Are Cancer Tweets The Same As Funeral Selfies?

Lindsay Beyerstein

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 derriere, 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.

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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.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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