Answering Unkindness

Last week, The Guardian’s Emma Keller wrote an column about the social media presence of Lisa Bonchek Adams, a young woman dealing with metastatic breast cancer.  I’d link you to the article, but the Guardian has removed it pending investigation.  As I tell my children, everything on the internet is permanent, so here is an archived copy.

Then this week, Bill Keller wrote one for the New York Times called Heroic Measures.  Same person (Lisa Adams) is used to make a point.

The last names aren’t a coincidence — they are married.

A media poopstorm broke out.  I found articles all over the place picking and choosing quotes from these op-ed pieces to support a sense of outrage.  I am choosing not to do it here.  They are short op-ed pieces, so if you want to see what all the hubbub is, please, click the links and draw your own conclusions.

My basic conclusion is this:  Mrs. Keller’s piece was lacking in substance and seemed personal in nature. That she published a personal message from Lisa seemingly without her permission is unethical. She operated in poor form throughout, including saying Lisa is dying of cancer, rather than living with it.  For someone who is fighting for every inch, that’s a pretty big error. If Keller’s premise was that she was turned off by the volume of Adams’ tweets, why didn’t she simply stop reading them?

However, I have that same reaction to people who have spent so much time hating on Mrs. Keller for this column.

Mr. Keller’s piece, in my opinion, offers the possibility of opening a larger, more important conversation — how we view death as equaling failure, how the medical community values aggressive treatment over palliative care, how we lift up a warrior model of fighting cancer, how many resources are spent on programs that may or may not have an impact, whether everyone has the same access to care. To me, Mr’s column was nuanced and careful not to pass judgment.

Is it perfect?  No. The wisdom of using a woman struggling with cancer with a large social media following is questionable. In the end, it risks coming off as an insensitive personal attack.

But I am extremely concerned by the vitriol being returned to him in-kind and the impression that leaves on the casual observers of the breast cancer movement.

Here’s what I saw last night — the Kellers have no right to an opinion about cancer and end of life issues because they don’t have metastatic disease.  If you think they were telling Lisa to go away and die quietly, I challenge you to reread with a cooler head.

Most of the time our message is that we need everyone to pitch in to eradicate cancer, that it’s a global problem which needs a global solution. Yesterday the message was quite the opposite – if you’re not in our shoes, shut up or risk angry reprisal from a whole lot of connected people.  Most of all, go away.

Keeping my eye on moving the ball down the field toward eradication, I was mortified.

The Kellers are not above criticism just like I’m not above it.  Neither is anyone else, including Lisa Adams, who chooses to tell her story publicly.  I have read criticisms of the Keller pieces from Pink Ribbon Blues and After Five Years that I find very fair and productive.  Mostly, though, I’ve read that the Kellers are morons, unworthy of the title “writers,” and should clam up.

People criticized the Kellers for speculating on Lisa’s motivation on twitter, then speculated on the reasons why the Kellers wrote their pieces. It would be funny if it weren’t all so infuriating for everyone involved.

I plan to take up some of the issues Mr. Keller raised in his piece, but for now, I ask all advocates to think about the real opportunities that are open right now. There are apparently enough receptive ears to justify op eds in two major newspapers. Think about how the casual reader will react to the personal, nasty comments we are flinging out in response.

Answering what you think is a lack of kindness with utter unkindness is not only counterproductive, it’s simply wrong. 

We can do better.  Much better.  We have to do better.

9 thoughts on “Answering Unkindness”

  1. First thank you for the nod to my response/blog. I tried to be kind and ask for what I need.

    But I think this boils down to what I said a few weeks ago in Ask for the Cure…we must ask for what we breast cancer folk need in a productive and kindly way, otherwise, we become ranty she wolves, and really guilty of the same thing…not allowing someone to their opinion, no matter how offensive it may be. We are saying don’t do this, but not offering what we would like to see happen…

    Nice write Katie!

    1. Thanks Lauren. That’s right – Ask for the Cure is essential guiding principle here.

      When I watched the movie The People vs. Larry Flynt, I came away understanding that you have to defend a person’s right to say even the grossest and vilest thing if you want to protect freedom of speech. I feel that way about illness narratives – if we are going to be open to them, we have to be open to them all. Mr Keller was writing of his own personal experience with his father-in-law’s death. If we wish to silence him, we wish to silence any story that doesn’t fit out own definition of acceptability. I can’t be a part of that kind of tyranny.

  2. Op ed and comment forums can be seen as markets for bias. Viewed thru this lens, people read commentary in search of opinions consistent with their view of the world (confirmation bias). Pieces that do are welcomed and provide positive psychic income to the reader. Pieces that don’t confirm the reader’s view serve as sources of negative psychic income (pain) to the reader. To offset such pain, readers often retaliate in what is perceived as an attack on them. Op-ed exchanges are therefore prone to deteriorate into the gruel of ‘making it personal.’

    It appears that you are trying to buck that trend. Uphill battle to be sure. But if so, then good for you!

    1. Matt, I’m going to have to rethink my position here because I agree with you entirely. 🙂

      Seriously, I am just thinking about the value of letting out your frustration vs. how those outbursts impact the big picture. If we want to educate the Kellers about Lisa Adams’ reality, there is a way to do that without being hysterical.


  3. As even more blogs unfold I will say what I commented on the others…I think we run the risk of trodding into the same error field as the Kellers, if we start to make assumptions/dissections about their psyche’s and why they did this, and their fears….as they did with Lisa. It would have been perfectly okay in my book, for Mrs.Keller to discuss her own discomfort and reasons why, but she crossed the line in making assumptions about why Lisa blogs or tweets…and implied Lisa didnt have a right to discuss her fears or worries..The kind of like the dimestore psychology it seems is popular in dissecting their pieces concerns me, I, a psychologist haven’t even gone there…Don’t get me wrong, I think they were wrong on many fronts, particularly the abuse of Lisa’s emails and confidences, however, we must be careful as a blogging community that we are not calling the kettle black, when we are being just as much a pot….and learn to ask for what we need.

    1. Thanks for speaking truth here, Lauren. I couldn’t agree more with you. I saw a lot of that pot/kettle stuff too. In fact, I had to be vigilant in my own post about that lest I stray too far into snarktown. I think that’s a good boundary to keep in mind, at least for me.

  4. Katie, I admire you for writing this post – your points are very valid – I was guilty too of criticizing the Kellers, it was a knee jerk reaction to the anger I felt. I am so glad you wrote this – it has been a timely reminder of the need not to just ask for understanding and compassion, but to show it too.

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