A few days ago, I came accross an article in Salon that I found extremely horrific. It was about how Bill Keller had written an Op-Ed article in the New York Times disparging the way in which cancer patient Lisa Adams was dealing with her diagnosis. He had apparently suggested that her seeking out clinical trials was undignified as compared to his father-in-law, who accepted his fate with less of a fight. Keller’s article came two days after his wife, Emma Keller, had written a piece for The Guardian, which compared Adams’ tweets to “funeral selfies,” a phenomenon in which young people take pictures of themselves in front of caskets. Mystified by how a couple could be so insensitive, I decided to take a closer look.
The Keller Articles
The first article that came out was Emma Keller’s January 8 piece in the Guardian. The title (putatively by a headline writer and not the author) says it all: Forget funeral selfies: What are the ethics of tweeting a terminal illness? In contrast to Salon contributor Mary Williams, I found this article to be far more offensive than the one that would be later penned by Emma’s husband. Emma underhandedly suggests that we “Forget funeral selfies,” while simultaneously bringing the image to mind at the outset. The article is essentially a series of pot-shots taken at Adams under the guise of being an article about “ethics.” But, the article does not bring up any ethical issues to speak of, because there is really no ethical issue at hand. Emma cannot state overtly that there is something ethically questionable about tweeting and blogging about one’s own terminal illness because that is absurd, unless she wants to say that there is something ethically questionable about free speech. It would be another thing if Adams were publishing in an official magazine or newspaper rather than on a blog or on twitter. One might argue there are ethical issues there, but even in that case the ethical issues disappear when one is speaking of one’s own illness. In place of making statements, Emma asks tweeny sounding questions like: “Is there such a things as TMI?” Emma is spinning something that she finds perhaps socially inappropriate or unpleasant into an ethical issue. Ironically, Emma states that “Ethical issues abound,” and indeed they do, but only concerning Emma’s conduct. In the article, Emma published private correspondence between herself and Adams without Adams’ permission. In the face of backlash, the Guardian took down the article, pending investigation. The Guardian’s attempt to save face could also be considered ethically questionable. There is a difference between social propriety and ethics, something that Mrs. Keller appears to have difficulty with.
The Times Piece
Bill Keller’s piece, entitled Heroic Measures, while not as ethically questionable as his wife’s, is clearly insensitive. The title, referring to Adams’ seeking out clinical trials and specialized treatments, is itself a little bit tongue in cheek. The article again brings up Adams in an attempt to contrast two ways of dealing with death: his father-in-law’s and that of Adams. Bill emphasizes the differences between the care that his father-in-law received in Britain and the care that Adams is receiving at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He suggests that the death of his father-in-law, which was not pursued as an all-out war for survival, but instead accepted gracefully, was perhaps more dignified than Adams’ approach. Bill argues that there is something enviable about “going gently.” As other writers have pointed out, it may not be appropriate to compare the death of Keller’s 79-year-old father-in-law with the case of a 37-year-old, still-living cancer patient. (Adams was first diagnosed at 37). In addition, what right does Bill even have to weigh in on the issue? One should talk about the benefits of going gently only if one has first hand experience of fighting death. From Bill’s piece:
“Her digital presence is no doubt a comfort to many of her followers. On the other hand, as cancer experts I consulted pointed out, 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.”
Both Bill and Emma Keller have insisted that they are being misread and misunderstood. In Emma’s case, there is really nothing to read, and she is the one conflating ethics with social propriety. In Bill’s case, if his message of bringing attention to different types of palliative care is being missed, he can only blame himself for doing it in such a questionable way.
Adams herself is to be commended for her strength in using her own struggle to bring attention to the issue of breast cancer, and it is a testament to her skill as a writer that she has thousands of followers. In her own words:
“Find a bit of beauty in the world today. Share it. If you can’t find it, create it. Some days this may be hard to do. Persevere.”