Suddenly Susan (Sontag)

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Niccolo and Donkey
Suddenly Susan

New York Times

Sigrid Nunez

February 25, 2011


I first met Susan Sontag in spring, 1976, when she was recovering from cancer surgery and needed someone to help type her correspondence. I had been recommended by the editors of The New York Review of Books, where I’d worked as an editorial assistant. I had recently finished graduate school at Columbia and was living on West 106th Street, not far from Susan’s apartment at 340 Riverside Drive.

We worked in her bedroom, I at her desk, typing on her massive I.B.M. Selectric while she dictated, either pacing the room or lying on her bed. I remember being surprised at how laid-back and chatty she was, much more like someone my own age than someone of my mother’s generation. But she was always this way with young people, and I would discover there wasn’t the usual generational distance between her and her son, either. A year younger than I, David, who’d dropped out of Amherst, had recently returned to school and was now a sophomore at Princeton. He had a place to stay in Princeton, but most of the week he lived with his mother. His (soon to be our) bedroom was right next to hers.

I’m pretty sure it was the third time I went to “340” that I first met David. I was leaving just as he was coming home, and Susan briefly introduced us. I was surprised when, a day or so later, she called to ask me to come back — not the following week, as we’d planned, but rather that same afternoon. I said yes, of course, no problem. She’d sounded urgent. I didn’t want to let her down. But the truth was, I was in bad shape. I had just discovered that my boyfriend, with whom I’d been living for about two years, had started seeing someone else. At the time, both he and the new girlfriend were working at The New York Review, where the affair was an open secret. I didn’t want Susan to hear about it. What I didn’t know was that she’d already heard about it. That was why she’d called.

It turned out that the last time I’d been to 340, after Susan had introduced David and me and I had gone home, he had asked her if I had a boyfriend and she’d told him yes. But then almost immediately she heard from one of her friends at the Review that that relationship was probably over. She encouraged David to call me. He was shy. She was not. Instead of working that day, she took us out for a pizza.

My boyfriend and I broke up, and I rented a room in the apartment of a couple of students nearby. My plan was to stay there just for the summer and then find a place of my own. Meanwhile, David and I started dating. He was almost shockingly smart — at times he could seem even smarter than Susan — but, even more appealing, he was relentlessly, brilliantly funny. Like me, he wanted to be a writer. That summer, during most of which Susan was away in Paris, David and I spent more and more time together. By September, I had moved in with him.

At that time, partly because of her highly regarded and popular series of essays on photography, and partly because of her outspokenness about having cancer, Susan was riding a second wave of celebrity (the first, of course, having crested in the ’60s, with the appearance of her first critical essays, most famously “Notes on ‘Camp’ ”). The phone rang all day long, and Susan had no desire to get an answering machine or service. I had heard before I ever saw it that Susan’s apartment was a famous crash pad. While I lived at 340, there was often someone sleeping in the living room, and there was a steady stream of visitors. Susan loved to go out, but she also loved to have people, including those she was meeting for the first time, come to her. It seemed to me I was forever opening the door to some stranger, or coming home to find someone waiting for her (sometimes for up to an hour) in the kitchen, where, though it was the smallest room in the house, she tended to receive guests.

Third person From far left: the author Sigrid Nunez in 1977 with Susan Sontag, who had an especially close relationship with her son, David Rieff (right).

David, of course, was used to his mother’s busy, people-filled life. As she liked to say, he had grown up “on coats,” meaning she had dragged him along to the many parties and “happenings” and other events she had not wanted to miss just because she had a young child. (She would also take him to the movies and let him sleep in his seat while she watched a double feature.) In fact, though he had a much stronger sense of privacy than Susan did, like her he grew bored and restless when things were too quiet. Both he and she disapproved of the monkish streak in me; in their eyes it showed a certain lack of vitality and curiosity — very bad in a would-be writer! To David it suggested a kind of weakness; a weakness that, if indulged, would make me boring. Susan believed that the reclusive type was, at heart, cold and selfish. I should change.

And I did try to change. For a time, I tried very hard to keep up. After all, it wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy going out, too. And of course I was excited to meet the many brilliant writers and artists that Susan knew.

But, when you’re in love, what is it that you want more than anything else in the world? Looking back, I can hardly remember times when David and I were alone. Once or twice I went and stayed with him for a night in the room he rented in Princeton, and I remember wishing dolefully that we could be there all the time.

Susan used to say how much easier it was for her to work in her room if she knew there were other people elsewhere in the apartment. But the only time I could work seemed to be when the apartment was empty.

