Johnny’s Parents

Some criticize the work of John Gunther’s “Death Be Not Proud.” They say that there is too much raw emotion and that he wrote it too soon after Johnny passed away.  They say that Gunther’s portrayal of Johnny is of a young boy instead of a teenager and young man. To counter these arguments, I say, let the man write, he just lost his only son to a tragic battle with brain cancer. If the publisher did not think worthy of publishing, it would not have been published.

Still, I am a little critical of the actions taken by Johnny’s parents during his disease.  One of the arguments that I am countering is that John Gunther portrays his son as a child instead of as a young man.  I am not denying this fact.  I am trying to prove that while Gunther did portray Johnny as a child, it is not reason to denounce this work as a legitimate piece of literature. 

The truth in the matter is that John Gunther and his wife Frances took some actions during Johnny’s sickness that I find insulting to Johnny, but others may argue that these actions were just precautionary measures that parents take.  After Johnny was diagnosed with a brain cancer had gone through his first surgery, they took the liberty of hiding the encyclopedia which had information about brain tumors.

The first minute he was home after the operation he did what we had anticipated—dived for the Britannica to look up brain tumors.  We had taken the precaution to hide this particular volume because, among much else, the article said that almost all brain tumors end with blindness. I cannot recall now how we explained its absence.  Johnny fumed for a while and then resigned himself to the mysterious ways of parents.”

If I were in Johnny’s situation, I would have been just like him, curious to see what all of the implications, side-effects, and symptoms were a part of this new found illness.  Is hiding the truth always the best option?  Whether or not Johnny had been able to acquire this information, I feel that it was his right to be able to find the information he was searching for if he wanted it.  Yet, his parents had already hidden the book.  Even though he was searching for this information, it was being censored by his parents against his will.  A boy of sixteen or seventeen may not be privileged to all knowledge, but in a situation such a Johnny’s when he is a mature, wise, and very intelligent young man, it is almost as if he deserves this information.  Yet, his parents may have still viewed him as their little boy who should be guarded from the reality of the situation that he was in.  To an extent, I cannot blame them because he is their only child, but to another degree, I resent them for withholding this information from Johnny.     

John Gunther presents his son as a child in many regards throughout the memoir, yet one can still gather the maturity of Johnny.  One of his best friends is a man who taught Chemistry at Andover College.  Mr. Weaver is one of Johnny’s best adult friends, who came over and helped Johnny complete some of his chemistry projects whenever he was physically incapable.  As Johnny’s parents, it may have been difficult, but in some way that had to realize the exceptional maturity of their son.  He is “great friends” with a chemistry professor.  In so many ways, Johnny presents his maturity, and it is even noted by his father as he writes this memoir, yet it is never fully accepted. 

Sometimes I attribute Johnny’s lack of perspective about his illness to his parents.  At one point during the memoir, Gunther shares an excerpt from France’s diary about how Johnny and his mother dance in preparation for an upcoming dance at his school.

 “Today Johnny said, “Oh, Mother—I’ve been waiting for you—I have a confession to make—You were right—as usual about the dancing. At the end of this term, you know, they have the senior prom.  When I get back to school, what’ll I do?…I’ll have to dance! Oh, Mother I’ve been so depressed—“ He was cheerful, confessing…Now he said would I practice with him and I said I’d love to.  I was surprised.  But then injections interrupted and dinner. But after dinner he asked again, and I pushed back the chairs and rug.  And we danced!”

 This excerpt demonstrates that Johnny was a fighter and that he was bound and determined to make it back to school in the spring, yet the reality of the situation was that he was more than likely never going back to school, yet his parents allowed him the false hope of thinking that he would make it back.  It is difficult for me to debate this topic because there is such a fine line between killing Johnny’s hope and determination for survival and then allowing him to accept the reality of his situation. 

From what I gathered in the memoir, Johnny had a very realistic grasp of the situation.  This scenario happened after one of Johnny’s operations.

Johnny recognized me after a while and whispered, “Hello, Pop.” Pause. “Are there going to be any more tests?”

“Good Lord, no! You’re all through with those tests.  Don’t you realize that you’ve had quite a serious operation?”

“Of course,” Johnny answered. “I heard them drilling three holes through my skull, also the sound of my brains sloshing around.  From the sound, one of the drills must have had a three-eighths of an inch bit.”

Another example of when Johnny’s parents treat him as a child is when they attach a cover letter to Johnny’s not to Einstein.  By attaching their own letter, they are informing Einstein of Johnny’s situation, but also invoking a sense of pity from Einstein that I’m sure Johnny would not have wished to have received.  If he were to receive a response from Einstein, he would have wanted it to be because of the content of his own letter, not that of his parents. 

Through criticism of others and my own, I still cannot imagine what Johnny’s parents went through, watching their son die a very painful death to brain cancer.  It is a dreadful circumstance and regardless of how the memoir is written and how Johnny’s parents treated him during the treatment process, he is still ultimately their young son, and will always be their baby boy.  Whether or not Johnny could have maturely processed and handled the information that they withheld from him is never to be determined, but what we do know is that Johnny was a great, caring, bright, and wonderful son whose loss greatly affected the lives of his parents and those around him. 

Lee Goatley

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About Lee

I am a collegian who is in the process of deciding whether or not to pursue a career in the medical field. Because of the enormity of this pending decision I am going to utilize this blog as a medium for reflection and rationalization. I will combine two of my passions, literature and science into a blog. The content of this blog will be stimulated by medical literature that has been written throughout the ages.
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One Response to Johnny’s Parents

  1. Maureen Tuthill says:

    You make some excellent points about what Johnny’s parents withheld from him. (I wonder what the prevailing theory is now about telling a child that he or she has a terminal illness.) Johnny’s parents never once told him that he was probably going to die. By withholding certain information, they may have caused him to suffer in the way that Eric Cassel describes. Johnny was denied aspects of his personhood when his parents kept information from him. He is terribly frustrated when he can’t find the encyclopedia. He had a scientific personality–maybe reading about tumors would have put him at ease in some way, instead of feeling so distraught over not knowing something that was crucial to his life. Also, when he realized he was having three holes drilled in his skull, he might have been terrified. We don’t really know how he reacted to that procedure. But maybe he would have been better off if given the chance to mentally prepare for it. And the last example you cite about the note to Einstein touches on the Marcum and Kruschwitz article we read. Health is partially a function of understanding your authentic relation to the world. What if Einstein only answered the note out of pity, as you suggest? Doesn’t that skew Johnny’s sense of reality? Maybe if he had discovered that Einstein was a cold, inconsiderate human being (I’m not saying he was) who wouldn’t respond to a note like that, he might have been a little less obsessive about his own scientific experiments. He might have spent time doing something that satisfied him more fully in the last days of his life. Who knows? I think even children need to know the truth and need to be given the chance to respond creatively to the realities of their own lives.

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