When Celebrities Die, We Gawk; When Ordinary People Do, We Tell Them To Shut Up

Why is a celebrity's path toward serious health problems or death something to take macabre delight in, while a woman discussing the ordinary and often very mundane facts of death is someone to shut down?

Feb 4, 2014 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

I'm experiencing a bit of cognitive dissonance this morning. The Internets are in a collective state of mourning over actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died younger than one might expect, possibly as a result of an overdose or complications related to addition. He is one among many actors and other celebrities whom we've lost too soon, often as a result of addiction. 

Amy Winehouse. Whitney Houston. Michael Jackson. Heath Ledger. Brittany Murphy. Marilyn Monroe. River Phoenix. Anna Nicole Smith. Cory Monteith

These deaths become objects of public fascination. People are obsessed with them. They want every detail. They clamor for photographs of the victim, for every little piece of the coroner's report -- as in life, celebrities are also consumable in death. These are lives lived publicly, and thus, we seem to want their deaths to be lived publicly as well, regardless as to the wishes of the celebrity or the family. 

Maybe Amy Winehouse didn't want to be caught by a photographer when she was being carried out on a gurney. Maybe she did. We don't know, but we do know that the photographer was paid well for that shot, one among a slew of classic, iconic moments in celebrity deaths. 

While I watch people consumed with interest picking apart the details of celebrity deaths, though, I'm thinking about cancer patient Lisa Bonchek Adams, who has been living very publicly with her diagnosis of terminal cancer -- now that the disease has metastasized, her days are dwindling. And she talks about it openly on her blog, on Twitter, and in other locales. 

Her depiction of life with cancer is not sanitized. She doesn't like, and doesn't use, "fighting" metaphors. She talks about being fatigued and in pain. She discusses chemo and radiation and the ugly, miserable parts of cancer. She interacts and reaches out to people, too. 

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Photo credit: Evan Blaser/Flickr.

Lisa isn't the only ordinary person sharing her death with the world. Terminal patients use social media as a way of connecting with each other and the world, especially when the progression of their disease makes it difficult or impossible to be out and about. The Internet can be a lifeline when you're too sick, too tired, too in pain to go outdoors. 

And lots of patients like Lisa attract thousands of followers not simply because people have a morbid fascination with death, but because their followers enjoy interacting with them. And because by being frank about their diagnoses and their daily experiences, these patients demystify death and dying, and provide support to people with the same diagnoses. Other people with stage four breast cancer follow Lisa to feel less alone. 

Lisa, in other words, is not unique or unusual, but she's received a great deal of attention in the last month. You see, husband and wife team Emma G. Keller and Bill Keller had an international go at her; Emma in "The Guardian" and Bill in "The New York Times." Emma felt uncomfortable that Lisa was sharing her death with the world, since evidently she has trouble finding the "unfollow" button. Bill just wanted her to shut up and die already. 

A controversy, predictably, raged. Numerous people rose in Lisa's defense, including Xeni Jardin, who shared the experience of her own cancer diagnosis and treatment on social media. Keller doubled down on his column and in defense of his wife. "The Guardian" later took down Emma's piece as it violated journalistic ethics by quoting private correspondence without consent. The Internets, as they are wont to do, exploded. 

But I found myself stuck in this strange place, as someone reading the situation. I asked myself why it was that celebrity deaths are hungrily and eagerly consumed by the public -- and why this is deemed socially acceptable and in fact actively promoted by the very same publications that attack people like Lisa -- but ordinary people are expected to die quietly and silently off in a hole somewhere. 

Celebrity meltdowns, trips to rehab, and downhill slides are the stuff of headlines and fascination, with people clinging to every word, constantly frustrated in their quest for more. They want every last detail, and they want celebrities flayed for their consumption, regardless as to whether it's healthy for people to be living such exposed, intense lives when they're dealing with mental health issues, substance abuse problems, or other potential medical events. Yet, when someone who isn't a celebrity is willing to share the intimate details of her death with the world, it appears that some of the world, at least, wants her to shut up. 

Death is ugly. It can be drawn out and nasty and filthy and depressing. It's also very isolating, for celebrities and ordinary people alike. Patients who choose to share their deaths with the world are creating a human connection, and they're reminding the world that death happens, and that it comes in many different forms. 

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Cancer patient Liz West shows off her new 'do, in 2008. 

Photo credit: Liz West/Flickr.

Lisa is understandably furious at being told how to die, as well she should be. But the fact that people think it's appropriate to comment on how she's choosing to confront death is a testimony to the double standard this society holds for celebrities and "the rest." Why is a celebrity's path toward serious health problems or death something to take macabre delight in, while a woman discussing the ordinary and often very mundane facts of death is someone to shut down?