Who said, referring to imprisonment, “
It's the boredom that kills you. You read until you're tired of that. You do crossword puzzles until you're tired of that. This is torture. This is mental torture.” Was it Phil Donahue, Sigmund Freud, Derek Humphry, Murad Kevorkian, or Ayn Rand?
You Don’t Know Jack has been a game-show title, computer game, 2006 comedy short, and the title of an Erin McCarthy novel. Use of jack in everyday parlance is often a play on words. Mostly commonplace, sometimes vulgar. The Oxford English Dictionary provides a tremendous amount of jack historic information; OED reports that, as a proper noun, jack is a familiar by-form of the name John, hence a generic proper name of any representative of the common people.
Released this year, You Don’t Know Jack; The Life and Deaths of Jack Kevorkian is a cleverly-titled, 134 minute HBO video about Dr. Jack Kevorkian, played by Al Pacino. It has won 2 Primetime Emmys and another 13 nominations. Not exactly a “biopic,” it presents the humanist who, convinced that "dying is not a crime," created a machine that allowed terminally-ill patients to end their own lives in a peaceful, humane manner. When Dr. Kevorkian was forced to defend in court both his philosophy and his practices, a media firestorm erupted over a patient's right to die. Academy-award winners Brenda Vaccaro and Susan Sarandon also star in the film, written by Adam Mazer. The dvd is in the Berkeley Public Library’s collection.
The Internet Movie Database provides the following plot summary: “Dr. Jack Kevorkian in the 1990s, when he defies Michigan law assisting the suicide of terminally-ill persons. Support comes from his sister, a lab tech, the Hemlock Society president, and an attorney. The child of survivors of the Armenian genocide interviews applicants; his sister video tapes them. He assembles a device allowing a person to initiate a three-chemical intravenous drip. The local D.A., the governor, and the Legislature respond. In court scenes, Kevorkian is sometimes antic. He's single-minded about giving dying individuals the right to determine how their lives will end. He wants the Supreme Court to rule. He picks a fight he can't win: is it hubris or heroism?”
Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a retired pathologist, since 1987 had been promoting help for desperate people who wanted to end their lives and whom he believed had the right to die. His first appearance before the American TV public, on April 26, 1990 is not mentioned in the film. I clearly recall Kevorkian up on the studio stage, earnestly presenting his ideas and technique. Meanwhile, Roman Catholic, Notre Dame graduate, talk-show host Phil Donahue stirred up the audience. Suicide machine and Dr. Death were introduced into the vocabularies of generations of unthinking people.
Kevorkian called that machine The Thanatron -- death machine, in Greek. The mercitron machine, as it is called in the film, was devised so that the patient could initiate the release of the mechanism, and then die of a heart attack while asleep. He called it "dignified, humane and painless…” . It is a different concept from physician-assisted suicide.
Because I am a citizen concerned about both taxpayer costs of prisons and about the death-sentence, I had already read Dr. Kevorkian’s views on a different, albeit kindred, subject. Much earlier, he had challenged the system on two issues. He suggested that healthy prisoners condemned to death who willingly choose to donate their bodies should be allowed to do so. And he proposed that the lethal injection be administered by a physician. His main reasons related to physicians’ exemption from administering the death sentence, and the procedures having been botched when administered by “technicans.” Kevorkian again referred to this radical concept in the first part of his 1991 book, Prescription — Medicide; the Goodness of Planned Death. (The National Library of Medicine accesses it under medical ethics, euthanasia, and the right to die.)
Murad Kevorkian was born in Michigan in 1928 to Armenian immigrants . He became a pathologist, right-to-die activist, artist and musician. He has marketed limited quantities of his artwork to the public to pay his expenses. Today he is best-known for publicly championing a terminal patient's right to die via physician-assisted suicide.
He had started advertising in 1987 in Detroit newspapers as a physician consultant for "death counseling;" in 1991, the State of Michigan revoked his medical license. According to his then-attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, between 1990 and 1998, Kevorkian assisted in the deaths of 130 terminally ill people. Convicted in Michigan in 1999 of second degree murder, he served 8 years of a 10-25 year prison sentence and was paroled in 2007 on condition that he not offer suicide advice to anyone.
There have been two Frontline PBS-TV productions about physician-assisted suicide. The Kevorkian Verdict (transcript) show #1416 aired on May 14, 1996. On that day in Michigan another jury returned its verdict on Dr. Jack Kevorkian, deciding whether he had committed a criminal act or performed an act of mercy. His quest to establish the right of a physician to assist in the death of his patients was also controversial.
