Is This Woman Dying Wrong? Bill Keller Is On It

Bill Keller raises eyebrows, and hackles, in these parts whenever he turns his attention to the Catholic Church (or the arguments against war). But did you know he's similarly careless and smug and mansplainy when he writes about other subjects, too?

Today's column is a perfect example. Keller has some thoughts about terminal illness and dying. He seems to want to argue, or at least propose, that Americans should be less committed to fighting for every last breath, whatever the cost (financial or otherwise), and more open to the death-with-dignity approach that embraces palliative care, as exemplified by his British father-in-law. He doesn't actually establish that Americans ARE unduly committed to extraordinary life-saving measures, he just asserts it, but maybe it's a valid place to begin a discussion.

Instead, though, Keller turns to a woman named Lisa Adams who has been using social media to chronicle her experiences fighting breast cancer. She's currently posting frequent updates to Twitter from her hospital room at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Keller uses her as an example of what's wrong with How We Die Today.

So there's the first problem: you want to say that American cancer patients are apt to approach death badly, fine, that's provocative, but maybe you have a point. But to hang that argument on a specific cancer patient -- and one who is not really a "public figure" and thus impossible to ignore, but rather a woman who has a following on Twitter but isn't otherwise bothering anybody -- that's where a slightly more reflective person ought to say, "You know, maybe this is unnecessarily insensitive."

The next problem is that, after singling out Adams to make an example of, Keller goes on to get a lot of things about her very wrong. Like, he said that she had two kids when in fact she has three. That's a little mistake, but telling -- he was that uninterested in her life? (It's also a reminder that "opinion" columnists don't have to be fact-checked like news journalists do, even when they base their opinions on inaccurate facts. Keller has a pretty long record of after-publication corrections -- this error now the latest -- but remains unchastened.) He also seems not to have thought for very long about how a mother with kids at home, however many there are, might legitimately approach her diagnosis differently than an elderly man like his father-in-law, whose choices Keller believes are dishonored by Adams's.

Then there's the fact that Adams actually does not fit the profile Keller tries to force her into. She isn't actually dying-but-refusing-to-admit-it. She isn't (according to her tweets correcting this column) pursuing treatments that go beyond the standard for a person with her diagnosis. She isn't running up an obscene therapy-dog bill (this is something Keller worries about!). And most important, she isn't someone who embraces and popularizes the cancer-patient-as-warrior metaphor that he finds so troubling. Well, he finds it troubling at the end of his column. For the first two-thirds he can't get enough of it. He sets up this painfully overdone cancer-treatment-as-war metaphor, and then he scolds her (with an expert to back him up!) because thinking of cancer that way gives people false hopes, or makes his father-in-law look bad, or something. Except, she doesn't think of herself that way. She has explicitly rejected that way of talking about her illness. You know who does talk about her struggle that way? Bill Keller.

So, Keller writes: "The first thing I would say is that her decision to treat her terminal disease as a military campaign has worked for her." It's not the first thing he says, really, but putting it that way is a signal he's trying to articulate some kind of argument. After implying that he'd tried to dig for details on her treatment ("her doctors, bound by privacy rules, won’t say" -- another red flag, really, that this is maybe not a good topic for your column) and insinuating that there's something dodgy about her relationship with the hospital where she receives her care ("Lisa Adams’s defiance has also been good for Memorial Sloan-Kettering"), he moves to his big argument: "whether her campaign has been a public service is a more complicated question."

But Keller hasn't demonstrated the necessity, or even the purpose, of answering that question. Who cares whether what she's doing on Twitter is a "public service"? It's helping her through a very difficult time; is that something we need Bill Keller to sign off on? And he doesn't really answer it, so much as imply that he's pretty sure the answer is "no." Here's what he concludes: "Adams is the standard-bearer for an approach to cancer that honors the warrior, that may raise false hopes, and that, implicitly, seems to peg patients like my father-in-law as failures."

Nothing about that is true, or could survive a careful reading of even a sampling of Adams's tweeting and blogging. Is she implicitly pegging Bill Keller's father-in-law as a failure? Or is Bill Keller implicitly suggesting that it's tacky for a woman like Adams to make a fuss on social media when she could just die quietly?

The icing on the insensitive hackery cake is that Keller's wife Emma published her own bizarre piece about how Lisa Adams isn't dying properly in the Guardian on Wednesday. (Read this excellent take from Zeynep Tufekci for more.) She made some similar points/errors, although her argument was more about how social media is unseemly (Adams's Twitter feed is "like a reality show"). That piece was greeted by an outcry which led to an apology of sorts from Emma Keller (who had quoted a conversation she had with Adams without Adams's permission), and since then the whole thing "has been removed pending investigation."

The headline is still there, asking: "What are the ethics of tweeting a terminal illness?" If you're tweeting your own illness, I'd say the ethics are pretty straightforward. If, on the other hand, you're misrepresenting someone else's terminal illness to make some cheap points in a newspaper column, the ethics are worth looking in to. Seems like the Guardian, belatedly, agrees.

And that is yet another red flag -- or a huge pulsing red siren -- that Keller somehow missed: his wife was already floundering in this quicksand. So my quesion is, what are the ethics of wondering what is going on with the Kellers? Exactly how chilling is their breakfast-table chit-chat? Because honestly, these twin columns picking apart a stranger living with cancer are super unsettling.

In his 2011 Hack List writeup, Alex Pareene lamented Bill Keller's decision "to return to the place where his obvious, obnoxious hackishness is most apparent: The opinion page." That profile is still quite accurate -- and the reference to Keller's Twitter-is-making-you-stupid column from 2011 suggests that his decision to target Lisa Adams may have as much to do with her chosen medium as with message.

And yet, in that column, Keller wrote this:

my inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.

Maybe he ought to give his inner worrywart more of a hearing, at least when it comes to those human characteristics. I'd say Twitter isn't the real threat at all.


Update: Credit Margaret Sullivan, the NYT's Public Editor, for a quick response, if not an especially exacting one. Here I thought we'd have to wait till next week for Bill Keller to issue an "I'm the real victim here, but I'm being big about it" nonresponse to his many critics, but Sullivan got it out of him before the day was out. Let's see, patting himself on the back for having "touched a nerve"? Check. Smug disparagement of Twitter as a venue for response? Check. Why, it's almost as though he doesn't feel the least bit accountable to either readers or the actual facts. Or, as Sullivan puts it, "As a columnist, Mr. Keller – by definition – has a great deal of free rein...."

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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