Sunday 15 December 2019

Blackstar helped Bowie reclaim his death from the 'hero rhetoric' and cancer clichés

David Bowie. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
David Bowie. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Rachel Lavin

On its initial release last Friday week, Bowie's final album, Blackstar, left music critics a little perplexed.

One described it as 'elliptical' and the Guardian's Alexis Petridis wrote that the album "seems to offer those attempting to unravel his lyrics a wry 'best of luck with that'". The closest to certainty any critics got was that the theme of Bowie's final offering was 'Isis'.

And then he died of cancer.

Suddenly the images of Bowie in his final music video titled 'Lazarus', as he writhed in bed with his eyes bandaged singing "Look up here, I'm in heaven/ I've got scars that can't be seen" made sense to us.

Blackstar, which is also the name of a cancer lesion, is now considered one of the finest musical farewells ever made. The fact Bowie quietly slipped away from us, leaving only this beautifully formed piece of work that reflects his thinking as he faced his terminal diagnosis in his final months, is a marvel.

But the question remains.

Why did Bowie, one of the most extroverted, explicit and taboo-breaking artists of our time, choose to keep his cancer secret?

Bowie is not the only public figure to have hidden a terminal cancer diagnosis. Nora Ephron kept her Leukaemia secret for six years. Jackie Collins didn't tell her own sister Joan until three weeks before her death. And there was little public knowledge of the terminal cancer diagnosis of much loved actor Alan Rickman earlier this week.

Reflecting on the trend recently amongst high-profile women in The Gloss, Penny McCormick wrote: "What unites these women is that they succumbed to illness without losing their dignity. They decided to keep mum because they didn't want to be defined by disease."

In the end she praises their choices to hide their illnesses as an example of "a stiff upper lip" and ends by saying "perhaps it's time to reinstate secrecy and silence as positive rather than negative values. Keeping one's own counsel seems like a refreshing retro idea now." But the whole article puts a wrongfully positive spin on the heart-breaking reality behind the silence people keep when faced with cancer.

Because it is not simply a personal choice to maintain privacy that proudly rejects the outpouring of public sympathy, rather, it is often the only choice you can make in order to protect yourself from how isolating and limiting the narrative we have built around cancer can be.

Speaking from personal experience, telling people you have cancer is a minefield of dealing with other people's emotions and expectations. You quickly find yourself veering between the imposed narrative of 'hero' with all this 'fight the battle' and 'f*** cancer' rhetoric or else 'a pitiful victim' no one wants to hear about.

Sometimes, the positive spin does help those going through difficult treatments, to keep them from despair, and indeed it takes a degree of mental strength to deal with the challenges each treatment brings.

But more often than not this 'hero rhetoric' is something that is automatically imposed upon people with cancer. It's less about the patient and more about reassuring those on the outside looking in that it's not that bad, that as soon as cancer becomes a part of your life you somehow become capable of heroic qualities, that all it takes is a steely wit and brazen smile. As John Diamond wrote in his book, titled 'C: Cowards get cancer too': "Whenever somebody told me how good a positive attitude would be for me, what they really meant was how much easier a positive attitude would make it for them."

The reason for this response is because the experience of those suffering cancer scares them.

Cancer is an indiscriminate, cruel disease and sometimes there's simply nothing we can do about it.

That kind of powerlessness terrifies most. In many ways the relentess positivity is simply a way of wishing the harsh reality away or projecting the idea onto someone that can regain some control over your fate if you just have the right positive attitude.

There's also a cruel dichotomy to the 'hero rhetoric' surrounding cancer. Because if I'm a hero for surviving my disease, does that make those who don't cowards? Is choosing to go through with dreadful treatments only because the only other option is death really 'brave'? Bravery and courage imply choice, where most cancer sufferers have very little. The worst of these cliches is 'dying with dignity' which usually means dying privately or without suffering as if to show weakness in the end is somehow 'undignified'.

And so many choose silence over being defined, not by the disease, but by the simplistic narratives people associate with it, which can be incredibly isolating and limiting.

But cancer sufferers shouldn't feel forced into that choice. Rather, the way we talk about cancer deserves a more nuanced approach. As Diamond wrote: "I am not brave. I did not choose cancer. I am just me, dealing with it." We need a rhetoric for all those 'just dealing with it', the highs and lows and simple mundanity, the all encompassing fear, the getting used to the very real possibility of death, the sweet relief of escaping it and rediscovering your life, the sad acceptance for those who don't.

Bowie achieved this in a way. Releasing Blackstar just days before his death, he set out his experience in his own terms before anyone could try and foist a narrative upon him. In the line in 'Lazarus', right after 'I've got scars that can't be seen', he sings self-knowingly 'I've got drama that can't be stolen'. In death, as in life, no one was going to define Bowie but Bowie himself.

Sunday Independent

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