In 1978 Susan Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor, a classic work described by Newsweek as "one of the most liberating books of its time." A cancer patient herself when she was writing the book, Sontag shows how the metaphors and myths surrounding certain illnesses, especially cancer, add greatly to the suffering of patients and often inhibit them from seeking proper treatment. By demystifying the fantasies surrounding cancer, Sontag shows cancer for what it isjust a disease. Cancer, she argues, is not a curse, not a punishment, certainly not an embarrassment and, it is highly curable, if good treatment is followed.
Almost a decade later, with the outbreak of a new, stigmatized disease replete with mystifications and punitive metaphors, Sontag wrote a sequel to Illness as Metaphor, extending the argument of the earlier book to the AIDS pandemic.
These two essays now published together, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, have been translated into many languages and continue to have an enormous influence on the thinking of medical professionals and, above all, on the lives of many thousands of patients and caregivers.
In Illness as Metaphor , which focused on cancer, Sontag argued that the myths and metaphors surrounding disease can kill by instilling shame and guilt in the sick, thus delaying them from seeking treatment. She sees a similar process at work in the case of AIDS, the modern epidemic that has called forth metaphors of plague, implacable viral invaders, a scourge from the Third World. Such metaphors foster the stigmatizing of AIDS patients while spreading misinformation and panic, she argues, further claiming that clinical reports on the course of AIDS from ``fledgling'' to ``full-blown'' tacitly support the far-from-proven theory that everyone who tests positive for the AIDS antibody will die of the diease. The theory that AIDS originated in Africa, also unproven, feeds into the West's political paranoia and activates racial and sexual stereotypes. Regrettably, Sontag all but ignores intravenous drug users stricken with AIDS, and her curt dismissal of alternative therapies is shortsighted. Though some of her key points are already standard features of public discourse, this brief, brilliant essay discounts many of the fears and illusions surrounding the pandemic. (Jan.)