Commentary: A celebrity's right to die in peace

The Miami HeraldMay 14, 2009 

Our subject today: the end. It's a hell of a thing when you can't even die in peace.

For what it's worth, I hesitate to say that. One should be slow to foreclose hope, always leave room for miracles. Still . . .

Farrah Fawcett has been battling anal cancer for almost three years and is said to be in dire shape, confined to her bed, the cancer now in her liver. Her longtime companion, Ryan O'Neal, says she doesn't speak much – "She's down to few words." So if – if – this is it for her, then yeah . . . it's a hell of a thing when you can't contemplate your final days without having to worry about noses pressed to your window, hands digging through your garbage, enquiring minds wanting to know.

To suggest, as I have done frequently from this podium, that there are lines one does not cross even with celebrated people, is to encounter pushback from those who insist they have a right to invade the lives of those their adoration has made wealthy – a right to stake out Julia Roberts' kids at school, a right to see Rihanna after she has been beaten, a right to the intimate details of Fawcett's medical condition. And celebrities, they say, have no right to complain.

I find myself wondering what those people would make of an interview with Fawcett that was published Monday by The Los Angeles Times.

In the interview, conducted in August but withheld until now by agreement with the actress, Fawcett takes aim at The National Enquirer for publishing information about her medical condition. The reports were often false, she says, but contained enough truth that she knew they had originated in something real. She had an eye exam, for instance, and it became a story that she was going blind. Fawcett says she became convinced the information was being leaked directly from UCLA Medical Center, where she was being treated. "I was never more sure of anything in my life," she told The Times.

When her cancer recurred, she used it to prove her point, deliberately withholding the information from her family and friends. Theoretically, only she and her doctor knew of the setback. "I couldn't believe how fast it came out [in the Enquirer]" Fawcett said. "Maybe four days."

The hospital investigated and found the culprit, an employee who had accessed Fawcett's records more often than her own doctors. The actress asked for that worker's name, but the hospital refused, citing a need to protect its employees. Meantime, that employee had helped the Enquirer invade the most intimate corners of Fawcett's life.

And here, let me say: I spent 18 years as an entertainment reporter. I quizzed Rod Stewart about his marriage and Gladys Knight about her divorce. But it feels like that happened a century ago in an alternate universe where there were still bounds of propriety, things you did not do even in search of the juicy tidbit, because they compromised the humanity of your subject and debased you in the process.

Such constraints feel quaint in an era where too far is never far enough to satisfy this insatiable curiosity some of us have for details of famous lives. You wonder if their own lives are truly so bereft, so empty of meaning that their only choice is to invade others. You wonder how a National Enquirer justifies circling like a vulture above some dwindling life. Fawcett will address that life in a documentary airing Friday on NBC. But you also wonder what it must be like to be her, unable to exercise control over what to tell people about your own illness – public property till the end.

For what it's worth, Fawcett's lawyers eventually got the name of the UCLA employee who breached her privacy. Lawanda Jackson pleaded guilty to a felony violation of medical privacy laws for commercial purposes (the Enquirer allegedly paid her at least $4,600), but she was never sentenced.

In March, you see, she died – quietly – of cancer.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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