Book and Media Reviews Section Editor: Harriet S. Meyer, MD, Contributing Editor, JAMA.
The title of Gilbert's book refers to Magritte's 1939 painting La victoire, which depicts an open door in its frame standing upright on a beach, tufts of grass on either side, and nothing but a cloud moving in or out of it. The author reflects on the value of looking through death's open door into the void left by the dead. She interprets the Magritte work and her book as possible triumphs over death as they fill its void with their own creations.
Struggling to understand the connections between the personal, cultural, and literary aspects of death in this rich study, Gilbert has joined forces with important contemporary investigators of the end of life, including Sherwin Nuland in How We Die, Jerome Groopman in The Measure of Our Days, Marie de Hennezel in Intimate Death, Studs Terkel in Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death and Dignity, and, most recently, Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking. Gilbert describes her book as an experiment in mingling genres; a sort of postmodern polymath, she pulls together her vast knowledge of literature, culture, and medicine in an attempt to understand her own loss of her husband, Elliott Gilbert, in the setting of other expressions of loss and grief. For the first 6 months after her husband died, “ . . . death suddenly seemed plausible” (p 1); she is now a widow. Etymologically speaking, she is “empty” or “nullified,” the word “widow” further leading to the French vide and English “void” (p 25).
Mathiasen H. Dying. JAMA. 2006;295(17):2079-2084. doi:10.1001/jama.295.17.2079