Fancy Newspaper Columnists Aggrieved Cancer Patient Is Getting Attention On Twitter

Fancy Newspaper Columnists Aggrieved Cancer Patient Is Getting Attention On Twitter

Well, we're less than two weeks into the new year and we've already got an early contender for the 2014 "Piece You're Glad You Weren't Dumb Enough To Pen" award. I speak, of course, of Sunday's effort from The New York Times' Bill Keller, a cynical takedown of Lisa Bonchek Adams, a woman trying to survive metastatic breast cancer who has been chronicling her experience online.

Why does Adams deserve such treatment? Basically, because she has a Twitter account, from which Keller is apparently unable to unsubscribe.

Writing for The New York Times, Bill Keller, the paper's former executive editor, has penned a piece titled "Heroic Measures," in which he laboriously concern-trolls Adams, suggesting on more than one occasion that her choice to relate her struggle with cancer is wrongheaded and harmful to other cancer patients and describing her effort as nothing more than using her social media accounts to foster the easy manufacturing of "false hopes."

Along the way, he gets many facts wrong, beginning with the first sentence, "Lisa Bonchek Adams has spent the last seven years in a fierce and very public cage fight with death." As Xeni Jardin points out, whilst enumerating many of Keller's welter of errors, Adams' metastatic diagnosis came in October 2012. It is currently January 2014. (It would seem that for all his concern about Adams' writings on the internet, Keller didn't do a particularly close reading of any of them, sampling only enough of them to get them wildly incorrect.)

Keller's piece follows another one about Adams and her social media presence, this one written by his wife, Emma Keller, for The Guardian. (That piece has since been "deleted with the agreement of the subject because it is inconsistent with the Guardian editorial code.") Bill Keller's piece repeats many of the points Emma Keller expounded upon. He expresses worry over the fact that Adams is a prolific and popular online presence, and notes that his own personal discomfort at having to read her tweets increased as Adams' condition took a turn for the worse. But his chief complaint here seems to be that Adams, by tweeting and blogging about her own experiences, somehow defames the way Keller's father-in-law faced his own battle with cancer.

"His death," Keller writes, "seemed to me a humane and honorable alternative to the frantic medical trench warfare that often makes an expensive misery of death in America." Later, he adds, "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."

Yes, you see, Bill Keller's father-in-law apparently figured out the one and only way to deal with cancer. Keller feels, for some reason, that Adams is shaming his memory by not quietly acquiescing to the Reaper's demands, and by instead describing the "frantic medical trench warfare" in which she seems to be engaged. Yea, verily, the quickest way to ameliorate the "frantic trench warfare" that end-stage cancer patients endure is to politely decline to discuss it. Things will just somehow work out.

In her now-deleted Jan. 8 takedown of Adams, meanwhile, Emma Keller is similarly concerned with the fact that Adams has access to some Internet publishing platforms, which she is using to publish things on the Internet. She notes that Adams "has tweeted more than 165,000 times" and that her effort has "caught the attention of many women with breast cancer." Like her husband, Emma Keller -- herself a cancer survivor -- started questioning this whole arrangement of Adams having a publicly available body of written work around the time Adams hit a rough patch in her treatment. From her now-deleted piece:

Which is why a few weeks ago I noticed she was tweeting a lot more and from a situation she described as agonizing. The clinical drug trial she was on wasn't working. Her disease seemed to be rampaging through her body. She could hardly breathe, her lungs were filled with copious amounts of fluid causing her to be bedridden over Christmas. As her condition declined, her tweets amped up both in frequency and intensity. I couldn't stop reading – I even set up a dedicated @adamslisa column in Tweetdeck – but I felt embarrassed at my voyeurism. Should there be boundaries in this kind of experience? Is there such a thing as TMI? Are her tweets a grim equivalent of deathbed selfies, one step further than funeral selfies? Why am I so obsessed?

A few things here deserve some scrutiny. Is Emma Keller not clear on the concept of "TMI" ("too much information")? Because as it's popularly understood, the exclamation "TMI!" is provoked by someone who is forcing some unpleasant piece of personal information on another person. But I read here that it was Emma Keller herself who "set up a dedicated @adamslisa column" in her Tweetdeck. An elegant solution suggests itself: don't do that. Problem solved!

Additionally, let's grapple with the distinction between a "funeral selfie" and what Lisa Adams is doing. Lisa Adams is of the mind that sharing her story of her attempt to survive cancer -- what treatments are like, how they affect her body, things that work and things that don't -- will be useful to other people, and she comes to the effort with a certain sense of gravitas. By contrast, the "funeral selfie," which became a subject of much trend piece thinkfluencing in 2013, is that thing that happens when someone posts a photo of themselves smiling for the camera while at a funeral. Funeral selfies drew the attention of scolds because they seemed to lack seriousness and gravitas. So, what Adams is doing is many, many millions of steps away from funeral selfies.

