When That Good Night Falls, We Want Our Stars to Shimmer

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 25, 2008

It was hard to look at the images of Sen. Edward Kennedy this past week and not be pained. His malignant brain tumor diagnosis is terrifying and sad. And he has had to deal with that news in front of prying cameras and amid urgently morose reporting that details precisely how lethal his form of cancer typically proves to be.

There are a lot of advantages to being famous, but this is one of the terrible trade-offs.

At a time when hopefulness might well be the most soothing medicine, maintaining an optimistic outlook is made more difficult by multiple experts publicly weighing in with dismal survival statistics, explanations for why this sort of tumor is difficult to treat and details of precisely how certain treatments can go terribly wrong. All of this information is educational but brutal. It is as though everyone is Googling "malignant glioma" and Kennedy is being cc'd on the results.

It is grueling enough to be given a grim prognosis in the privacy of a doctor's office. To have it made public must be excruciating. There are some people, given such news by their physician, who would tell only their family and closest friends. They would not want casual acquaintances to know because those folks tend to be familiar enough to care, but not close enough to know what to say. Often all they can muster is a look of sympathy -- or worse, pity.

There should be some sort of celebrity opt-out in situations like this -- a tell-nothing clause that silences the solemn drone in the nation's papers and on the evening newscasts.

Soon after receiving this terrible information, when a good number of people would simply like to settle into a corner and cry to their Creator in anger or pray for mercy, Kennedy was photographed surrounded by his family with a smile on his face. A public person gets no time to weep or wallow in self-pity. He has to be brave. Immediately.

The papers quickly filled with laudatory stories about Kennedy's life. Web videos were pieced together describing the effect he has had on American society. Editors sifted through the photo archives hunting for the black-and-white images that would remind everyone of what used to be and that would also imply that it is all coming to an end. The only thing separating all of this mournful reportage from an obituary is verb tense.

As Kennedy left the hospital in Massachusetts, he did what is required of celebrities. He did the brave-soldier march in front of the cameras with his fists clinched into a thumbs up sign. Don't worry, it seemed to say. I'm not going to make this unseemly.

For a lot of people, Kennedy represents a particular piece of American political history -- all that mythology about being the patriarch of a political dynasty and what it means all these years later. So the news reports of his upbeat attitude and his joking -- which have the ring of cliche because no one in this situation ever seems to be described as being hysterical or ticked off and shaking his fist in frustration at the heavens -- may be interpreted as a matter of national dignity. He is being courageous for the country. But for those who have not been steeped in Kennedy mystique, but merely Kennedy fame, the stoicism falls under the umbrella of the celebrity pact.

We are willing to tolerate a lot from celebrities -- from unseemly divorces and drunken brawls to hysterical meltdowns and multiple trips to rehab. We watch with schadenfreude as it all unfolds. In a twisted way, it makes us feel superior. We like to know the intimate details of their lives so that we can mock them, envy them or merely pass judgment. But when their lives are threatened by illness, it's not the breakdown we're looking for, it's the bravery.

That generally is what we get, whether it is the actor Patrick Swayze who was given a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer or Farrah Fawcett who was treated for a case of rare anal cancer.

We have a strange kind of intimacy with celebrities. Once they reach a certain level of fame, we tend to believe that we are owed something. They better pony up the details of their wedding, the results of their pregnancy tests, the facts about their eating habits and exercise regimens. We won't cover our ears if they want to talk about their sex lives or their dysfunctional childhood. It's all part of the brokered deal. They pay for the adulation, the success, even the so-called free stuff with their privacy.

Celebrities who abruptly try to pull out of that contract wind up in the purgatory known as: "Where are they now?" Consider Star Jones, who refused to tell all regarding her enormous and rapid weight loss. She said it was exercise and portion control instead of gastric bypass surgery. The public turned on her. Barbara Walters, on tour for her new autobiography "Audition," described Jones as compelling her colleagues on "The View" to lie.

It's hard to churn up much sympathy for Jones, who reveled in celebrity freebies more than most, but really, was her surgery anyone's business? Forget her disingenuous answers; should the question even have been raised? But in the spotlight, nothing can remain hidden. Tell all the gory details, and you'll be rewarded.

But when the news is especially harsh -- when the diagnosis is deadly -- we realize we don't want to know that much, after all. After getting a look at the tragic facts, we want a "luckiest man alive" speech. Celebrities are supposed to amuse, enlighten, appall and outrage. They can make us envious. But they are never supposed to make us cry.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company