I get hate mail. My CANCER SUCKS message does not go over well with everyone.
Some people are offended by what they perceive as negativity. Perhaps they think I will “infect” them, and thereby seal their doom. Cancer survivors may dutifully trundle off to chemo and radiation appointments, but in their heart of hearts they count on positive thinking to save them.
I too might have cleaved to superstitions if I could have believed in them. But like many writers (and non-writers) I grew up in a home where dissembling was the glue that held the family together — just barely. In the long run, though, pretense caused more pain than comfort, and I took note of that. You could say I developed an allergy to misinformation.
Much of what I hear regarding illness or death strikes me as downright Orwellian — the opposite of truth. In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Ministry of Truth is a propaganda bureau. The Ministry of Peace is a war machine.
At my grandmother’s funeral, people said to me: “She’s in a better place.” While I can’t prove she’s not, the speaker can’t prove she is. All we really know is that her absence is causing her loved ones to grieve. Wouldn’t a better response be: “I’m so sorry,” or “You’ll be in my thoughts,” or “If you ever need a shoulder to cry on, I’m here for you.”
A quick survey of American films reveals our addiction to happy endings. As little as 30 years ago, directors allowed movies to end on a downbeat. The Stepford Wives of 1975 is a far cry from the 2004 remake, in which the wife only pretends to be a robot. It turns out her husband loved her too much to stepfordize her. Ah, l’amour!
Imagine if Vertigo were made today by a typical American director rather than the British master Alfred Hitchcock. No doubt the blond beauty would end up in the arms of the aging, smitten bachelor instead of splattered on the pavement outside Mission San Juan Bautista.
These days only foreign films and horror movies end with sadness. Any film that could remotely pass itself off as a date movie will be shelved (the capitalist version of banning) if the attractive leading man and woman aren’t together in the last reel, regardless of the mayhem preceding, the suffering of other characters or even the premise of the entire movie. She’s not really sick! He has a secret weapon! Or — your favorite and mine — it was all a dream!
David Ansen of Newsweek puts it this way:
When was the last time you walked out of a movie theater and thought: Wow, what a great ending! It’s an all-too-rare experience. Hollywood movies are expert at starting with a bang, but by the final reel, inspiration is often replaced by rote — or the smell of fear, as the corporate suits strong-arm their filmmakers to come up with a socko finale that desperately tries to please everyone but ultimately satisfies no one.
The story of Vertigo is fiction. No one I know has ever been an unwitting hit man or had a lover pretend to be murdered by a ghost. Even so, the complex plot of Vertigo somehow rings true.
As for myself, I hope my cancer story ends happily. Sometimes people ask me if the cancer is gone. I have to answer I don’t know. But even if I could see the future and know for certain that I’m destined to die at the age of 93 of heart disease instead of cancer, there is still inside me a bit of Jimmy Stewart, looking down in shock at the remains of my life — the life I thought I would have before cancer came calling.
Pretending I’m not devastated, or pretending that cancer is not the killer it clearly is, would bring me no joy. It would just turn me into an actress.
Poets and fiction writers lie all day long, for aesthetic reasons. But if they start to lie to themselves, they might as well give up and join the merry band of copywriters on Madison Avenue. The pay is much better.