“Grace, strength, and perseverance shine through in this snapshot of a human family dealing with the crazy adversities life throws at us.”
- Willie Nelson
By John Lavitt
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 4/5/20 – In an age of social media cynicism, legendary Rolling Stone journalist Mikal Gilmore and his wife, Elaine Schock, chief publicist for Willie Nelson, reveal a whole new side of Facebook, and, perhaps, the true potential of this new form of virtual community. In Stay With Me, a powerful memoir about Mikal’s battle for his life after being diagnosed in 2015 with HPV tongue and throat cancer, the couple takes the reader on a strikingly honest and resonant healing journey that played out in a very public forum. Although I had the privilege of sharing this journey secondhand as a Facebook friend of the couple, it is a much deeper encounter to read this collection of heartrending Facebook posts in book form. As the loving couple struggle through an exhausting battle for survival, visceral access is given that needs to be experienced and then celebrated.
Before delving into the disease, let’s take a moment to talk about the man. Mikal Gilmore is a rare example of a person relevant to the greater culture for two significant reasons. First, Mikal is the brother of Gary Gilmore, a convicted murderer who demanded his sentence be carried out after the United States Supreme Court upheld new state laws legalizing the death penalty. Executed by a Utah state firing squad in 1977, he was the first person in almost ten years to be put to death legally in the United States. Famously written about by Norman Mailer in The Executioner’s Song (1979), a Pulitzer Prize-winning true crime novel, Gary Gilmore is also the subject of his brother Mikal’s intensely personal family memoir, Shot in the Heart.
In 2001, Shot in the Heart became an HBO film directed by Agnieszka Holland, starring Giovanni Ribisi as Mikal, Elias Koteas as Gary, and Sam Shepard as the violent patriarch of the family. Beyond being the brother of a famous killer, Mikal also is a senior contributing editor at Rolling Stone. At the time of his HPV diagnosis, there is a good argument to be made that Mikal was the most significant American writer about popular music. Indeed, from his writings that help define the meaning of the 1960s to his moving and resonant obituaries of Aretha Franklin and Leonard Cohen, Mikal Gilmore is an American treasure of recording the history of our popular culture. Such a treasure was at risk of being buried forever when he received his diagnosis.
Surprisingly not well-known, human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection. HPV infection occurs when the virus infects the human body, usually through a cut or an abrasion. Transferred almost exclusively by skin-to-skin contact, genital HPV infections are mainly contracted through sexual intercourse. In contrast to genital HPV, oral HPV spreads mostly through oral sex and mouth-to-mouth contact. Along with the herpes simplex virus, oral HPV can be an awful consequence of even the most innocent kiss.
Often much harder to discover than tobacco-related cancers, the symptoms of HPV oral cancers are not always apparent to the patient or even to a medical professional. A deadly passenger in the mouth, the disease is very subtle because it painlessly sneaks up on the individual. When Mikal was diagnosed, the cancer had already progressed to Stage 4, and his prognosis was grim. Supporting her husband with passion and focus, Elaine dove into research about HPV-related cancer, its history, and its treatments. As the founder of Schock Ink and a top public relations professional in the music industry, Elaine knows how to get things done. Although she learned what could be done medically and how to support Mikal, she was frustrated by the lack of support groups. Feeling alone and shutoff, she told Mikal she wanted to reach out to their Facebook community for support.
Since the beginning of the social networking platform, Mikal and Elaine had put together a large and responsive community of friends, colleagues, and fans of their work. When Elaine talked to Mikal about taking this step, he was initially reluctant to share the news with anyone outside their immediate family. Elaine had two strong reasons to believe otherwise, and Mikal could not argue with her insight. First, the threat of HPV cancer felt like a dirty little secret. Although HPV was present in the general population in shockingly large numbers, it often was kept hidden due to the shame associated with a disease born of sexual activity. By going public, Elaine believed they could save lived.
Second, Elaine knew they would need more support than the people present in their day-to-day real world lives would be able to provide. It would be too much to ask their kids and their friends to take on this burden. Through Facebook, however, she had a sense they would find what they needed. With Mikal in agreement, in October 2015, they took a courageous step as a couple and announced his illness on Facebook. They promised to record the progress of the treatment and how it affected them personally. Although the chemotherapy left him a physical wreck, Mikal pledged to do his best to soldier onward with his writing.
During this time of treatment, Elaine took care of her beloved husband while detailing the emotional challenges and the odd, beautiful moment of rare congruence in her postings. As Elaine writes at the beginning of the book, “This is an honest account of living through that experience. We did our best to face each day with grace. We meant it when we said, ‘Till death us do part,’ but sometimes, dealing with cancer wasn’t the hardest part.”
Indeed, the healing journey shared by Elaine and Mikal in Stay With Me is a multi-dimensional delving into both light and darkness. There are moments when Mikal does not want to go on, and Elaine drives him forward to the next treatment, not allowing her husband to give in to a torrent of side effects. Funny and heartbreaking, both Elaine and Mikal highlight the darkness with musings about music and the musicians they love. At times, it feels like their aesthetic appreciation of such artistry is what carries them from one day to the next. Thus, the strange nature of healing and recovery is revealed. You never quite know what is going to save you when the darkest hour falls.
As Mikal writes in the introduction, “What developed was our public dialogue about the seasons of dying, recovery, and uncertain days ahead. This turned me into a writer again, and it awakened Elaine’s innate writing gifts as well. All of this—the medical treatment and our ongoing record of it—depended on her incentive, dependability, and candor. Elaine led the way.”
Even in his darkest moments, Mikal never turns away from his love of Elaine. Maybe he turns away from himself, giving up on a future as side effects rage, but Elaine remains like a life preserver, reaching out to him. Ultimately, Stay With Me is a tale of their love and belief in each other. Faced with the hardest of battles, they use a public medium as a forum to express their dedication and their struggles, their weakness and their strength. Such openness takes the book to the next level of beauty and value.
Writing this review in quarantine during the worldwide Coronavirus pandemic, I realize now the significance of Elaine and Mikal’s achievement. In dark times like these, if you want to reaffirm the meaning of life, the rare ability of the homo sapiens to rise above and navigate the worst, then read this book. Beyond showing the value of social networking and helping to redeem a little a platform like Facebook, Mikal Gilmore and Elaine Schock provide a rare service in Stay With Me. They allow us a profound and intimate glimpse into a couple’s struggle to maintain life and love in the face of a deadly disease. Opening a door, they let you inside, and you will be truly grateful for such a gift.