For a while I tried getting up very early, before I had to go to my job, and locking myself in the former maid’s room that I used for a study. But as soon as Susan was awake she would knock and ask me to join her in the kitchen. She couldn’t bear to have her morning coffee or read the newspaper alone. In fact, fresh out of bed she seemed especially in need of an ear. She would talk nonstop, about whatever came into her head, and for some reason at that hour she was often roiling with indignation. Something about her life that was bothering her, or maybe something she saw on the front page of The Times, would set her off. David found this morning Susan difficult. He’d sit at the kitchen counter with his back turned, deep in the paper, face curtained by his long dark hair.

She had always hated being alone. For her, having to do certain things, such as eat a meal, without company was like a punishment. She would rather have gone out to dinner with someone she didn’t even much care for than eat in alone.

It wasn’t enough that she had spent the evening out with friends. When she came home, though it was late, though David and I might be already in bed, she would knock. “May I come in?” (The shyness in her voice through that closed door was heartbreaking.) David and I slept on a mattress on the floor. A small sofa stood near it. She would settle on the sofa, light a cigarette and begin telling us about her evening. I sometimes fell asleep while she was still talking.

But in fact, there had probably never been a time in her life when she feared being alone as much as she did then. Not only had she been diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer; she was also slowly breaking up with the woman who’d been her companion for many years. She made no attempt to hide how devastating it would be for her if David were to move out. But she always insisted that it was not primarily neediness but rather love that made her want to keep her son with her forever. Theirs had never been an ordinary mother-son relationship, she said. In fact, she told me she had never really wanted David to think of her as his mother. “I’d rather he see me as — oh, I don’t know — his goofy big sister.” (“More like my brother” and “my best friend” was how she said she usually thought of him.) After all, she had been just 19 when he was born.

To David she became “Susan” while he was still a boy, and his father, the sociologist and cultural critic Philip Rieff, was “Philip”; David told me he could not imagine calling them Mom and Dad. And whenever Susan spoke to David about his father, whom she had divorced when David was 6, she referred to him as Philip as well. David rarely said “my mother” when speaking of her, and I would have felt strange saying “your mother.” It was sempre Susan.

There was nothing wrong with the three of us sharing a roof, she said. Indeed, in other cultures an arrangement like ours would have been common. And, tell her, please: What was so terrific about the nuclear family? Hadn’t she publicly pronounced it “a disaster”? (She also frequently railed against couples: no matter how interesting one or both people might be when you saw them separately, when you saw them together they were invariably boring.)

“Don’t be so conventional,” she said when I expressed doubts about the three of us always being together. “Who says we have to live like everyone else?” (The truth was, I had grown up in a very unconventional household, and ordinary bourgeois existence was, I confess, not only attractive but frankly exotic to me.)

What did it matter what other people said?

She was right: I should not have cared what other people said. But I did care. And what they said was shocking. People felt free to say things to me they would never have dared say to her. That there was feverish prurient interest swirling around 340 was something I already knew. Before I ever met Susan or David, I’d heard the talk. Now people came straight out and asked the absurd: Was it true? Had they had sex together? Sometimes, rather than being asked, I was told: They must have had sex together. My presence in the household seemed to intensify speculation, bringing the pot to a boil. (The fact of Susan’s bisexuality was, of course, highly pertinent.) What was going on up there?

I found it difficult that Susan wanted to talk so much about her and David’s history, and that that history was filled with so much conflict and resentment. She would tick off all the things she had done for David, her face flushed, her voice rising. With great bitterness she would bring up her own mother: a cold, narcissistic brute of a woman who Susan said had totally neglected her. Susan’s father had died when she was 5. Because she barely knew him, she had had to invent him. Naturally, she idealized him. She imagined him, though he had not been highly educated, endowed with a good mind and other qualities she could admire. She liked to think that, had he lived, he would have been a good father to her. Her husband, of course, had been a terrible father.
But she believed that her son would make not just a good but a great father. This was something she said all the time — as she said all the time that she believed that she had been a great mother.

When she asked me once if I thought I’d make a good mother and I told the truth — I didn’t know — she was put off. “How can you say such a thing about yourself?” It was as if I’d just confessed to being a bad person. She said she had never had any doubts about herself in this regard. In fact, not having had more children was one of her biggest regrets. She spoke of the “criminal” feeling she experienced every time she saw a baby or a young child. “I want to kidnap them!” Even the sight of a baby animal could wrench her. She once saw a baby elephant up close, she said, and was so overwhelmed “I sobbed and sobbed.”