In their columns, both Bill and Emma Keller do that thing where an author passes a severe judgment on another person under the guise of "raising questions" and "starting a discussion," while making it clear that they don't actually care to have those questions answered or that discussion enjoined. Rather, the purpose of the twin op-eds is to assert that there is some sort of worthy ethical debate to be had over what Adams is doing. To suggest this is to contend that Adams is doing something that, while well-intentioned, is potentially dangerous or irresponsible to others. It would be useful, then, to site some sort of example, or build a case on the merits. But the Kellers come to this debate wan and empty-handed, lacking both any material examples of harm as well as the ability to discuss ethical matters with any coherence.

The best Emma Keller can do is assert that Adams' work is akin to a "funeral selfie." That's a false equivalence. The best Bill Keller can do is suggest that Adams has somehow defamed his father-in-law's memory. But that's just a choice that he has made for himself. Just as it's his choice to even bring his father-in-law into this discussion. (I guess dead men cannot complain, "TMI!")

That's the truly galling thing about these pieces -- they have nothing to do with any actions that Adams has taken. Aside from occasionally answering the questions that the Kellers have asked her, Adams has been assiduously leaving Bill and Emma Keller alone -- until they took this insulting ego trip on her backside, anyway. Rather, the columns are all about the choices that the Kellers have made and the conflicts they are creating out of whole cloth, for which they then make Adams responsible.

Bill Keller insists that "whether her campaign has been a public service is a more complicated question," but he's the only one who's actually asking that question. And Emma Keller is all aghast at the possibility that Adams has, by dint of having a Twitter account, created a "new way of death." These ideas never existed in the world outside of the Kellers' own imaginings until they wrote about them.

Which doesn't mean it's unfair for the Kellers to discuss these matters. But they shouldn't insist that their problems are the problems of the entire world. As the Atlantic's Megan Garber points out, the Kellers have taken their own petty personal concerns and presumptuously leaped to the conclusion that they should be treated as the concerns of everyone:

Look how deftly this moves from Adams herself to the universal "us," the preferred pronoun of think-piece idiom. Look how swiftly the logic sweeps from "her decision" to "our debates." Look how hungrily it appropriates a single woman's tweets into a matter of universal (and educational! and ethical!) concern—how voraciously Adams's experience gets transformed into a broader, more succulent truth. "What is the appeal of watching someone trying to stay alive?" Emma Keller asks, on behalf of herself. And then, seamlessly, breathlessly, on behalf of us all: "Is this the new way of death?"

Spoiler: It is not. It is one person, dealing with things in the best way she knows how. Adams herself makes no claim to universality, or to ethical authority, or to any kind of symbolism about The Way We Live Now. It is the journalists—hungry for new insights, thirsty for new trends—who are saddling her with the freight of moral implication and then judging her for the audacity they infer. It is a remarkable trick. It is also a cruel one.

Of course, absent the suggestion that The Problems Of Bill And Emma Keller Are Real To Everyone, how would the Kellers manufacture their own gravitas?

In the end, this actually has nothing to do with health care, or cancer, or ethics. The only thing really being debated here is whether or not someone who lacks a fancy sinecure at a famous newspaper deserves to tell their story. This is a dumb debate about the Internet, the ordinary people who use it, and the way it levels the playing field between the experiences of a woman like Lisa Adams and people like Bill and Emma Keller.

The advent of blogging, and the subsequent creation of social media platforms, have long been the burr in the side of the traditional gatekeepers of deemed-worthy information and polite opinion. After all, for centuries, normal people have had opinions -- we've spoken them aloud at dive bars and around the watercooler, but they've never traveled beyond those venues to bother the people who might otherwise be bothered by them. But Internet enables anyone in the world to "publish" these opinions, and give them a place and a sense of permanence that only the gatekeepers used to enjoy. In his lengthy dissertation on smarm, Gawker's Tom Scocca noted this phenomenon keenly:

Nothing is stopping anyone—any nobody—from going on a blog or on Twitter and expressing their opinion of you, no matter who you think you are. New media and social media have an immense and cruel leveling power, for people accustomed to old systems of status and prestige. On Twitter, the only answer to "Do you know who I am?" is "One more person with 140 characters to use."

And so, here's how Mr. Keller responded to Adams' attempt to explain what she's doing:

“I am not on my deathbed,” she told me in an email from the hospital. “Periods of cancer progression and stability are part of the natural course of this disease. I will be tweeting about my life and diagnosis for some time to come,” she predicted, and I hope she’s right. In any case, I cannot imagine Lisa Adams reaching a point where resistance gives way to acceptance. That is entirely her choice, and deserving of our respect. But her decision to live her cancer onstage invites us to think about it, debate it, learn from it.

But her decision invites a debate! See, that's what Adams is doing wrong, to Keller's estimation. Who is she to force an issue into the public arena? She's a nobody, that's who. Someone who hasn't earned the right to provoke a discussion of any kind.

It's worth pointing out a second time that Adams has not forced herself on either Keller. They can disengage from her content entirely with a few simple mouse clicks. But merely unsubscribing from Adams' Twitter feed won't solve the Kellers' essential dilemma. It will always bother the Kellers that Adams will still be out there, having her say, and potentially being of equal or greater importance to other people as the Kellers. And they think there is something terribly unfair about this.

The Kellers should probably look upon Adams' social media and blogging output with a more sanguine attitude. After all, if Adams had opted to silently succumb to cancer, what on earth would they have had to write about this week?

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]

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