Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir by David Rieff








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Anyone who has been a caregiver of a dying loved one will be brought back to that time and place when reading David Rieff’s book, Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir. Rieff’s mother, the writer Susan Sontag, was diagnosed with a deadly form of leukemia in 2004. After a decade of not being particularly close, Rieff and Sontag united in hope to fight the disease. Swimming in a Sea of Death tells the story of that fight, which ended in Sontag’s death. The title is explained by a poignant comment Rieff made in the book, “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).” Against long odds, Rieff helped her investigate every aspect of myelodysplastic syndrome, and find every treatment that might provide help, however remote. He told her what she wanted to hear: she could survive despite the odds against her. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 4, pp. 65-68:


In the immediate aftermath of her diagnosis, my mother at times seemed to oscillate between a hollowed-out somnolence and a sharp, manic busyness that occa­sionally edged into hysteria, and at other times seemed almost incongruously rational and calm. It helped enormously that her apartment was always filled with peo­ple. As she had gotten older, my mother had found it increasingly difficult to be alone (only when she was deep in a piece of writing was solitude even remotely bearable). Now that she was once more ill, even the briefest interregnum of solitude was intolerable to her, and those who were close to her soon organized a kind of rota to make sure that there was always at least one other person in her apartment and preferably more than one. The English writer John Berger once wrote that the opposite of to love is not to hate but "to sepa­rate." Certainly, that is what my mother thought—and what could have been a more understandable reaction in a woman who barely knew her own father who died when she was four?

Long before she became ill again, this anxiety was becoming more and more crippling. She would grow anxious whenever a visitor would get up to leave, and she would often ask Anne Jump to prepare lists not only of her own complicated travel plans but the plans of those close to her—me, Paolo Dilonardo, Annie Lei­bovitz, her on-again, off-again companion of many years, and a few others. After a meal, she would often propose an errand or two—a trip to a bookstore or a record shop, or at least a final cup of coffee (she was a social drinker, but no more). Now, of course, there was no question of her being left on her own. Even sur­rounded by people, her anxieties often overwhelmed her despite the Ativan that her doctors insisted she begin taking. And yet, characteristically, my mother was surprised by how anxious she felt, and once insisted to me that, without denying how terrified she was, she couldn't really believe she was having anxiety attacks. When I responded that I thought she had been an anxious person for quite a long time, she neither agreed nor disagreed. Instead, she said the idea sur­prised her and she needed to think about it.

In reality, her mood cratered, then lightened, then cratered again—an increasingly vicious cycle. But for all that it was an emotional roller-coaster ride, what I remember most vividly from that time is how eerily normal it soon came to seem. There was even an incon­gruous, almost communelike atmosphere, a giddiness that while obviously only a half step from hysteria and grief was also strangely exhilarating. My mother's own behavior probably explains most of this: the rest of us soon grew accustomed to taking our emotional cues from her (or trying to, anyway). And while she obvi­ously was not as interested as she had been before her diagnosis in what was going on around her, and at first made no effort to try to write (though, like most writ­ers when they are not writing, she talked about writing all the time), she was still more connected than I ever would have predicted given what must have been going on in her head.


Swimming in a Sea of Death is a beautifully written memoir, and a tribute by a son to his mother’s life.


Steve Hopkins, March 21, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the April 2008 issue of Executive Times


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