But she always spoke of her own childhood as a time of complete boredom, a misery she could not wait to be over. I have always had trouble understanding this (how could anyone’s childhood, even a less than happy one, be described as “a total waste”?), but she had wanted David’s childhood to be over as quickly as possible, too. (And as it turned out, he too would look back on his childhood as a miserable time, using the very phrase Susan often used in describing her own: a prison sentence.) It was as if somehow she didn’t really believe — or, perhaps, better to say, she saw no value — in childhood.

And for all her pride in her motherhood, and for all her laments about not having had more kids, she was not maternal. From the time she learned she was pregnant till the day she went into labor, she never saw a doctor. (“I didn’t know you were supposed to.”) And she told this story: “When I was writing the last pages of ‘The Benefactor,’ I didn’t eat or sleep or change clothes for days. At the very end, I couldn’t even stop to light my own cigarettes. I had David stand by and light them for me while I kept typing.” When she was writing the last pages of “The Benefactor” it was 1962, and David was 10.

She was not a mom. Every once in a while, noticing how dirty David’s glasses were, she’d pluck them from his face and wash them at the kitchen sink. I remember thinking how it was the only momish thing I ever saw her do.

People who’d known Susan for years, who’d watched David grow up, said they didn’t believe she would ever let him go. It had nothing to do with cancer, they said; she would never let another person come first in her son’s life. She herself said that, because of the intense, complicated nature of their relationship, “David and I have always needed to have a third person around.” She didn’t like the word “girlfriend” much; she preferred “friend,” though she sometimes referred to me jovially as David’s consort. She referred to the three of us as the duke and duchess and duckling of Riverside Drive. I knew that wasn’t good. It didn’t help, either, that whatever fun thing David wanted to do she wanted to do with him: tennis lessons; motorcycle lessons. And although she kept telling me she would be happy to support not just David and me but any child of ours as well, she also said that for David to become a father anytime soon would ruin his life.

Why don’t we two just stick to oral sex? she suggested. “Then you won’t have to worry about birth control.” There was a fourth person at the lunch table the day Susan said this, and it was he who broke the silence. “Looks like Susan doesn’t want to be a grandmother.”
She took a deep breath before she spoke. “David tells me you’re thinking of moving out and that it’s because of me.” It was a year and a half later, and we were where it all began: in her room, I sitting on her desk chair, she on her bed. “I’m sorry,” she said, modulating her voice and hitting her consonants as she did when she wished to sound in control, “but I cannot take that responsibility.”

There really wasn’t much I could say to that.

She said, “My dear, you haven’t thought this through. You don’t go from being a couple that lives together to a couple that lives apart. You’re making a huge mistake.”

I’d have only myself to blame if we broke up.

We would have broken up anyway. We would have lasted longer, definitely. But in the end, things would not have worked out. Susan could have lived on the moon, and David and I would not have worked out. I’ve known this for a long time. What I don’t know is how we managed to stagger on for another year and a half after I moved out.

When I was packing, Susan told me I could take anything I wanted. I took two toys I had found in the depths of David’s closet: a Raggedy Andy doll and a small brown bear with one eye missing. (Years later, Susan would laugh off an interviewer’s comment regarding David’s complaints about his unhappy childhood, saying she remembered his room being full of toys, and claiming: “I still have his teddy bear.”)

In the years after David and I broke up, I had more contact with Susan than I had with him, though it never amounted to much. Once, not long after David had finally moved into a place of his own, she talked to me about being in therapy — a huge surprise, for I remembered how much disdain she once had for people who resorted to therapy, or, worse, took antidepressants. Among people she knew, the ones she seemed to respect most were the ones who, no matter how unhappy they were, had resisted therapy. But, in her early 50s, her own chronic irritability and discontent shaded into something darker. She found herself crawling back into bed soon after getting up, and her memory and concentration were at times so poor that, she said, “I really thought I might have had a mini stroke.” She consulted a neurologist who set her straight: no stroke, just your typical midlife clinical depression. She’d started seeing a psychiatrist; for a while she’d even taken Elavil. And now, psychotherapy had become one of her enthusiasms.

She talked at length about her sessions, in her open, confiding way, sharing what she’d told the therapist and what the therapist had told her — among other things, that one of Susan’s problems was that she was surrounded by narcissists whom she didn’t understand because she was not a narcissist herself. (“What about you?” she asked me earnestly. “Are you a narcissist?”)

The therapist also wondered: Why did you try to make a father out of your son?

At first when she heard this, Susan said, she was shocked. She didn’t know where the therapist could have come up with that ! But then it hit her, she said: she had tried to do that. And we both started to cry.