HBO’s Airs Documentary Tonight, “How to Die in Oregon”

By Dave Andrusko

Since I was neither at this year’s Sundance Film Festival nor shown an advanced copy, my comments about “How to Die in Oregon”—which will air tonight on HBO—are based on the official website, HBO’s pre-publicity, and an assortment of news stories.

While the New York Times review would have us believe this is a “balanced” presentation of the debate over assisted suicide (the director, Peter Richardson, “was careful to include in his film the viewpoints of doctors opposed to assisted suicide”), clearly it is nothing of the sort. This four-years-in-the making documentary is (as we learn on the HBO website) “a powerful, compassionate exploration of Oregon’s historic and controversial Death with Dignity Act.”

You read the stories and the reporters are overwhelmed by the “dignity” and “courage” of those who’ve chosen to have their deaths “assisted.” I am not about to make sweeping judgments on something I haven’t even seen, but the hints buried in all the congratulatory prose are very illuminating and ought to give one pause.

For example, the documentary begins “with an ailing and aged man, Roger, who is as content and eager as he has been in years,” according to the Montreal Gazette. In the HBO clip we hear a woman asking Roger “what will this medication do?” to which Roger eagerly replies, “It will kill me and make me happy.”

Bill Brownstein of the Gazette continues: “Roger is asked if he has any final words. He does: ‘Thank you for bringing me here. And thank the wisdom of the state of Oregon for allowing me to do myself in.’ With that, he gulps his last drink, announces to those present that ‘it was easy,” slips into a coma and dies minutes later.’” In the first few minutes you watch a man die before your very eyes.

According to the New York Times,  Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films, said, “Even half her staff — and this is not a crew unaccustomed to difficult topics — refused to watch the whole film.” In addition, “the movie’s experienced publicity team said it had never witnessed such universal can’t-cope-with-that rejection from members of the media at Sundance, who left some empty seats at the screening.” This, as you would expect, Richardson and others take as a tribute to their own courage.

Cody Curtis is obviously not only a very sympathetic character but also the emotional centerpiece of the documentary whose own death is the narrative thread that runs through “How to Die in Oregon.” Mrs. Curtis, a 54-year-old mother of two, endures many painful symptoms stemming from recurrent cancer of the liver.

Once she has told her husband, “I don’t ever want to have another night like that,”  Mrs. Curtis prepares herself and her family for the time she will take a lethal dosage of Seconal. The comments of her son in the Times article are most revealing.

“Thomas Curtis, 30, said on Sunday that he was extremely reluctant to share his mother’s remaining time with Mr. Richardson’s camera,” writes Brooks Barnes.

“’In the beginning none of us wanted to do it except Mom,’ he said in an interview. ‘Taking her own life was a very difficult decision for her, but she felt strongly that others should have the same choice. For her, it wasn’t about dying but living with dignity and not being a burden to her family.’” (my emphasis)

The other major storyline is Nancy Niedzielski who “rallies voters [in Washington state] to approve a law similar to Oregon’s, fulfilling a promise made to her dying husband.” There is a [hopeful?] hint that Vermont will be the next state to fall.

The one example that might give pause to those not already wholly committed to legalizing assisted suicide is a former broadcaster who “opts to end his life rather than remove the larynx that made his career, straddling the line between self-definition and vanity,” writes Sam Adams. However Adams manages to find the right moral:

“But his decision challenges ingrained assumptions about what makes life worth living.”

Ah, yes, “ingrained assumptions,” such as you don’t kill yourself because you no longer have a booming voice.

“How to Die in Oregon” is on tonight. You can get a preview by going here.

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