Book Review: Death Be Not Proud, by John Gunther

Death Be Not Proud is a memoir of the brief and profound life of John Gunther, Jr, written by his father, noted journalist and author John Gunther. It is discovered that John Jr – Johnny – has a malignant brain tumor at just 16 years old. He and his parents learn all they can, wrestle with the medical community, try alternative procedures, fight with all their might, but most importantly, they continue to LIVE, until the tumor finally claims Johnny’s life just one year later.

I enjoyed learning about the surprising personality of Johnny. For a teenager, he was remarkably intelligent and aware. His father sings his praises so poignantly, almost as if Johnny were an angel in flesh. I loved the story about Johnny writing to Albert Einstein, and about Einstein’s response!

What is so heartbreaking is the time period in which this book was written – the late 1940’s. John Sr. writes about something I wondered from the start – he recognizes their fight against time and laments the fact that some day others will not have to suffer as Johnny suffered. Some day medical advances would know how to better deal with his condition. As it is, Johnny’s parents submit him to mustard gas and other experimental procedures of the day. I couldn’t help but wonder what his prognosis would have been if they had lived in this day and age – a time of greater medical knowledge and abilities.

There were moments when I wondered at the reality of the portrait John Sr paints of his son and how he and his parents handled the illness. There is an almost too-perfect quality to their steadfastness and their courage. I have never been in the position of losing a child to a horrible illness, but I guess that I would not always handle things with such grace. As their story continues, though, John Sr concedes that things occasionally got “messy,” that there were complaints and regrets and “why me”s. That only made them more human to me.

At the end of the book, after Johnny’s death, John Sr gives Johnny’s mother her chance to speak. What she writes is so totally heartbreaking, and beautiful at the same time. She says that if there were anything she could have changed, she would have LOVED JOHNNY MORE. She says that of course they loved him, and that he knew it, but she would have loved him even more. She exhorted parents with children still living to LOVE THEIR CHILDREN MORE. Of course children can cause exhaustion and sometimes exacerbation, but despite any trouble, we have the privilege of a living child, and we ought to love them more.

And, of course, this is not just true of children, but of friends, too. This is just the perspective I was looking for.

Biography of Johnny’s mother, Frances Fineman Gunther, who is mostly overshadowed in this memoir.

The text of John Donne’s poem “Death Be Not Proud,” the origin of the memoir’s title.


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