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Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 8, 2008

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--This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 180 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1 edition (January 8, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743299469
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743299466
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.8 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,748,379 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

At age 70, Susan Sontag was diagnosed with a virulent form of blood cancer, her third bout with cancer over the course of 30 years and one she would not win. Her son, journalist Rieff (At the Point of a Gun), accompanied her through her final illness and death, and offers an extraordinarily open, moving account of the trial and journey. Sontag's avidity for life had prompted her to beat the advanced breast cancer that devastated her in 1975; she now resolved to fight the statistical odds of dying from myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), despite the pessimistic prognosis from doctors. Rieff, who admits he was not close to his mother over the preceding decade, is silenced by Sontag's refusal to reconcile herself to dying and unable to console her. Both mother and son are by turns angered by doctors' infantilizing treatment of terminally ill patients and by their squelching of hope. Anxious, chronically unhappy and obsessed with gathering information about her disease, Sontag was unable to be alone, and Rieff becomes one in a circle of devotees who rotate staying with her at her New York City apartment. A doctor is found who does not believe her case is hopeless, and in Seattle she undergoes a bone-marrow transplant. In this sea of death, Sontag took her son with her—conflicted, wracked, but wrenchingly candid, Rieff attempts to swim out. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"Susan Sontag was fiercely, exuberantly alive, and uncompromising in her life no less than her work. David Rieff's fine, tender, and unflinching portrait of her final illness brings home her absolute determination to survive to the last -- to survive against the odds and live creatively despite a devastating disease and an unproven cancer treatment. At once a report from the frontlines of experimental oncology and a moving, absorbing personal account of his mother's last illness, Swimming in a Sea of Death is a courageous and darkly beautiful book." -- Oliver Sacks --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

In addition, the narrative portrays Rieff's experiences in detail but with little insight.
C. Hartmann
This lovely and heartwrenching book takes the reader not only through the mind of Susan Sontag as she struggles with her last illness.
Paula D. Matuskey
Fortunately, I borrowed it from the library - having finished it, I wouldn't have it in my house.
N. King

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

34 of 36 people found the following review helpful By R S Cobblestone VINE VOICE on January 20, 2008
Format: Hardcover
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).
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Grady Harp HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 27, 2008
Format: Hardcover
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.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Kerry Walters VINE VOICE on February 22, 2008
Format: Hardcover
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?
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