The recent flap over Lisa Bonchek Adams’ tweets about her cancer, and the bigger flap about the columns written by Bill Keller and his wife, Emma Gilbey Keller, are symptoms of another sickness: Our current mania to tell all, to all the world.
There was a time, not so many generations ago, when illness was discussed in a doctor’s office and in the confines of the family. I remember my parents and their friends whispering about “C” — the actual name was too awful to be pronounced. As it must have been in the more distant past with diseases like syphilis and tuberculosis. Even AIDS, for many years after its appearance, was rarely verbalized.
Now, in the Age of Information, anything goes and everything goes public. Be it male impotence, female masturbation, or genital herpes, the information is in your face, making headlines, and replicated ad nauseum on the internet.
Granted, it is good to have access to information, but when is enough enough? And whence comes this manic urge to “share” your distress with complete strangers? — people you have never met and will never meet. In the past (I’m harking back again), you would bare your soul to your closest relatives and friends. You would keep a diary. You might send a few postcards to faraway acquaintances. But that was it.
Today, in what is euphemistically called “a connected world”, we broadcast our distress to the ethers, to the Cloud, and assume it will fall on the sympathetic ears and eyes of strangers.
Which brings me back to the case of Lisa Bonchek Adams.
That she, like millions of others, was suffering deeply from cancer is unquestionable and sad. That she decided to discuss her disease and her distress on Twitter, divulging information that was intensely intimate, was strange but quite possibly therapeutic. Rather like chatting with a shrink in the next room.
But then, for us to expect that only sympathy and praise would come of it is totally naive. Surely there are people who have suffered through that disease stoically and independently; there are those who have stood by the side of a loved one in silence; there are people who do not expect or solicit “the kindness of strangers” in their hours of grief.
So when someone decides to broadcast her grief — and her pain and her hopes and her fear and her triumphs — let her be aware that her words may be appreciated, disputed, or ignored.
In other words, caveat scriptor — let the writer beware! In the virtual world of the internet, especially, you are putting yourself in the line of fire. You are as likely to evoke ridicule and revulsion as you may arouse admiration and praise.
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