In the previous six years, Dr. Kevorkian had been charged with murder three times. Each jury found him not guilty. This time Kevorkian was on trial for one of his early and most sharply debated cases, the double suicide of two women almost five years earlier. Frontline’s narrator commented, “In seeming desperation, Michigan prosecutors had built their final case against Jack Kevorkian on a legal oddity. The temporary Michigan statute on assisted suicide had expired, but Kevorkian was being tried anyway, under an unusual court ruling that unwritten "common law" made it a crime to help anyone commit suicide…Technically, the case would hinge on Kevorkian's motive. Was he guilty because he intended to help his patients commit suicide? Or was he not guilty because he only intended to end their pain and suffering?”
During the trial, the prosecution called expert medical witnesses who testified that Kevorkian had made a serious mistake, that one of the patients’ real problem was psychological, a clinical depression for which she never received adequate treatment. Following Dr. Kevorkian’s appearance on 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace, specific jury instructions for first-degree murder, not his original charge of assisted suicide, were issued. He was not allowed any witnesses.
I believe that Jack Kevorkian’s personal characteristics as well as his nonconformist ideas influenced his harsh punishment. An adult who lives alone, having apparently never married or had children, with no family present, with an ethnic surname (“What kind of a name is that?”), is too often perceived as deviant. His ideas and actions continue to threaten many members of the medical and legal establishments. Assisted suicide, physician assisted suicide, the right to die, euthanasia, even use of body parts are concepts that are off limits for most general discussion.
In 2002, Jack Kevorkian was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Chronological media list:
Kevorkian, Jack. Prescription—Medicide: The Goodness of Planned Death. 1991.
“The Kevorkian Verdict (transcript)” Frontline PBS-TV production #1416, aired on May 14, 1996. Written, produced, directed by Michael Kirk and Michael Sullivan.
| Right to Exit. The Mock Trial of Dr. Kevorkian. 2001. 53min. DVD |
Directed and produced by Anna Terean. The first documentary produced about Dr. Jack Kevorkian since a Michigan court convicted him of murder for helping a terminally ill patient end his life. Produced by United AnnTer Films. Distributors worldwide (2009): 8 Star Entertainment; Indie-Pictures. It is not possible to borrow this from a public library in Alameda County.
DeMarco, Donald. Architects of The Culture of Death. 2004. Part 7, The death peddlers: Derek Humphry, Jack Kevorkian, Peter Singer.
Brown, David Jay. Mavericks of Medicine; Contemplating the Future of Medicine with Andrew Weil, Jack Kevorkian, Bernie Siegel, Ray Kurzweil, and Others. Conversations on the Frontiers of Medical Research. 2006.
Nichol, Neal and Harry Wylie. Between the Dying and the Dead; Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s Life and the Battle to Legalize Euthanasia. 2006. (You Don’t Know Jack is based in part on this.)
Brown, David Brown. “Is it time to bring back 'old age' as a cause of death?” Washington Post, September 17, 2010.
“The Suicide Tourist” Frontline PBS-TV production aired June 22, 2010. About struggling to live and deciding when to die, it asked: Is this a choice everyone should have?
You Don’t Know Jack; The Life and Deaths of Jack Kevorkian. 2010. 134 minute HBO video about Jack Kevorkian, played by Al Pacino.
Throughout December 2010, a bulletin board display of some of Bulbul’s very contemporary cartoons and comic strips that focus on senior citizens’ interests can be viewed at the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst, corner of MLK. AC bus #25 stops at the Center. (For further information, email email@example.com)
Nicole Hollander’s blog is Badgirlchats.com, and her new book is out. It’s The Sylvia Chronicles: 30 Years of Graphic Misbehavior from Reagan to Obama.
The Medicare Open Enrollment Period this year will run from November 15th through December 31st.
Check out "The Older Side of Hollywood Gets Its Due," by Michael Cieply (New York Times, Nov. 15, 2010), who reports the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Governors Awards to some old fellers -- Robert De Niro is 67! Clint Eastwood is 80! Eli Wallach at 95… Who knew!
Wallach’s spouse, actor Anne Jackson, is 84.
Elder Portrait Exhibit: Friday, December 3rd at 5:30 PM. Studio One Art Center, 45th and Shafter Streets, Oakland, CA. The show runs from December 3rd to January 3rd. All Welcome. Wheelchair Accessible. Free. “20 fascinating elders from the Bay Area will be featured in “Elders in Our Midst”, the latest in a series of portraits by acclaimed Berkeley painter, Phoebe Ackley.”
Check out the November issue of the California Senior Legislature’s online newsletter. Listed are numerous legislative proposals concerned with (among others) elder abuse prevention, identify theft fines, elder abuse fines, hearing aid availability and cost, property tax exemptions, and disasteremergency transportation for disabled and senior citizens. New federal proposals include Medicare coverage of dental care and hearing and visual aids, public housing for senior veterans (requires preference for public housing be given to eligible seniors who are honorably discharged veterans), and Social Security and Medicare Sustainable Program costs.
Helen Rippier Wheeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
No email attachments; use “Senior Power” for subject.