Roger Ebert, the 67-year-old movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, has not been able to speak in almost four years. He had several surgeries after doctors found cancer in his jaw and now uses sign language and text-to-speech software to help him communicate through machines.An article in Esquire reviews Ebert’s battle with cancer in heartbreaking detail. But writer Chris Jones also explains how Ebert’s words have grown more powerful and personal through his online journal, which he has been writing since 2008.
“It is saving me,” he told Esquire, through his speakers:
Reading it from its beginning is like watching an Aztec pyramid being built. At first, it’s just a vessel for him to apologise to his fans for not being downstate. The original entries are short updates about his life and health and a few of his heart’s wishes. Postcards and pebbles. They’re followed by a smattering of Welcomes to Cyberspace. But slowly the journal picks up steam, as Ebert’s strength and confidence and audience grow. You are the readers I have dreamed of, he writes. He is emboldened. He begins to write about more than movies; in fact, it sometimes seems as though he’d rather write about anything other than movies. The existence of an afterlife, the beauty of a full bookshelf, his liberalism and atheism and alcoholism, the health-care debate, Darwin, memories of departed friends and fights won and lost — more than five hundred thousand words of inner monologue have poured out of him, five hundred thousand words that probably wouldn’t exist had he kept his other voice. Now some of his entries have thousands of comments, each of which he vets personally and to which he will often respond. It has become his life’s work, building and maintaining this massive monument to written debate — argument is encouraged, so long as it’s civil — and he spends several hours each night reclined in his chair, tending to his online oasis by lamplight. Out there, his voice is still his voice — not a reasonable facsimile of it, but his.
Toward the end of the interview, Ebert’s eyes well up when he is asked about his former writing and review partner Gene Siskel, who died 11 years ago from a brain tumour:
“I’ve never said this before,” Ebert’s voice said, “but we were born to be Siskel and Ebert.” He thinks for a moment before he begins typing again. There’s a long pause before he hits the button. “I just miss the guy so much.”
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