Changing Places

Guttenplanhitchens_hp_0D.D. Guttenplan on Christopher Hitchens, in the Nation:

Permit me, as the English say, to declare an interest. I was first told the story of the death of Yvonne Hitchens by her oldest son on the weekend of April 8, 1989. Christopher and his wife, Eleni, put us up at their house in Washington on our way to an abortion rights march. Abortion was a touchy subject with the Hitchenses, and not just because Eleni was pregnant with their second child. There had been a party in the afternoon, but the atmosphere was hardly festive. Our hosts seemed to be attempting, with limited success, to suppress a long-running quarrel. (It can't have been much more than a month later that Christopher left Eleni for Carol Blue, whom he eventually married.) As the house slowly emptied I found myself alone with Christopher, who, either because he noticed my distracted air or wanted to change the subject, soon elicited the fact that I'd spent an earlier part of the day visiting my mother in the hospital where she was undergoing treatment for cancer.

I was feeling both anxious and guilty. Christopher's response was to sit me down, fill our glasses and tell me about being summoned to Athens too late to talk his mother out of taking her life. I wasn't making notes—his apotheosis as a world-historical figure and scourge of the believers was many years in the future—so I can't recall exactly how he introduced the topic. Nor can I recall all the sordid details, though I did come away knowing that his mother's suicide in 1973 had marked him in ways he generally preferred not to consider. What I can recall was my sense of a man whose life seemed, on many levels, to be a kind of performance, allowing himself to be “off,” and to offer the only consolation he could: not cheerfulness, not competitive misery, but an acknowledgment that sometimes life just sucks. If any more evidence on that question were needed, in recent weeks the Internet has buzzed with the news that Hitchens is undergoing treatment for cancer of the esophagus, a disease, as ABC announced with barely restrained glee, “associated with smoking and drinking, habits Hitchens extolled as virtues.”

The pathetic circumstances of Yvonne Hitchens's last days have been told many times, and to many journalists. After a long, passionless marriage to a midranking officer in the Royal Navy, himself forcibly retired and working as a bookkeeper in a boys' boarding school, Yvonne fell in love with a former Anglican priest, only to have both their lives end in a suicide pact far from home. When I say that those last days have never been told so movingly, or with such filial tenderness, as in the pages of Hitch-22, you may think I am hardly an impartial witness. Fair enough. But where Hitchens is concerned, neutrality is liable to be in short supply.