Dressing doctor-assisted suicide up as a “work of art”

By Dave Andrusko

Last October, Gov Jerry Brown signed California's assisted suicide bill. It went into effect in June.

Last October, Gov Jerry Brown signed California’s assisted suicide bill. It went into effect in June.

I do not know Betsy Davis. I know only that she was one of the first people to die, courtesy of California’s new assisted suicide law, and that her death was a kind of command performance that her friends and sister were both audience and once-removed participants.

“What Betsy did gave her the most beautiful death that any person could ever wish for,” extolled Niels Alpert [a cinematographer friend from New York City]. “By taking charge, she turned her departure into a work of art,” he told the Associated Press’s Julie Watson.

Davis, a 41-year-old artist, suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). Her elaborately planned out death took place the weekend of July 23-24, about a month after the California law went into effect. “More than 30 people came to the party at a home with a wraparound porch in the picturesque Southern California mountain town of Ojai, flying in from New York, Chicago and across California,” Watson explained.

Hilarity was the order of the day, mixed “with the knowledge of what was coming,” as Albert explained euphemistically. The AP reported

One woman brought a cello. A man played a harmonica. There were cocktails, pizza from her favorite local joint, and a screening in her room of one of her favorite movies, “The Dance of Reality,” based on the life of a Chilean film director.

As the weekend drew to a close, her friends kissed her goodbye, gathered for a photo and left, and Davis was wheeled out to a canopy bed on a hillside, where she took a combination of morphine, pentobarbital and chloral hydrate prescribed by her doctor.

Just a couple of thoughts. First, the following is, I gather, supposed to persuade the reader that Davis’ death was a kind of communal celebration that itself ought to be celebrated:

At one point, she invited friends to her room to try on the clothes she had picked out for them. They modeled the outfits to laughter. Guests were also invited to take a “Betsy souvenir” — a painting, beauty product or other memento. Her sister had placed sticky notes on the items, explaining each one’s significance.

Personally, I find that creepy and bizarre.

Second, I’ve never seen “The Dance of Reality” by Chilean film director Alejandro Jodorowsky. Reading some notes (intended to guide parents whether to allow their children to see the film), we see one of her favorite films is drenched in nudity, sexual perversion, an attempted assassination, a man asking another man to bury him alive, a man who commits suicide by shooting himself in the stomach, and a man who is tortured in almost unimaginatively brutal manner.

Somehow that colors how I see Albert’s laudatory description: “By taking charge, she turned her departure into a work of art.”

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