As It Happens

Susan Sontag's self-doubt and sexual identity explored in new biography

On the outside, Susan Sontag appeared to be a confident, effortlessly glamorous intellectual elite. But on the inside, she was wracked with uncertainly, says her biographer. 

Author Benjamin Moser had unfettered access to the writer's diaries and personal correspondence

Susan Sontag is one of America's most renowned writers. (Jens-Ulrich Koch/DDP/AFP/Getty Images)

This article was published on Oct. 14, 2019. On May 5, 2020, Benjamin Moser won the Pulitzer for biography for his book Sontag: Her Life And Work.


On the outside, Susan Sontag appeared to be a confident, effortlessly glamorous intellectual elite. But on the inside, she was wracked with uncertainly and self-doubt, says her biographer. 

In Sontag: Her Life And Work, Benjamin Moser paints the late writer and activist as someone with a carefully crafted public image, modelled after "larger-than-life women" throughout history, from Joan of Arc to Greta Garbo.

"And she becomes, at least for Americans, the next figure in this lineage. And she does it deliberately and I think she does it because she's so unsure of herself inside," Moser told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"I really appreciate her insecurity. I appreciate that she wasn't always as certain as she seemed. And I think that knowing that gives you some space as a reader to understand yourself a little better."

'I love her, but I don't always like her'

Moser was commissioned by Sontag's estate to pen her biography after he wrote book about Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector.

"I was fascinated ... by this world of the great intellectual women of the 20th century," he said. "I felt that there was a whole lot that was not being said about those women and that time, and I was also impressed that there was a lot to be quite shocked by."

Moser was given unfettered access to the parts of Sontag's archive at UCLA that are off-limits to the public. He spent seven years poring through her diaries and her correspondence, and interviewing nearly 600 people who knew her.

Benjamin Moser, author of a new biography titled Sontag: Her Life And Work, in the As It Happens studio. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

The result is a nearly 800-page tome that attempts to account for the many contradictions in the essayist's life and work.

"She presents a real challenge to a biographer because she's both incredibly sympathetic and she's incredibly human and understandable — and at the same time, she's quite weird in some ways. She can be very cruel to people," he said.

"I love her, but I don't always like her. And I think that's what it's like when you're in a biographical relation."

She authored her ex-husband's book: Moser

Sontag is known around the world for her poignant and groundbreaking writing, including the essay Notes on Camp and the book Illness as Metaphor.

But Moser claims that she gave away credit for one of her first major literary undertakings. He says Sontag is the true author of her ex-husband Philip Rieff's book Freud: The Mind of the Moralist.

Sontag married Rieff at at the age of 17, when he was her professor. In her early 20s, she began collaborating with him on his analysis of Freud, but at a certain point, Moser says "she starts taking it over and writing the whole thing."

To back up this claim, he cites Sontag's diary entries and letters about her progress on the book, a letter from a colleague begging her not to give away her intellectual property, and finally an apology from Rieff himself, inscribed in a copy of the book, that reads: "Susan, Love of my life, mother of my son, co-author of this book: forgive me. Please. Philip."

This is the book cover for the biography, Sontag: Her Life and Work.

Early editions of the book credit her with "special thanks" in the preface, but by 1961, all references to Sontag had been dropped. Sontag relinquished any claim to the work in their 1959 divorce settlement, Moser says.

She had a child with Rieff, and was in a romantic relationship with another woman when they divorced, Moser said. If he'd exposed her, she could have lost custody.

"She was absolutely terrified that she would have her child taken away from her, and she sort of thought this was a path of least resistance," he said.

"And she regretted it literally until the end of her life."

Sontag died in 2004, and Rieff died in 2006.

Struggles with her sexuality 

Sontag's bisexuality is another area where publicly, she has been feted as an LGBTQ icon, while privately, she struggled with shame, Moser says.

In a 2000 interview with The New Yorker, Sontag said she'd "had girlfriends as well as boyfriends." Later that year, she told the Guardian that she'd been in love nine times in her life: "Five women, four men."

But it wasn't always easy for her to speak with such candour, Moser says.

"I think a lot of the reasons she needed this diva figure on the outside is that she was deeply ashamed in a certain way of her sexuality," he said.

"Even when she was a little girl and she first is discovering it, and she's writing about it in her journals, she's terrified by it. Because, of course, it is terrifying if you live in a homophobic society where all these things can happen to you."

Sontag didn't talk publicly about her sexuality in the early part of her life and career. (Alessia Pierdomenico/Reuters)

But if her bisexuality was a secret, Moser says it was an open one within the LGBTQ community. And her visibility had a monumental impact.

"This formidable, glamorous, beautiful intellectual who knew everybody and understood everything and had read every book and seen every movie — it really was an inspiring thing to people," he said.

"I think it's very important for women, I think is very important for gay people how much we owe to these pioneers."

Moser says he felt a tremendous responsibility in writing about Sontag, and he hopes his efforts to portray her in all her complexity have paid off. 

"I hope that she would appreciate how much coverage it's gotten, how many people have written about it, how many people have loved it and hated it and loved her and hated her," he said.

"That's exactly how she always lived in her life and I think that a book about her that wasn't controversial wouldn't be a book about Susan Sontag."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong.