Note: My new column on Keller "tough a cancer patients, easy on war promoters."
It all began last Wednesday when Emma Keller, spouse of former New York Times chief editor (and now weekly columnist) BIll Keller, penned a piece for The Guardian. It concerned a woman in New England named Lisa Adams, who is battling cancer and writing about the experience on Twitter, mainly for educational value, drawing a fair amount of notice. She is “dying out loud,” as Emma (whose father died not long ago from cancer far more quietly) puts it.
Emma Keller compares it to a “Reality TV show.” She complains that Adams posted an update on her condition that morning and then had the nerve to post another one just hours later—and wonders if her too-many tweets are “a grim equivalent of deathbed selfies.” And she charges: “You can put a ‘no visitors sign’ on the door of your hospital room, but you welcome the world into your orbit and describe every last Fentanyl patch.”
This was the headline on the column: “Forget funeral selfies. What are the ethics of tweeting a terminal illness?”
Well, the feedback was so negative, including right at The Guardian in the comments section, that she added this update at the bottom:
Since this article was published two days ago, there’s been a lot of negative comment on Twitter and below the line. Lisa Adams herself was upset by it. I had been in communication with her a number of times in recent weeks; given her health, I could have given her advance warning about the article and should have told her that I planned to quote from our conversations. I regret not doing so.
Now you’d think that the Keller family would want to stay away from this subject from now on, but no, Bill (perhaps feeling his wife had been misunderstood) returned to it for today’s column. Oddly, he chose to double-down.
[UPDATE: The Guardian just deleted the offensive Emma Keller piece that kicked this off, saying at first that it is (now judged) “inconsistent” with their “editorial code.” Then, mysteriously, they dropped that explanation and simply said its still “under investigation.” It’s cached here. And the Times' fine public editor Margaret Sullivan critiques his piece and solicits two new, if weak, comments from him.]
B. Keller, not quite overtly but certainly between the lines, suggests that Lisa Adams just die, already. He repeatedly compares her struggle, in a bad light, to a “battlefield” or “military’ campaign—this from the man who was a hawk on Iraq, staunchly defended Judy Miller and recently called for the bombing of Syria and backing the Al Qaeda rebels.
He writes, “What Britain and other countries know, and my country is learning, is that every cancer need not be Verdun, a war of attrition waged regardless of the cost or the casualties. It seemed to me, and still does, that there is something enviable about going gently. One intriguing lung cancer study even suggests that patients given early palliative care instead of the most aggressive chemotherapy not only have a better quality of life, they actually live a bit longer.”
Later, Bill-Knows-Best admits that Adams had provided a useful service as a research paitent at Sloan-Kettering, but advises, “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.” He even gets in a dig about what it must cost to provide her with the occasional visit from a therapy dog. If only he’d worried about the trillions of dollars we’d spend on Iraq before calling on Bush to invade in 2003.
It might also be relevant that Keller’s father-in-law was elderly, while Adams has three kids at home.
Keller then closes by quoting Steven Goodman, an associate dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine, who declares that Adams should not be “unduly praised.”
As you can imagine, the online response has not been kind. Critics quickly pointed out, for one thing, that Keller claimed that Adams had two children, when she has three, and if he had really been reading her blog or Twitter feed how could he miss that? Dr. Jennifer Gunter tweeted: “So according to @nytkeller and wife there is A) a right way to blog B) a right way to tweet and C) a right way to have cancer.” @KenJennings revealed, “Terrified I might get cancer, because what if Bill and Emma Keller yell at me.” James Patrick Gordon mocks: “Ms. Adams, questions have been raised about how you’re choosing to cope with cancer. How do you respond to the allegations?”
Susan Orlean: “I am appalled on every level by Bill Keller’s oped piece about @adamslisa. Astonishing.” Martha Plimpton: “I need to ask
@nytkeller what this deeply condescending piece is aiming for? On every level, it reeks of shaming.” And from Ruben Bolling: “Bill Keller is against women fighting cancer, unless anonymous Bush administration sources say cancer has WMDs—then: TO WAR!” (More updates coming at my personal blog, Pressing Issues.)
Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing, who has tweeted her own struggle with cancer (@Xeni) over the past couple years to wide acclaim, charged that B. Keller had taken something she wrote last year, about wishing she had been a little less “sharey,” out of context. And she replied angrily to much else in the Keller column in a series of tweets, such as:
“It is bizarrely tone-deaf, ghoulish, & lacking in empathy all at once. It mansplains breast cancer, but as if talking about a pork chop…. Don’t kick a woman when she’s down…. She’s not a ‘standard bearer.’ Or a ‘hero.’ Or ‘warrior.’ SHE IS A WOMAN IN THE HOSPITAL WHO HAS METASTATIC BREAST CANCER AND 3 KIDS…Lisa has written extensively about rejecting war, hero, battle, weapon, warrior clichés to describe her experience. His hangup not hers…. I feel rage & disgust at Bill & Emma Kellers’ twinsie opinion pieces about @adamslisa. Shoddy, shitty, heartless, inaccurate grandstanding…. Bill & Emma Keller’s weirdly obsessive, bullying opeds are causing real pain, distress, distraction to Lisa & family at a critical time.”
And Lisa Adams (@adamslisa) herself, appalled, responded on Twitter:
“I don’t know why I, a person dedicated to education and personal choice by cancer patients, have been so mischaracterized as lay in hospital… I’ve written extensively on my hatred of war metaphors and cancer…. Some people teach in a classroom. I try to educate here and in my life every day…. not the same to think about what you would do IF you were diagnosed with incurable cancer as it is to actually be living with it. trust me.”
Addressing Keller directly, she writes, “The main thing is that I am alive. Do not write me off and make statements about how my life ends TIL IT DOES, SIR.”
And: “my dear family should not be subjected to this. Hope some of you can help me get this fixed.”
The latest tweet from Lisa Adam this morning—written while the Kellers were probably enjoying a blissful breakfast—was: “Need to go attend to my cancer treatment, living, health.” And the Kellers might be saying, “Not another tweet!”