Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Who really wants to die? Part VI: Aids in the Eighties and Nineties and the literary ritual of assisted suicide.

Gordon Friesen
Gordon Friesen, EPC board member

A fundamental discrepancy between appearance and reality

Without a doubt, the historical and cultural phenomenon which most influenced public perception of the “right to die” movement, was the horrendous AIDS epidemic of the eighties, and nineties.

Great sympathy was felt towards the victims of this atrocious disease, and great solidarity was expressed for those who chose to take their own lives. However, as we shall see, only two percent of people with Aids actually resorted to suicide, assisted or otherwise. And thus, as with the victims of catastrophic injury, the public vision of an ideal and noble suicidal response to the apprehended loss of physical function and control, was wildly at odds with real choices observed among those personally affected.

AIDS and the homosexual community: a perfect storm

To understand the collective reaction of homosexuals to the original Aids epidemic (which affected them in such a massive and specific way), it is first necessary to recall the social conditions in which this culture existed at that time. For today, thanks to the extraordinary cadence of recent social change, it is becoming increasingly difficult to communicate (or even to credit) the legal, social, and psychological conditions which were commonly imposed upon the members of this group, barely forty years ago, and that, even for those of us who remember these events at first hand.

Let us merely recall, in this connection, that the behaviors typical of male homosexuality were entirely prohibited, as criminal offenses in Canada, until 1969 (while only then permitted, subject to residual conditions); and the homosexual orientation, itself, was defined in terms of mental pathology, by the American Psychiatric Association, as late as 1973.

Frequently met with hostility, the homosexual community was understandably animated by a powerful sense of injustice. These feelings, in turn, were embodied in a shared cultural mood which combined a traditionally resigned resentment, with a newer and politically articulated combativity -- doubted by many, while desired by all – which still remained to bear conclusive legal fruit. And then suddenly, into this complex mix, came the terrible scourge of Aids.

The primary epidemic of Aids

In 1992, Aids was recognized as the greatest cause of death among American (and Canadian) men between the ages of 25 and 45. Aids had no cure; Aids ended inevitably in death; advanced patients could expect to suffer atrocious symptoms. Collectively, moreover, in a culture deeply imbued with erotic ideals of youth and beauty, this was a disease which seemingly delighted in attacking precisely the most youthful, and the most beautiful.

A secondary epidemic of suicide

Even without any consideration of Aids, the risk of suicide has always been a danger for young men, and even more so among homosexual youth. Indeed, much of the traditionally shared autobiographical and fictional representation of homosexual experience -- while often romantic and even defiant – also demonstrated a strong tendency towards the tragic tone. With the arrival of this apparently ineluctable violence of fate, however, a new vision of reality emerged, of almost apocalyptic urgency, in which it seemed that only the choice of the time and of the manner -- of his own death -- remained as the inalienable right of the encircled hero.

And thus, in the continuing wake of the post-war countercultural revolution: where political consciousness was already coalescing around the notion of sexual identity, enshrined as a civil right in the image of race and gender; where the word “choice” was found on the lips of all: it became inevitable that this last ultimate “right”, of voluntary death, should be revendicated with an ardor never matched before, or since. And so it is, that the conjugation of Aids and “right-to-die” produced the most far-reaching suicide trend ever witnessed.

Assisted suicide as spectacle and ceremony

In this movement, the entire homosexual community, including friends and family, and by extension the entire educated class, appeared unanimous in their agreement that suicide (and specifically assisted suicide), provided an ideal, noble response, to the infected state; doctors and pharmacists collaborated on a scale never before imagined. Certain more charismatic individuals, moreover, (possessed with a taste for artistic or political exhibitionism) became inspired to transform the personal experience of death into a final gesture of social solidarity, whereby assisted suicide assumed the status of a community ceremonial.

Numerous suicides were thus accomplished openly, and celebrated publicly. In some cases, gatherings were held which brought together hundreds of people; documentary footage was archived and shared; literary renditions appeared in the pages of the print media; books were produced; and films.

