Lance Armstrong is all over the news, as all of you know by now, and as several of you have pointed out to me already, since Armstrong makes an appearance in Hannibal and Me.
The premise of Hannibal and Me, to recap, is that triumph and disaster are impostors, as Rudyard Kipling said so sublimely.
So those of you who have not yet read my book might assume that Lance Armstrong was included to show how his triumphs — ie, all his victories on the bike — were impostors, meaning fake. Reprehensibly fake.
They may well have been. (My understanding, by the way, is that there is still no proof that he was doping, even though most people may now assume that he did, because he has decided to stop contesting the charges.)
But as those of you who have already read the book know, and the rest of you might now be surprised to find out, Armstrong was chosen for the opposite reason: to show how disasters can be impostors.
The disaster in his case, with which so many people can identify, is called cancer.
Armstrong and Kübler-Ross
I chose Armstrong as one of my examples to illustrate how people move through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s “stages of grieving”, and in particular the stages of Anger, and also Depression, and then Acceptance.
So he appears in Chapter 7, Dealing with Disaster, in which the main characters are Quintus Fabius Maximus, Eleanor Roosevelt and Ernest Shackleton.
Here are excerpts:
… anger usually begins with the question of “Why me?” Lance Armstrong is a good example. When he was twenty-five, his career as a bike racer was “moving along a perfect arc of success,” with sponsorships, a large house on a lake, and his own powerboat and Jet Skis. Then he began to cough up blood. Soon one testicle swelled to the size of an orange. He found out that he had testicular cancer. The doctors gave him at best a 40 percent chance of surviving. He was diagnosed on a Wednesday, had his testicle removed on Thursday, masturbated into a cup on Saturday (because he would soon be sterile), started chemotherapy on Monday, and discovered on the next Thursday that the cancer had already spread to his lungs and brain. Every devastating day was followed by an even more terrible day. And Armstrong became angry. “I was fighting mad, swinging mad, mad in general, mad at being in a bed, mad at having bandages around my head, mad at the tubes that tied me down. So mad I was beside myself, so mad I almost began to cry.” … [pp 154-155]
… Lance Armstrong also suffered a bout of preparatory depression. “It’s all over. I’m sick, I’m never going to race again, and I’m going to lose everything.” His depression felt “as though all my blood started flowing in the wrong direction.”
Eventually, however, some grief-stricken individuals will arrive at a state of acceptance. As Kübler-Ross puts it, “Acceptance should not be mistake for a happy stage. It is almost devoid of feelings.” But it is the stage where the person is ready to move on…
Lance Armstrong accepted his cancer relatively quickly. He simply “decided not to be afraid.” Then he confronted his cancer. “Each time I was more fully diagnosed, I asked my doctors hard questions. What are my chances?” He also personalized the disease and made it his “enemy,” as though he were facing Hannibal. [In the surrounding passages, I am comparing Armstrong to Fabius, after the initial losses to Hannibal.] “It was me versus him or her or it — being the disease — so I absolutely hated him or her or it, and when the blood work came back, or the tumor markers cam back [saying] that I was getting better, I felt like I’m winning, the scoreboard says I’m winning.”… [p. 157]
My thoughts TODAY
Do I regret including Lance Armstrong in the book now?
Not really. The mistake was to include any living person. When drawing lessons from the life trajectories of people in the past, it is best to make sure that those lives are entirely, not partially, past. For human lives, while they unfold, have that way of surprising us (which is of course the point of the book).
So I had similar issues with Tiger Woods and Steve Jobs (though not with Amy Tan so far), who also appear in the book, and who also made startling news while the book was being printed.
The idea of including Armstrong predates the current controversy. It goes back to my reading — years and years ago, when I had not even heard rumors of his alleged doping — of his book, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. I then wrote the passage (which quotes mainly from that book) in 2008 or 2009, when the rumors were just that.
So he fits. Except that he now fits in more ways than one. And if I did my job well in the book, the reader, by the time he or she arrives at the passage, will have got that bigger point, and will still find Armstrong’s victory over cancer uplifting.
And, who knows, Armstrong may turn his life around a few more times yet. The Greeks called that peripateia. Turning things around — upwards and downwards — is what the people in my book do. As do its readers.