29 pages 58 minutes read

Susan Sontag

The Way We Live Now

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1986

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Illness as a Metaphor

“The Way We Live Now” reflects the themes of Sontag’s 1978 theoretical work Illness as Metaphor, in which she dissects the linguistic correlation between disease and the personality of the afflicted person. The metaphorical description of disease ignores or misunderstands medical explanations for illness in favor of cultural and social assumptions about it. Relatively benign examples of this phenomenon include the misconceptions that depressed people are more likely to fall ill; quiet, shy people suffer from “delicate” health; and outgoing people are less likely to catch colds. Not only are these assumptions medically unsound, but they also reflect negatively on individuals who suffer from illness or disease.

Associating a person’s personality or character with a medical condition casts blame on the afflicted person, suggesting a level of responsibility in their diagnosis. A dangerous and harmful example of this behavior is the 1980s view of AIDS as a “gay cancer” sent as a divine punishment for one’s actions. Reflecting on her experiences undergoing treatment for breast cancer, Sontag rejects the concept that mental health issues generate cancerous tumors. She also fights against the notions that illnesses such as tuberculosis and cancer are divine punishments or the product of personality types.