Thursday, March 1, 2012

Derek Humphry's "Final Exit": A Modest Review of Right-to-Die Agitprop

Is the super-controversial 1991 tome a solid argument in favor of euthanasia, or a masterpiece of unintentional comedy?


Recently, my home state of Georgia knocked down a law forbidding physician-assisted suicide, on, of all things, free speech grounds. That, in turn got me thinking about that dapper Jack Kevorkian chap, who bought the farm himself last year. For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Kevorkian, he’s this guy that assisted in the suicides of well over 100 people, before being charged with the second degree murder of ALS-sufferer Thomas Youk (no, not that guy from Radiohead) and getting sent up the river until 2007. (And for the particularly morbid readers out there, here’s a link to the video showing Kevorkian giving Youk his lethal fix. Sickos be warned - the thing more closely resembles a C-SPAN interstitial than anything you‘d see in an “August Underground” movie.)

I always figured that the national right-to-die debate was sparked off by Kevorkian coming into vogue, but I was pretty surprised to find out that the movement didn’t really pick up steam until 1991, when some guy named Derek Humphry published a book called “Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying.”

As the title implies, it’s a book advocating right-to-die legislation. Granted, that’s a pretty controversial topic in and of itself, but what really made Humphry’s magnum opus (yeah, all 180 some odd pages of it) such a popular tome was that it actually showed people how to off themselves…as in, the guy gives you exact dosage estimates and everything. I suppose the only way the thing could have been more controversial would have been if the thing came bundled with a plastic bag, a helium tank and a sack of rubber bands (which, wouldn’t you know it, is an idea that actually has been picked up by some crazy Scandanavian entrepreneurs over in Euope. I’d make a crack about their business making a killing, but…eh.)

Humphry’s book was controversial, no doubt, but as the other Eazy E once declared, “controversy creates cash.” The title spent several weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List, and according to the author, the dude made an easy one mil off the project. And now, I reckon, would be the most appropriate time to drop that line about “making a killing” of one’s entrepreneurial fruits.

Despite the fact that college students are at an elevated risk for suicidal behavior compared to the general public, I had no trouble locating a 2002 copy of the book at my campus library. I guess, at some point, some kid in Media Studies might have to do a book report on literary controversies, and I suppose the hoopla and hullabaloo surrounding a “how to kill yourself” pamphlet is one of the easier case studies out there. That, or it really is a testament to the staying power of Humphry’s tract…or maybe not so much, once you peel away the controversy and analyze it objectively.

So, what exactly will you find in “Final Exit?” You might be tempted to pick it up at the local book store, but I figured I’d save you the time and just highlight some of the finer points of the text. The thing can easily be finished off in two or so nights of reading, so anybody willing to drop a full $15 USD on this thing is…well, either a very, very slow reader or someone that really, really wants to conduct an, ahem, home experiment at some point in the not-too-distant future. So, yeah, unless you have the comprehension speed of an engine-less Yugo or a profound interest in fulfilling the Freudian destrudo, I wouldn’t advise a purchase here.

Before the proper book kicks off, we get a couple of quotes from guys like Asimov and Keats (who was basically the My Chemical Romance of his day, I imagine). One of the first things you’ll notice about the author is that his two areas of expertise appear to be racial profiling cases and euthanasia advocacy, which, for all we know, really could be the social science equivalent of getting one’s peanut butter in one’s chocolate. The table of contents spoils the shit out of the rest of the book, so you will know EXACTLY what you’re getting into just a few pages in. And prepare to chuckle a plenty when you stumble across Humphry’s introduction (pending you’re reading the third edition, anyway), in which he apologizes for not initially printing the text of the book in the first two editions in a size that’s more readable for his target audience of half-blind, suicidal octogenarians.

"Final Exit" author Derek Humphry, seen here most likely pondering whether it's possible to kill yourself with a common aglet.


Humphry reminds us that, in the U.S., there’s about 31,000 successful suicides committed annually. Later in the book, he says that people are so good at covering their tracks that he estimates the real number of annual suicides to float anywhere between 62,000 to 93,000 instances. He then tells us that, contrary to what the TV tells us, it’s actually fairly hard for a human being to just keel over - an ex-Los Angeles Times reporter, he reminds us of this time he saw he dude get shot in the head and complain about it while wailing in the streets before dying of blood loss a couple of minutes later. I guess somebody sent the author a message that non-elderly, non-terminally ill people were fans of his, because he directly addresses allegations that suicidal youth are using his tract as a manual for self-elimination - by saying “if this means that those individuals bent on suicide for psychological reasons dies in a less violent and shocking way than hitherto, then I can live with that.” In other words, “damn, this Humphry dude is the realest.”

Humphry then does a hard sell for his right-to-die organization, the Hemlock Society (get used to that, because he’s going to shill the hell out of it for the next 200 pages.) He brings up America’s “denial of death syndrome” - which doesn’t sound anything at all like the “invincible American” syndrome I described a few months earlier - before saying that, at book signings, the most common praise he receives from readers (whom he says are mostly middle-aged, by the way) is that the book gives them “the best insurance” imaginable against what he considers “a very bad death.” I’m guessing my preferred exit of Chunky Monkey overdose and/or asphyxiation at the bottom of a topless cheerleader pyramid aren’t the kind this Humphry guy’s talking about, but I could be wrong. 

