Last night I read David Rieff's "Drowning in a Sea of Death" for the third time. I move a lot and though I remember (is this common or rare?) the exact room and posture and feeling of the last read, the time when I had so wanted to write the author, Susan Sontag's son. I should have because on the third careful read, I had too many thoughts or was it too few?
You see, or I'll say: Susan Sontag and I had the identical hair (marjorel 3) because we both went all white at an early age so we both dyed the back and kept out some white, more or less, longer or shorter. I once met a guy who had done her hair a few times which is how I learned the above.
I felt I earned my stripe in college and my long thick brown hair and youthful face made me prettier than before. As I aged, some friends said to drop the white but I earned my stripe and am keeping it. I guess Susan Sontag felt the same.
In no way did I copy her though in time while I was at Barnard and she was 12 years older, a professor at Columbia I guess I saw her book jackets and thought: Hmm. So many say she became a famous intellectual because of her unusual hair. I knew better, having the same hair and little karma for fame.
Then we met face to face. On a 737 shuttle flight from Boston to New York, in the days when I was the most terrified flyer who flew a lot and she was the only one waiting for one of the steel toilets to open. We looked at each other. She spoke warmly after seeing my panic. She said to me "Who are these people sleeping. Have they no imagination what can happen 30,000 miles up in the air?" When I just stared at her for comfort, she got how severe a case I was and suggested: "Why don't you drive instead?" Then she got into her stall and I always remembered her kindness but rarely thought of her again except to collect not only her books but keeping all the jackets, say, just in case I wrote one I'd imititate hers, the one where she is draped across a pianco or a large desk, glam.
But instead I met her next in fall 1980 when she advertized in the New York Times for a class on autiobiography going back to Augustine and Montaigne. I had read most of those books at Barnard, but I was dying to re-read them with a genius who was said to be a great teacher. I quite love meeting famous people, but not so much as to put my book down for doing so. I have little fame karma as I say but immense karma formeeting the famed--frequently.
I was on a bench outside her office, studying Montaigne's essays to be sure I would stick with this class, when Susan Sontag stood before me and without a word ushered me into a posh New School office. It was dusk. Our white hairs were more alike than not: same amount of white; identical thickness and length. She made no comment and neither did I. Later I wondered about that.
So, the class! She chose 20 of us out of god knows how many applicants and every Monday night we met for 3 hours, with a short break--utterly necessary. At the dais was her son David Rieff, who looked to be 14 but was over twenty. Only later did I understand why Susan Sontag during that particular semester never wanted to hear a single word-- not a peep from anyone of us, except her son, who voiced his opinions but seemed a bit sad. We were watching a mother-son theater piece--as audience,, nothing more.
One by one during the break we raged against this authoritarian and odd set up and one by one the class thinned out. I was determined to stay because something between Sontag and her son David just demanded an audience . Bit in late December I had a dying parent and fell madly in love to boot. So I did not show up about which I continued for years to feel a strange lingering guilt. What his book is all about. His own strange lingering guilt.
David Rieff's book on his feeling about his mother's death: Swimming In a Sea of Death In a Sea of Death, which is the book I read for the 3rd time, last night. I felt terrible that I hadn't written him the first time around because what I had to say now I learned was anathama to his interests. He has NO interest in dishing the dope of what went on betweeen those two. Yet his book, and he writes well, openly eschews ever talking of their relationship. Only her death.
But of course David Rieff hating all psychology (as said on a video I watched last night--an hour's lecture, gave me pause. Because every time I read his book I want to hold him tight and tell him "It was Not Your Fault." ( Picture Robin Willians holding Matt Damon here.) It. Was. Not. Your. Fault.
His memoir which I highly recommend is written precisely as if he was the parent and she the child in this relation. He wishes he'd have outlived her because she loved life so much more than he. He worries over what he said and when he said it. He is in anguish about losing someone he so wishes to outlive. He is cipher- like and she is the Queen. I can't tell you how strongly I felt that D. R. did not know he was a victim of some serious child abuse. A "child" of fifty one should not be so overwhelmed by the death of a parent at almost 72 for which he had long preparation, nor should a parent be so big for a middle aged man, exactly as I said; His book is a wail from the heart that makes sense only if you are the parent.
And then I thought back to that class. How she loved him to the exclusion of everyone else, loved him sitting right next to her, goaded him to speak, raised a really smart and debonaire guy. So what WAS the sub-text in that theater/class? That's what I once knew and would have conveyed to him. But now it's hazy: I know there was a romantic love passing from her to him; a prissiness in him that was part antipathy to his assigned role and some pleasure in it as well. It was, I now know, a celebratory time for them as Susan S. had just beaten stage 4 breast cancer, which makes the romantic aspect more understandable. She had every reason to die and she did not. Gusty woman. But still this fierce feeling that DR was never ever given his fair share of the lifeforce because she took it from him , a spiritual rape if you will.
Now, how in hell does one say all that?
And here's the strangest part and I kid you not: Watching the video, you just go to Google and it's early under his name, I was stunned to see this 55 year old with a face almost precisely that of my first husband's: Handsome, El Greco-ish, long and thin and a body to match and that was the moment I threw up my hands and said, this is not gonna happen, no way can any letter be written now; what I wanted to say feels way too intimate to mention to the two dopplegangers, she and I; he and my first ex husband dead, too strange to be fictive, at age 35 of leukemia, Sontag's third and hopeless cancer.
If anyone can suggest a way to say this concisely to him, I will play it forward big time. Thanks for reading.