Last week, Guardian writer Emma Keller took on a cancer sufferer tweeting about her illness. Not content to give her the last word, her husband, former New York Times editor-in-chief Bill Keller is ready to examine the patient. Nurse, pass the twittiest scalpel you've got.
Last Thursday, Emma Keller got a ration of crap for her ruminations on Lisa Adams, a metastatic breast cancer sufferer who has spent the better part of a decade on Twitter, detailing her own battle for health and extended life, in all of its hardest-to-swallow details.
Adams has become something of a stateswoman for a kind of tenacity, and a kind of breast-cancer endurance, that doesn't conform to the usual hazy, pink-ribbon, Thomas Kinkade picture of light and strength. To this, Emma Keller writes:
Should there be boundaries in this kind of experience? Is there such a thing as TMI? Are her tweets a grim equivalent of deathbed selfies, one step further than funeral selfies? Why am I so obsessed?
Great column! Mention a meme that's hot out there. Take your own discomfort and project it on the world. With that talent, you could get to the New York Times!
Oh wait, the Times is on it—in the form of Emma Keller's husband, the paper's former boss, now a columnist. He calls this one "Heroic Measures":
Since a mammogram detected the first toxic seeds of cancer in her left breast when she was 37, she has blogged and tweeted copiously about her contest with the advancing disease. She has tweeted through morphine haze and radiation burn. Even by contemporary standards of social-media self-disclosure, she is a phenomenon. (Last week she tweeted her 165,000th tweet.)…
Lisa Adams is still alive, still blogging, and insists she is not dying, but the blog has become less about prolonging her survival and more about managing her excruciating pain. Her poetry has become darker.
Now, as Adams points out on Twitter, she's not quite dead yet, and death is not really so much a part of her social media posts as life is. Yet the Keller family has written a bang-up pair of obituaries for her, if obituaries were think pieces about their writers:
In October 2012 I wrote about my father-in-law's death from cancer in a British hospital. There, more routinely than in the United States, patients are offered the option of being unplugged from everything except pain killers and allowed to slip peacefully from life. His death seemed to me a humane and honorable alternative to the frantic medical trench warfare that often makes an expensive misery of death in America...
When my wife, who had her own brush with cancer and who has written about Lisa Adams's case for The Guardian, introduced me to the cancer blog, my first thought was of my father-in-law's calm death. Lisa Adams's choice is in a sense the opposite. Her aim was to buy as much time as possible to watch her two children grow up. So she is all about heroic measures.
(That's not quite right, Adams insists, but whatever.)
...any reader can see that Adams's online omnipresence has given her a sense of purpose, a measure of control in a tumultuous time, and the comfort of a loyal, protective online community. Social media have become a kind of self-medication.
"Seriously, Lisa Adams," Keller is saying. "When are you going to give all this up, like my graceful, fast-dying, stoic father-in-law? Let go, already! You're, like, practically a corpse, and here we are forced to read all about it, because there is absolutely no way in heaven or on earth to refrain from reading your tweets. They're like drugs. To you. Just. Stop."
As I write this post, I'm preparing to go teach a class of young, healthy, invincible undergrads an "Introduction to the Short Story." The piece we're covering this week is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," Ambrose Bierce's account of a Confederate partisan being hung by Union troops. It's a sardonic comment on the futility of war, wrapped around one death and the victim's fleeting hopes of continued life—of family, of pastoral existence, of the status quo. Bierce describes in detail, more than once, how death overtakes the man, even as he thinks he's getting a renewed chance at life. We catch ourselves reading these descriptions, and we reach at our own necks. What is it like to be hung? How does the condemned suffer and and shuffle out of the light of sentient existence? Horribly, according to Bierce.
I don't want to put words in Adams' mouth, or tell her what her business is. But I think that in addition to honoring her own intuitions, to taking ownership of her illness and her life, she's putting the lie to an important myth that too many Americans hold—Bill and Emma Keller among them. We all like to fool ourselves into believing that disease and mortality are generally easy things. They come in your sleep, when you're old and it's natural—or else, they come in a car crash or a furnace accident, and then they're quick about it. Prolonged suffering is something that happens to other people, and it's not polite for sick people or their friends and families to share stories of infirmity and pain and messiness, because Jesus God, who the hell wants to hear that? We're going to die in peace, so let us live in peace, alright?
Perhaps that's part of the reason the U.S. health care debate got so stupid so fast, with death panels and beheading rumors and the like: because considering health care as something we might need forces us to consider the possibility that living, and dying, could be ouchy and gross and undignifying, something out of our control and ordained by drug trials and actuaries and specialists, even as we want more desperately than anything to have just a little more life—or a little less.
Adams has bravely opted for the former, and thus far, it's worked—she's alive. I don't know that I could or would do the same. The Kellers wholeheartedly seem to recommend the latter. "Adams is the standard-bearer for an approach to cancer that honors the warrior, that may raise false hopes, and that, implicitly, seems to peg patients like my father-in-law as failures," Bill Keller writes. A failure? For what? Dying fast? Check yourself, Keller. It's nice that your father in law had the luxury of choosing his exit. Not many of us do. The calculus is different for old men than it is for mothers in their forties, for example. But any of us, our wishes aside, may naturally feel the pull of family, of work undone, of financial and logistical demands, for a different choice.
At the end of the day there is a limit to how much debate we should entertain over Adams' tweets. It's her goddamn Twitter account, her goddamn life. Her goddamn story. Perhaps instead of telling her to shut up about it because it makes you queasy, you should shut up about how it makes you queasy, at least in the space afforded to you by papers of record.
Let me spare you some suspense: Lisa Adams is going to die. So are you and I. Odds are pretty good that our deaths won't be pleasant or easy or short. Will they be heroic? Will they be "failures"? That's up to us, not Bill and Emma Keller.