To begin the book (as in, the part were Roman numerals are replaced by more Anglican looking ones), Humphry praises Kevorkian and Timothy Quill (who was sort of like the Pearl Jam to Jack’s assisted-suicide Nirvana) while slamming the National Right to Life Committee for being a bunch of jerks. And yes, I am just as surprised as you that the guy in favor of euthanasia is likewise pro-abortion. Shocking, that revelation is.

Humphry takes time out to plug his other organization, which is called ERGO! In case you’re wondering, that stands for…well, I’ll just send you the link, and you can find out on your own terms.

Things take a turn from the mildly uncomfortable to the very uncomfortable when Humphry talks about helping his wife commit suicide several decades ago. And things get super-duper uncomfortable later on in the book, when he goes into the case specifics of his wife’s “final exit” (Spoiler: not only can people in the throes of death snore, yawn and say monosyllabic things, they also have the ability to projectile vomit on you.)

So, according to Humps, there are four kinds of “exiting,” which includes passive euthanasia (the act of giving suicidal people access to machines that they have to turn on themselves to inject lethal doses into their veins - which is mostly super-duper-illegal in the States) and active euthanasia (in which the doctor injects he or she that wishes to die with his or her own hand. Not only is this super-duper-illegal in the U.S., if you do it - as our good friend Jackie did - odds are, you’ll be facing a murder rap shortly thereafter.)

The other two, which make up the locus of the book, are assisted suicide (when doctors mix up lethal cocktails for patients to drink) and “self-deliverance,” which is when individuals just up and kill themselves old-school style. Humps notes that while that first one was currently legal in just one state at the time of the book’s third edition printing, he reassures us that, technically, you can commit suicide anywhere you want at any time in the U.S., without any real penalties pending you survive. In fact, he said that, legally, if one has a note present at the time of one’s attempt that clearly states that he or she doesn’t want to be “rescued,” that person has the legal groundwork to sue the dog shit out of paramedics on the grounds of battery. And if that doesn’t sound like something out of a Chuck Palahniuk novel, I don’t know what does.

From there, the author lays out a few ground rules for us. First, he advises that everybody has both a living will and this thing called a “Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care,” presumably just because it sounds all cool and daunting and stuff. He also advises that would-be “self-deliverers” have friends and family present at the time of their “exiting” (no, really), and that they shouldn’t say anything to the police that would lead them to think that a potential suicide just happened (no, really, again). Then comes the most amazing recurring thematic of the book, the absolute insistence of the author that self-destroyers leave a copy of “Final Exit” for officials to find next to their corpse. You think I’m joshing you when I say the guy brings this up at least TWENTY times in the book, but I shit you not, he is THAT adamant that in death, we all make it a conscious effort to promote his paperback manifestos and diatribes. 

Umm...don't try this at home, kids.

Of course, you’ll learn a few nuggets of wisdom that you never knew prior to picking up the book, as well. I, for one, had no idea that both Alan Turing and the guy that invented Nylon both offed themselves with potassium cyanide, nor was I aware that having a full stomach could potentially negate the effects of hydrogen cyanide (so if you’re ever in line for the gas chamber, it’s probably a good idea to eat every last thing the guards offer you before walking the mile.)

The anecdotal stuff you’ll find in the book almost makes it worth picking up. Like I said, “almost.” Here’s the best bits of data and expert advice from the third edition:

  •  Hey, you know that “air injection” method you’ve probably seen on TV a couple of times? As it turns out, that’s complete and utter bull shit, since to kill oneself in such a manner, the person in question would have to inject a positively massive quantity of oxygen into one’s veins, in roughly the same amount of time it takes The Flash to sneeze.
  • Apparently, drowning oneself in a cold lake is more effective, since the hypothermia shuts down one’s system quicker. Also, one of the more popular suicide methods in Japan involves walking up a mountain, getting practically naked, and waiting to frost over or for a Yeti to  saunter by and eat you.
  • Most life insurance policies have a built in stipulation that says that if  you die via suicide within two years of signing the policy, the entire thing is negated. Not surprisingly, the author offers up some straight up sagacity to counter this: just wait two years and one day to do the deed, instead.

Like I said, this is all some fascinating and morosely humorous stuff - there’s simply no way this guy could have written the line where he encourages people that kill themselves in hotel rooms to leave generous tips before doing themselves in without a firm grin on his face. The problem is, once he actually starts talking about the specifics of suicide, things take a plunge from darkly comedic to just plain creepy - rest assured, after flipping though this thing, you will NEVER be able to look at a helium tank, a Ziploc bag, or people holding their breath the same way again.

Unless you really want to get into the specific of how many teaspoons of horse tranquilizer you’ll need in conjunction with how many ounces of vodka you’ll need to get yourself off the mortal coil, there isn’t much to talk about regarding the rest of the book. Sure, there are a few glimmers of interest when Humps talks about suicide via laced Jell-O and, if you can believe it, suppositories, but if you REALLY think combing over a replica of a living will template is exhilarating fare you…are really not my target audience, to be honest.

As far as unintentional comedy goes, this one has some real winners throughout. I really liked the passage where the author explains that, no matter how much we rationalize it, U.S. law makes it sort of illegal for people to comply with our death wishes - or as he so eloquently puts it, “you can’t ask to be killed” in the U.S. of A.

And then, there’s the closing line of the book, which, to Humphry’s credit, might just be one of the greatest concluding quips ever. His farewell to the reader of “Final Exit?” Well, shit, how else could he have ended it, other than advising readers to  “enjoy the rest of your life!”

Oh, Humphry, you assisted-suicide loving jokester, you

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