life is one that recognizes that transience is part and parcel of its bittersweet appeal? Could it be argued that a desperate struggle to live when it's clear that the time to die has come bespeaks something less than love of life? Could it be that there's something profoundly important to be said for going gently into that dark night? Such a possibility is hinted at, perhaps unintentionally, by Rieff.

Another issue raised by his memoir is the responsibility of physicians to their dying patients. In an especially interesting chapter, Rieff discusses the attitudes of two of the oncologists who treated his mother. One took the conventional approach that the physician's primary responsibility is to keep the patient alive so long as even a shred of medical hope remains. The other deplored the "surreal minuet" of medical "denial, the kind of winking that goes on, where, yeah, we all know the patient's going to die but we're all going to pretend like there's hope" (p. 114).

The surreal minuet implicates more than just patient and physician. It can force family and friends into the dance of denial as well. One of the more poignant themes in Rieff's memoir is his on-going guilt over the role his mother forced him to play during her dying: continuously lying to her about her condition. He asks himself--and will always ask himself--if this was the proper thing for him to do. Did his "winking" encourage false hope in Sontag, thereby prolonging the futile and agonizing struggle to survive? Did it reinforce Sontag's "deep refusal of death" at a time when both her own dying and its impact on others could've been tempered by acceptance? And does our culture's general deep refusal of death, surely born more of fear than love of life, make dying all the more difficult? In order to die better, ought we to rethink what it means to live well?

Ultimately, these sorts of questions, all raised by Rieff's reflections on his mother's dying, are what makes the book such a profoundly important read. In a very fitting way, Swimming in a Sea of Death complements Sontag's own insightful books on illness and pain.
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