Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Swimming in a Sea of Incarceration

Susan Sontag's son, David Rieff, published a memoir about his mother's death. After two previous bouts with cancer, Sontag succumbed to leukemia in 2004 at age 71. David, her only son and, liker his mother, a writer by trade, tried to give voice to his feelings a few years later in a slim book with a jagged-edge title, Swimming in a Sea of Death.

Years before, Sontag, one of the leading literary luminaries of her era, had written a widely discussed memoir of her own about dealing with cancer. Illness as Metaphor came out in 1978, the year I graduated from high school and started college. Though I did not read it, her essay collection Under the Sign of Saturn sits on my bookshelf, and her novel The Volcano Lover lies packed away in a box somewhere. So much to read, so little time.

The reason I decided to pick up Rieff's book is that I, too, am dealing with the lost of a beloved parent. My father died of liver disease in October 2007, at age 76. How he got that disease, we'll never know. Other than the small portions in communion wine, he did not drink alcohol. Yet he did of a disease often associated with acute alcoholics. The irony of this injustice still aches in my heart, and it's the type of irony that Sontag explored in her essays.

As I began reading Rieff's memoir, one question stood out. He asks himself whether he is overreaching in seeking to assign some special meaning to the feverful intellectual passions of his mother's final years. He wonders where she had some sort of presentiment that her time was drawing short. Then he catches himself: "Or is all of this just that vain, irrational human wish to ascribe meaning when no meaning is really on offer?"

Somehow this search for meaning reminded me of America's 2.3 million people in jail or prison. What does it mean, for each of those lives, to be locked up? And what does it mean for us, as a society, that we engage is such wholesale incarceration? To me, the answer that "it is what it is" is no answer at all.

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