Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The underground of "assisted" death

Documentarian Jon Ronson started his documentary as someone sympathetic to "assisted suicide" but found his subject not what he expected to find. Ronson followed the Reverend George Exoo and the experience challenged his beliefs.

Still, my own doubts had been creeping in. For instance, I'd noticed that very few of Exoo's clients were terminally ill. Most were depressed or suffering from psychosomatic diseases. When I asked him about his client list he said, "Many of my colleagues will avoid such persons like the plague but I feel a very strong identity with the story of the good samaritan. I stop while others walk by and ignore their pleas."

Ronson had the opportunity to interview Exoo's successor, "Susan," who will carry on after Exoo kills himself.

Susan lived alone, a middle-aged lady with a collection of plastic lizards. While we waited I asked her how they met.

"I was bitten by a brown recluse spider in 1993," she replied. "It was so painful I wanted to die."

She said she called the official right-to-die groups, "but they wouldn't help me."

"Because you weren't terminally ill?"

"Yeah, they rejected me," she said. "But then somebody said, 'You might want to call George.' Kind of like under the counter."

Susan said she would have killed herself with Exoo's help - he was perfectly willing - but she couldn't find anyone to look after her pet snake. Eventually, they got talking. If she wasn't going to be his client, perhaps she should be his assistant.

...We went for lunch. Susan had told me that morning that her multiple chemical sensitivities (triggered by the 1993 spider bite) were so severe there was only one local restaurant she could eat in where the atmosphere did not set off her symptoms. But we ate in another restaurant - an all-you-can-eat buffet - and she was fine. She ate all she could. I began to see Susan as living proof that Exoo really shouldn't help people like Susan kill themselves.

Unlike Exoo, "Susan" plans on making a profit from participating in the death of others.

"I see this as a business," she said. "George sees it as a calling. There's a big difference there. For me it's no cash, no help." She said her price was approximately $7,000.

"You're bound to get it wrong, aren't you?" I said. "And help someone who shouldn't be helped."

Susan shrugged. "Probably, at some point, yes," she said.

She said Exoo's worst crime was his financial imprudence: that he'll help people who can't afford to pay.

"George will get to a point where he'll run out of money," she said. "He won't scale down the expensive cuts of meats every night. He would rather kill himself than economise."

"He seems quite keen on killing himself," I said.

"I think he'll do it soon," said Susan. "And that's why I've been pressing him to give me a list of his current clients."