Rieff’s Grief: Sontag’s Son, On Her Death

His survivor’s guilt and his grief are inextricably entwined, and at the very end of the book he admits that they breed in him “bogus saintliness” and “masochism.” He also, it seems to me, reveals in himself a seam of passive aggression.

“She was entitled to die her own death,” Mr. Rieff tells us—but of course this memoir is his version of her death: He’s the author; he owns it. And at the very end, after 150-odd pages of insisting on his mother’s greatness and his own inept insignificance, he turns the tables: “If, as I believe, she had imagined herself special, my mother’s last illness cruelly exposed the frailty of that conceit.”


SWIMMING IN A Sea of Death is raw in the sense that Mr. Rieff is still mourning for his beloved mother. It’s also raw in the sense of unfinished: sloppy, uneven, repetitive, boring in patches. Some of it is very badly written, with mixed metaphors competing for space with appalling clichés (“[H]er mood cratered, then lightened, then cratered again …. [I]t was an emotional roller-coaster ride”).

But there are also a handful of tremendously moving passages, especially in the last 50 pages—passages that strip away the identity of Sus
an Sontag and David Rieff and leave us with the essentials: a dying mother, a grieving son. In one impressive paragraph, he describes the woeful impotence of anyone called upon to console the dying. “Looking back,” he writes, “I wonder if there is any silence worse than the silence of the sick room. It is the silence of that horror-stricken intuition that in a cancer ward … the real and the catastrophic are often one and the same.”

Mr. Rieff says he deliberately decided not to take notes during his mother’s final illness. He also waited a year or so before beginning to write. But the delay hasn’t brought resolution or clarity (“There is no ‘closure’ on offer for the death of someone you love”). And it apparently hasn’t revealed to him the source of his excruciating guilt—to call it “survivor’s guilt” is merely to put it beyond scrutiny.

Of course, this book will be measured against The Year of Magical Thinking, which Joan Didion wrote almost immediately after the sudden death of her husband, while her only daughter was in the hospital, critically ill. Ms. Didion’s book—no surprise—is both more urgent and more artful than Mr. Rieff’s. What’s best about Swimming in a Sea of Death is its unquestionable honesty: Even at its most troubling, even where the suppressions are most glaring, it’s manifestly sincere.

To his credit, David Rieff is more of a son than a writer.


Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer. He can be reached at books@observer.com.

Rieff’s Grief: Sontag’s Son, On Her Death