When the writer Nora Ephron died last June of acute myeloid leukemia, a disease she had been fighting for years, many in the media and literary worlds were surprised. She had not made her illness a big part of her public life. Her son, Jacob Bernstein, writes about that In Sunday's New York Times magazine. Susan Sontag also died of acute myeloid leukemia, after a harrowing round of treatments that her son, David Rieff, compared to torture in an earlier NYT piece.
At various points over the years, she considered coming clean to her friends and colleagues about her illness. But she knew the effect it could have on her career. Certainly, she could continue writing books and essays. But getting a movie made would be impossible, because no insurance company would sign off on it. Arguably, she could do a play, but bringing it to Broadway would be difficult, given that the development process takes years. Beyond that, what my mother didn’t want was to have her illness define her, turning every conversation into a series of “how are you?”s.
All her life, she subscribed to the belief that “everything is copy,” a phrase her mother, Phoebe, used to say. In fact, when Phoebe was on her deathbed, she told my mother, “Take notes.” She did. What both of them believed was that writing has the power to turn the bad things that happen to you into art (although “art” was a word she hated). “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you; but when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh,” she wrote in her anthology “I Feel Bad About My Neck.” “So you become the hero rather than the victim of the joke.”
And she applied that maxim everywhere. She wrote a magazine article about The New York Post and her former boss there, Dorothy Schiff (“It is a terrible newspaper. The reason it is, of course, is Dorothy Schiff”); her breasts (“If I had them I would have been a completely different person”); even getting fat injections in her lips (“I looked like a Ubangi, so I never did it again”). There was also an entire book and movie devoted to her divorce from my father. (But never mind that.)
The thing is, you can’t really turn a fatal illness into a joke. It is almost the only disclosure that turns you into the victim rather than the hero of your story. For her, tragedy was a pit of clichés. So she stayed quiet, though clues were sprinkled through much of what she wrote during the six years she was sick.