The Book Club

Is Assisted Suicide a Legitimate Way To Die?

Dear Jim,

Where did you get the idea that I’ve “suffered nothing like the syndromes Solomon describes”? Louis MacNeice once wrote that the poet is a specialist in something (language) that everyone does. The depressive is a specialist in a kind of suffering that everyone has–or at least has a kernel of. Everyone will find a piece of himself in Solomon’s account, even if he has been spared the experience of watching that kernel blossom into a monstrous and strangling plant.

At some point, though, there is a quantum leap. Solomon recalls crying so much his face became chapped. To people who haven’t lived it, this big-d Depression is probably as unknowable as an acid trip or hand-to-hand combat. The line between depression and Depression is loss of control. Any person can feel really, really sad–as sad, worthless, and torpid as Solomon. But not as desperate. To the non-depressed, consolations/resolutions like There will be other girlfriends or I really ought to cut down on my drinking remain accessible and meaningful.

I once read an article by a Delta bluesman who talked about upper-middle-class whites who love the Blues without really knowing what the Blues are. “Their idea of a Blues song,” he said (and I paraphrase), “is ‘Woke-up-this-mornin’-felt-bad-so-I-gotta-get-outta-town-and-find-me-a-new-job-and-a-new-woman.’ That’s not the Blues. The Blues is not about options.” Nor is Depression. Depression feels unfixable, and it feels like forever.

Let’s talk about Solomon’s frankness. Revealing one’s bisexuality takes little courage for someone of his generation, particularly in the Ivy League/literary milieu he inhabits. His attempt to contract AIDS, as you mention, is memorable and bizarre (OK, insane), but we can place it under the rubric of passive suicidality. This seeking after experiences, states, and situations to match one’s self-image is much more common in day-to-day, non-depressed life than we think. Revealing his tendency to violence–he quite recently trashed a girlfriend’s apartment and broke a boyfriend’s face–is a more genuinely humiliating matter.

But these pale next to Solomon’s account of his mother’s death, which is one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever read in a memoir. In the book’s first pages, he tells us that his mother’s death occasioned his first depressive episode. This rings like self-pity until, almost 300 pages in, we find out how she died. Diagnosed with a serious cancer, she committed suicide with an overdose of Seconal while her family watched. (Let me add in passing that this is where your curiosity about how Solomon gathered his material rose most readily to mind; I suspect the proceedings were tape-recorded.)

In the passages on his mother’s death, we are clearly reading the fruits of psychotherapy. Solomon has come close to “solving” his depression. Here’s how I read it: Solomon has trouble forming relationships. (Smashed glass and broken jawbones don’t exactly recommend one to future partners.) The one relationship that has been like a rock to him is that with both his parents. His mother is his consolation in everything–work, love, making sense of life. He’s surely not immune to the usual Oedipal conflicts, and now, at the very worst moment–around age 30, when he’s a full-formed man but still has the youthful passions–he gets to join her in an act of unthinkable intimacy: to become her ally in her death. How could it but become the defining experience of his life?

I don’t care how sick she was–or how willingly she died. If Freud is right about the repetition-compulsion (and he is), then every road to self-fulfillment for Solomon thenceforth led through the gates of death. That this is true for everyone involved becomes clear when Solomon recounts the eerie moment, a few weeks after his mother’s death, when he and his father fought over the remaining Seconal.

Solomon takes consolation from the philosopher Ronald Dworkin: “Death has dominion,” says Dworkin, “because it is not only the start of nothing but the end of everything, and how we think and talk about dying–the emphasis we put on dying with ‘dignity’–shows how important it is that life ends appropriately, that death keeps faith with the way we have lived.” What Promethean hubris. What delusions of existential grandeur. Why does Solomon defer to Dworkin here, when it is he who has the rare expertise in this brand-new kind of guilt?

Solomon shows bravery and rigor in digging down to these roots. “Assisted suicide is a legitimate way to die,” he writes. “At its best it is full of dignity, but it is still suicide, and suicide is in general the saddest thing in the world. Insofar as you assist in it, it is still a kind of murder, and murder is not easy to live with.” But even that is too consolatory. This account convinces me Solomon is wrong to call assisted suicide “a legitimate way to die.” Legitimate for the person dying, maybe, but the evidence of this book is that it’s not emotionally survivable for the accomplices.