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Conference Proceeding

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This conference paper was originally published as:

Rickett, C., Race, P. & Gordon, J. (2015). Swimming in a sea of hypocrisy?: The ethical ambiguity of David Rieff's memoir. Paper presented at the 20th Conference of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs, Melbourne, Australia. Retrieved from .

ISBN: 978-0-9807573-9-2


190402 Creative Writing (incl. Playwriting)| 199999 Studies in the Creative Arts and Writing not elsewhere classified| 200101 Communication Studies| 2005 LITERARY STUDIES| 220305 Ethical Theory

Avondale Research Centre

Spirituality and Worship Research Centre

Reportable Items



When noted intellectual Susan Sontag died from myelodysplastic syndrome in 2004 aspects of her illness trajectory and death were captured and curated by photographer Annie Leibovitz. The harrowing photographs of Sontag’s diseased body – and later her corpse laid out in a New York mortuary – were included in travelling global exhibitions and were further commodified in Leibovitz’s book which she titled A Photographer’s Life. The historical events of Sontag’s illness and death were therefore (re)written and (re)presented in a way that involved commercial gain.

Sontag’s son, the journalist David Rieff, registered his contempt for the perceived exploitation/unmaking of his mother in a number of media interviews, and most tellingly he recorded and referenced it in his own memoir Swimming in a Sea of Death.

However, some critics have questioned Rieff’s own integrity, suggesting that rather than serving as a respectful ‘tribute’ or commemoration of his mother, aspects of his textual portrait may also be read as acts of ‘posthumous humiliation’. This paper explores how Rieff, while rightly questioning Leibovitz’s violation of his mother’s privacy, could be said to have added to that humiliation by the further exploitation of Sontag’s fame and by his revelation of aspects of her final illness that she may not have wanted to share.


Used by permission: Australasian Association of Writing Programs and the authors.

This conference proceeding may be accessed from the publisher here.