Friday, September 18, 2009

Arizona Daily Star Romanticizes the Suicide of a Disabled Woman in a "Tribute"

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Well, now that National Suicide Prevention Week is over, I guess the field is wide-open when it comes to romanticizing the suicides of people with disabilities in the popular press. Scary thought.

Just when I get to the point where I think I've seen everything in terms of sensationalized coverage that condones and sympathizes with the suicides of people with disabilities, something new comes along that shows me we haven't hit bottom yet. That "yet" is a scary thought, too.

Just today, the Arizona Daily Star published "Helping others lightened the darkness in nurse/counselor's life," part of a series titled "Life Stories." The series "chronicles the lives of recently deceased Tusconans." Here are the first few paragraphs about Shari Hope Kelly:
There's no telling how many souls Shari Hope Kelly escorted into the world during her decades as a labor and delivery nurse.

Nor can one quantify the innumerable psyches she soothed as a rape crisis counselor and an instructor in social science at Pima Community College.

And Kelly treated herself as compassionately as she did all others. She spent years thoughtfully formulating a plan. She long suspected the day would come when the physical pain of her disability and the emotional anguish over the abuses she suffered in childhood would outweigh her enjoyment of life.

Kelly wrote long letters to family and friends. She called people she knew to tell them how much they meant to her. She got the minutiae of her life in order. And she found a loving home for her service dog, John Denver, and her eight rescue cats. Only then did she release her spirit from her damaged body and troubled mind in an act she considered euthanasia. Kelly died at her own hand Aug. 11. She was 59.

"Treated herself compassionately?" "Release her spirit?"

In other words, Shari Kelly's life, unlike most, was a second-by-second act of heroism. When she could no longer be the hero, she did the understandable and "compassionate" thing.

But here's a little more info:
Kelly spent the first nine months of her life in a children's hospital ward in Brooklyn, N.Y. An orthopedic deformity required multiple surgeries that left her with clubbed feet, fused ankle bones and the need for leg braces when she learned to walk.

Kelly's parents divorced when she was 7 and her mother remarried. It was around then that a relative began physically abusing Kelly, said her brother, Ron Reddock of Tombstone, who was three years younger than his sister. He was the only person who knew the depths of torment she suffered.

A few friends and family describe the ways in which she reached out and enriched the lives of others. But I have to wonder - because the reporter doesn't - was maybe Kelly a better friend to others than others were to her?

I ask that, because I have to wonder if anyone - anyone at all - asked why Kelly was giving away her cats. Or why she gave away her service dog. That is really really rare - I personally don't know anyone who has done that. It takes something extraordinary for it to happen.

I also went to her online memorial and the guest book. For all the lives she touched, people she helped, people she reached out to -- there are only four entries in the guest book.

The article mentions that Kelly's mobility issues had increased over the past couple years and she used a scooter. Did that make friends less ready to make time for her, worrying about the accessibility of whatever meeting place they chose for a social gathering? Other people who use mobility devices have written of having limited social circles and one wonders what happened to Kelly's social supports as her mobility impairments increased.

But, in the framework of this story, no one is encouraged to think along those lines. Kelly's death is seen as almost inevitable and as a deserved act of compassion toward herself. Kind of like a hot bubble bath at the end of the day. (yes, that's sarcasm)

In retrospect, it's not surprising that the Arizona Daily Star would treat Kelly's death this way. The paper has a lousy track record. It ignored the the 2007 story of the investigation into the death of Janet Van Voorhis (allegedly facilitated by the Final Exit Network) and published a factually inaccurate and self-serving op-ed by Final Exit Network member Earl Wettstein earlier this year. Given this, I won't predict that the the paper can't sink any lower - I'm betting it can and very well may in the future, although I hope not.

Interestingly, groups such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) have published guidelines for covering suicide deaths, which this article departs from in important ways. But I won't bother linking to it, since it's clear that the AFSP doesn't mean for the media advisory to apply to media coverage of women with disabilities.


Thinkies said...

Maybe all the things you imagined were true - or maybe, just maybe, a woman sound of mind decided she wished to control her life and her death.

No one but Shari Hope Kelly knows what she suffered - this was obviously not a rash choice, but one she had planned for and carried out whilst she was still capable of doing so.

If we were a compassionate world she would never have needed to do so herself, knowing that the medical community (rather than friends or family) would have the legal right to help her when she asked for release.

Alex Schadenberg said...

Dear Thinkies:

If Shari Hope were not a person with a disability, would you feel different about this story.

The fact is that when the so called normal people in society go about justifying euthanasia, it is usually for categories of people who they think would be better off dead.

A real compassionate society doesn't kill its vulnerable citizens, but provides the opportunity to live as a person with a disability