Are Cancer Tweets The Same As Funeral Selfies?

Lindsay Beyerstein January 13, 2014

Jeff Nelson (R), research director of UNITE HERE, with Charlotte Knox (L), a 25-year veteran housekeeper at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore who told the City Council that working conditions have deteriorated.

Lisa Bonchek Adams blogs and Tweets about the nit­ty grit­ty details of life with Stage IV breast can­cer, and Emma Keller thinks that’s incred­i­bly tacky. In a piece last week for the Guardian, Keller implied that Adams’ Tweet­ing is worse than a funer­al self­ie,” which is blue­blood code for the tack­i­est thing one could pos­si­bly do.

A funer­al self­ie is social death, which as we all know, counts far more than phys­i­cal death in the eyes of the peo­ple who mat­ter. These are the peo­ple who refer to can­cer as the Big C” and dread colono­scopies because it’s awk­ward to let a golf­ing bud­dy put a cam­era up one’s der­rière, even if he did go to Har­vard Med­ical School.

The term funer­al self­ie” entered the lan­guage last month when the shapers of elite opin­ion decid­ed that Pres­i­dent Oba­ma had dis­graced the nation by pos­ing for a self­ie at a memo­r­i­al ser­vice for Nel­son Man­dela. You might won­der why we should expect the pres­i­dent to act dis­traught at a gath­er­ing to cel­e­brate the life of a 95-year-old man who end­ed apartheid and died peace­ful­ly as the beloved father of his nation. You might think it it iron­ic that every­one must be solemn at a memo­r­i­al for a man remem­bered for not only for his states­man­ship but also for his play­ful sense of humor and his delight in the com­pa­ny of friends. You’d be miss­ing the point. There’s exact­ly one right way to behave at a memo­r­i­al ser­vice, and the Kellers of the world will tell you what it is.

There’s one right way to have breast can­cer, too. Keller is too polite to come right out and tell a dying woman to knock it off, so she offers a series of rhetor­i­cal ques­tions in the hopes of spark­ing some resid­ual sense of decen­cy in this neo­plas­tic hussy: Should there be bound­aries in this kind of expe­ri­ence? Is there such a thing as TMI? Are her tweets a grim equiv­a­lent of deathbed self­ies, one step fur­ther than funer­al selfies?”

Unac­count­ably, Emma Keller got a lot of push­back for this tact­ful cor­rec­tive. Her col­umn was wide­ly seen as cal­lous to the point of being grotesque. So, her hus­band, Bill Keller of the New York Times stepped up to reclaim the moral high ground.

In Keller’s view, the real prob­lem with Lisa Adams is that she’s suck­ing up scarce resources while giv­ing false hope to all the peo­ple read­ing about her excru­ci­at­ing phys­i­cal decline from a dis­ease that doc­tors have so far been pow­er­less to contain.

Bill won­ders if Adams is run­ning up an exces­sive Car­ing Canines pup­py bill at Sloan-Ket­ter­ing. His keen jour­nal­is­tic instincts reg­is­ter that Adams has a sus­pi­cious­ly cozy rela­tion­ship with the world-famous New York can­cer hos­pi­tal where­in she has can­cer and they treat it.

Keller cites his father-in-law’s low-key death in hos­pice to illus­trate how Our Kind of Peo­ple expire, name­ly, with­out hero­ic mea­sures or social media. You heard him, can­cer suf­fer­ers: put down the cell phones, drop the pricey pup­pies, and die like an elder­ly British peer. Who cares if you’re a woman in her for­ties with three chil­dren? Who cares about your prog­no­sis? Who cares what you want? That’s how it’s done.

Lind­say Bey­er­stein is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Not­ed. Her sto­ries have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Mag­a­zine, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Her pho­tographs have been pub­lished in the Wall Street Jour­nal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hill­man Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a pub­li­ca­tion of the Sid­ney Hill­man Foun­da­tion, a non-prof­it that hon­ors jour­nal­ism in the pub­lic interest.
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