The death of intimacy: Live-tweeting your mother's death

"Well, at least, you can get a book contract out of it," quipped a San Francisco friend when I experienced a string of  personal losses 6 years ago.

It was a moment of press club humour, a wry acknowledgement of the eagerness of journalists to mine their personal life for professional success. Then again, Joan Didion's powerful memoir of loss, A Year of Magical Thinking, was one of the most important books I read in the months of mourning. Just because I couldn't, wouldn't share my grief, it didn't make it wrong for others to do so.

But I felt an immediate jolt of revulsion when I heard about Scott Simon live-tweeting his mother's death. Over the past month,  NPR host offered his one million-plus followers an almost blow-by-blow account of the days spent by his dying mother's bedside. Intimate conversations, emotions, even the moment of death were beamed out to the world.  The tweets were indeed "heartbreaking, uplifting, human," as comic Tom Siedell described them. Beautifully crafted, honest, often witty, at times wise, they make for a compelling read, and no doubt offered solace and inspiration to others. (You can read them on his Twitter feed here)

 The death of intimacy: Live-tweeting your mothers death

The Twitter logo.

And yet the act itself feels deeply, viscerally wrong, as does some of the fawning praise it's received.

"My friend @nprscottsimon is tweeting during his beloved mother's final illness. It is a remarkable and moving moment. Pay attention," commanded Simon's NPR colleague Peter Sagal. The question is: why? Why should we pay attention?

In the age of compulsive self-revelation, the mere act of publicly sharing one of the most intimate moments of any person's life is not in itself heroic. There is no taboo that has been flouted, or a new frontier of free speech established. It isn't even a first of its kind phenomenon.Tampa Bay Times' Ben Montgomery live-tweeted his father’s funeral in 2011, a decision he explained  with unpretentious candour:

I don’t think in any sense it was therapeutic… It’s what I do; I write about things, and this was no different. We’ve been writing about death for thousands and thousands of years in a million different ways — in books and magazines and newspapers, and subway tunnels and on the rear windshields of automobiles and cave walls. Tweeting just feels like another version of all that.

It's a version, however, that erases the last boundary between the public and private. No moment, experience, emotion is too intimate or personal to share. Privacy has now become dispensable even in death. In this sense, Simon is a natural successor to the host of live-tweeted births and delivery room videos and photos shared on Facebook. And he may well be a precursor to live-death videos and photos that will inevitably follow.

"Simon’s story is painfully familiar and beautifully unique, and it loses none of that intimate power just because it was doled out a few hundred characters at a time, while a few million people watched," writes Mary Elizabeth Williams in Salon.com. I couldn't disagree more. When we cede all privacy, we also cede our innermost selves. When everything is shared on Twitter or Facebook, intimacy - which is earned with time, energy and attention - becomes cheap, even meaningless; as do real-life bonds which are held together by the glue of intimacy. When there is little difference what you share with your spouse, best friend, parent and the colleague in the next cubicle or the stranger on the street, relationships become less meaningful.

And that's the other tricky aspect of privacy: it is never entirely yours to violate. A tell-all book about a divorce necessarily exposes the personal life of your spouse or child. A confessional tale of your depression or bulimia brings into the spotlight all people who encountered or dealt with it. Live-tweeting someone else's death - as opposed to yours - is all the more questionable. Simon is vague about the extent to which his mother knew or consented to sharing her last moments with the world, saying in an interview:

I don’t think my mother knew much about Twitter or social media platforms but I would read her an occasional message from someone in Australia, someone in Great Britain or Singapore and she was very touched. She was an old showgirl and I wouldn’t — I didn’t tweet anything and wouldn’t have that I didn’t think she would be totally comfortable with.
It's nice that Simon did try and protect his dying mother except it is clear he never took her consent in advance, or revealed the extent of the information he chose to bare.  She is the one who died. It was the end of her life, the second-most important moment in any human being's existence. But Simon made her death entirely about him: it was his experience for him to share.

"It's not every day we have a chance to discuss openly dying with dignity after a life well lived," writes NPR blogger Andy Carvin. But there can be little dignity without choice. At the very least, we ought to be allowed to choose how to die, and who to share our last moments with - whether or not it gives the aam janta something vital to 'discuss,' or makes Twitter more meaningful for its members.

Despite my many reservations, I give Scott Simon the benefit of the doubt for we often process loss in peculiar, unseemly ways. I was uncomfortable when a cousin loudly wailed at my brother's funeral, but it doesn't make him a jerk. I am not, however, inclined to let his cheerleaders off the hook. What troubles me is the self-righteousness of a Sagal who insists we 'pay attention' as though we are morally obliged to gawk at a stranger's death. It reeks of the misplaced self-righteousness displayed by the commenters who attacked blogger Jeni Marinucci for writing:

How many tens of thousands of people watched – and waited – for Ms. Simon to die? Whether it was with trepidation makes no difference to me. We still watched; we still waited. There is something which lingers here, tucked underneath the sadness I felt for the passing of a woman and the grief of her son, neither of whom I know. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, a dirty feeling, and it’s anchored by my participation in a loss which wasn’t mine to grieve.

Each act of self-revelation incurs a cost of intrusion. The speed and ubiquity of social media allows us to share in an instant without weighing the tradeoff, often before we recognise it exists. "Grieving in real time," as Washington Post's Monica Hesse describes it, can be a hazardous experience. "In a grief memoir, written later… [Simon] might have wondered whether the intimate details of the last moment of a life should belong to the Twitterverse at large or whether they should belong to the parent living them," notes Hesse.

Perhaps Simon should have wondered so before he hit the 'Tweet' button. Or worse, perhaps he will wonder tomorrow, long after the tweets have been sent.

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Updated Date: Aug 01, 2013 01:11:45 IST