Sunday, July 1, 2012

Death Be Not Proud: "Death always brings one suddenly face to face with life"

I just turned the last page in this book, and, friends, there are no GIFs for the particular kind of sads I have right now.

Just kidding . . . there are always GIFs.
John Gunther Jr. was 17 when he died of a malignant brain tumor. This book is the story of the 15 months that passed between his diagnosis and his death in 1947, as told by his father.
"Such a book could easily have become an understandable but embarrassing statement of grief, or a father's equally embarrassing eulogy. This one is neither. . . . Without fuss, in simple, almost conversational style, he expresses the love and comradeship he felt for his son, gives a step-by-step account of cancer's inexorable victory. In so doing, Gunther arouses in the reader an almost deliberate passion to help find the dark enemy and destroy it." (anonymous reviewer, Time magazine, 1949)
I couldn't have said it better myself, anonymous reviewer.

John Gunther was a seasoned journalist, and it shows in his ability to detach himself somewhat from the emotional aspects of his account. He's not cold or unfeeling as he writes; he's simply attempting to report events as they occurred. At points, the narrative does get a bit dry, usually when Gunther is explaining the ins and outs of the treatment methods they pursued throughout Johnny's illness, but every detail he provides is relevant to the objective: "to tell, however fumblingly and inadequately, . . . the story of a gallant fight for life, against the most hopeless odds" (p. 5).

And Johnny is someone I wish I could have known (although I would first need to forgive his disliking of George Eliot) . . . and I kind of feel that I DO know him.

The only picture of him on the WHOLE Internet.
He was a boy who discussed transmigration of souls with his parents on a typical drive home. (After much consideration, he decided he wanted to come back as a sperm whale.)

He was a boy who, 12 days after undergoing major brain surgery, demanded to write a letter to Albert Einstein regarding the dimensions of the universe. And Einstein replied.

He was a boy who made up 1 1/2 years of missed schoolwork (with half a brain!) and walked down the aisle—with a bandaged head and decreasing motor function on the left side of his body—to accept his diploma with the rest of his class.

He was a boy with a sense of humor.
"Miss Gerson's little girl, aged about six, was fascinated by Johnny, and often came in to see him. He was polite, but bored. Girls of six were really not his dish. Once the little girl tiptoed in and asked if it were all right to stay. Johnny replied, 'Okay, if you don't compromise me. Keep the door ajar.'" (p. 76)
He was a boy who cared about how his illness affected others.
"Johnny was frighteningly tired. He started to cough again at about five in the morning. Mrs. Seeley crept into his room, and he whispered to her, 'I'm afraid I'm being too much trouble.' She replied with a cheery 'Don't worry about me!' whereupon he considered for a moment and then said, 'Somebody's got to worry over you.'" (p. 75)
Quite frankly, it's a little hard to believe such a person as Johnny Gunther ever existed. But I'm perfectly willing to believe it, all the same.

Because of where *I* am in life, the angle of "Johnny as exceptional person under extraordinarily difficult circumstances" stands out for me the most. A parent would probably latch onto something entirely different. And someone coping with a serious illness or that of a loved one would likely relate on an even deeper level. My point is that the themes and topics are so universal, it's impossible NOT to identify in some way. And maybe that's why this book has never been out of print since its first publication in 1949.

A few excerpts from Johnny's journal . . . because I like to hear how HE tells it:

But first, some background from Johnny's mother: "It was only after his death, from his brief simple diaries, written as directly as he wrote out his beloved chemical experiments, that we learned he had known all along how grave was his illness, and that even as we had gaily pretended with him that all was well and he was completely recovering, he was pretending with us, and bearing our burden with the spirit, the élan, of a singing soldier or a laughing saint" (p. 189).

November 11th
Ask parents what you can do to make them happy.

November 12, 1946
Talk. Give. Work.
Here is a prayer I thought of last spring at Medical Center.
Live while you live, then die and be done with.

November 16th
Resolved to ask Father about divorce. [His parents divorced when Johnny was 14.]

November 17th
Got Father's and Mother's sides of divorce all straightened out. What wonderful parents.

November 22nd, 1946
Philosophy: "Get yourself off your Hands." Happiness is in Love. Accept disappointments. Relieve oneself by confession of sins. I am growing up at last.

January 1, 1947
Yesterday I cleared up the whole matter of the Jews with parents.

January 8th
Yesterday I discussed fears of death with Mother.
For years I have had a lack of confidence in myself, fears about ultimate reality.
Accept death with detachment.
Take more pleasure in life for its own sake.

January 16th
Recontent with the universe. Discontent with the world.

February 3rd
Sometimes I wish I was as cheerful to myself as to others---nonsense!!

Wednesday, Feb. 19, 1947, A.D.
A little amnesia today.
I think that I realize and accept the "goodness of life." I should not need to "hang on to" chemical brainstorms, self-abnegation, etc.

Back to Neurological Institute! A second operation. They shave off all my hair again! Damn it.
But I can eat again! Steak, ice cream! Cream of mushroom soup!
Oh! How good it is.

SOURCE: Gunther, John. (1949). Death Be Not Proud. New York: HarperCollins. (Title quote from p. 187.)


  1. This sounds wonderful and I probably won't read it because it will make me ugly cry. That second gif gets it

  2. I second this. I like to think about reading sad books, but usually I just put them off indefinitely. This one sounds really good, though. Hm...

  3. Dude. I just don't know. This does sound awesome, BUT YOU TAGGED IT 'MY WHOLE BRAIN IS CRYING.' And how can one read that? Agh.

  4. But it's a GOOD brain-cry. It leaves you with a general appreciation for living and all that. But I quoted the whole book, so you're under no obligation to read it for yourself. You're welcome.

  5. It *is* good...but I also read it simultaneously with 4 other books so I could take breaks from the sad. I recommend that tactic for all sad books.

  6. I think this book was on a recommended reading list when I was in elementary school, because I remember reading it really young. Heartbreaking.

  7. I don't know if I would have appreciated it as much at that age...or maybe I would have just seen it from a totally different angle? It's hard to say.