A cinema of ritual suicide: “Its My Party” (1996) and “The Event” (2003)

In addition to personal, memorial, and documentary footage of the Aids suicide epidemic, major films eventually appeared, and notably: “It’s My Party” (1996), which contains a romanticized account of the suicide of Harry Stein (1992) who had at one time been the intimate partner of Randal Kleiser (1946 - ), writer and director of the film.

Many diverse questions relative to the homosexual experience were also discussed in this movie. But well beyond this context, “It’s My Party” will, I believe, forever stand as the preeminent literary depiction of voluntary death, treated as a positive, and desirable, collectively celebrated phenomenon.

In particular, this film immediately demonstrates how far the notion of an authentic “right to die” actually diverges from the sort of naïve thinking which characterized, for example, the untenable promises (optimistically referred to as “safeguards”) which were originally guaranteed to expedite the implementation of euthanasia in Canada. For like Sue Rodriguez and Kay Carter, Harry Stein was nowhere near natural death (or even, in his case, gravely incapacitated). At bottom, the suicidal trend documented was not about medical suffering, not about medicine, or even about objectively verifiable suffering at all. Ultimately, it was simply about choice.

But there is more: for also at issue were the ambiguous relations of the surrounding entourage towards the intended victim, their endorsement of the suicide ritual, and their responsibility for the homicidal assistance provided. And while this aspect is present in “It’s My Party”, it takes a more prominent role in a later Canadian film, “The Event” (2003), where guests to the frankly bacchanalian celebration are shown actively (which is to say ritually) involved in preparing the material means and conditions required for suicide.

Most strikingly, however: when the protagonist’s body appears poised to win its unconscious battle with death (by involuntarily expelling the poisons previously ingested), his mother displays what is portrayed as a transcendent maternal love, in actually smothering her own child in order to prevent his awakening, and thus, in “putting an end” to any further torture of indecision.

And so it is that we see a conceptual door opened, here, not only to assistance in suicide, but also towards pure euthanasia (as now seen in Canada), as well as the much debated notion of “follow-through” on previously expressed wishes, where the patient is actually fighting to survive: unconsciously in this case, but also -- as we now commonly see litigated around the world -- in the eventuality of “confused” but conscious subjects, who, although signatory to prior consent, may yet physically fight to survive.

An enlightened consensus surrounding voluntary death

The reaction to films such as these, and to their continued on-air presence, attest eloquently to the fact that a virtual unanimity existed at that time -- and apparently still exists to this day among progressively attuned individuals -- as regards the essential thesis exposed. Indeed, engaged intelligentsia, far beyond the borders of the homosexual community, enthusiastically took up the task of creating a positive and sympathetic narrative, of the personal and collective suffering engendered by Aids, as also, of the response evoked. And thus, from this special historical context (and from the literary mode it produced), there emerged a broadly mediatized “consensus” -- built around an idealized rejection of imperfection in life -- which attained to a popularity both entirely new, and in all respects unique; a consensus which eventually resulted in the familiar practice of euthanasia in Canada today.

But what was the actual response to this collective enthusiasm, among those who were personally singled out to die ?

The suicidal fact of a miniscule minority

In actual fact -- and almost exactly like the example previously given (of post-accident paralysis) -- the suicide rate among Aids infected individuals stabilized at roughly ten times that of other men (during the initial, “incurable”, phase of the epidemic); and then returned to normal (following the introduction of life-saving retro-viral therapy circa 1996). In other words: in spite of the phenomenal wave of cultural enthusiasm (and of the complete societal unanimity displayed), only two percent of those who were expected to embrace this suicidal mode actually did so; while fully ninety-eight percent preferred to continue with their lives as long as possible, suffering or no.

For that is, clearly, the normal human default: an unconditional will to live. And while a life of suffering might appear unlivable (at a distance), very rare are the sufferers who will willing let go of their own.

Cultural enthusiasm becomes misinformation and unselfconscious irony

There is also a special irony, regarding the film “It’s My Party”, in that this film came out in 1996, which is exactly the moment when antiretroviral therapy gave new life to survival hopes among seropositive individuals, and hence, enabled the observed reduction, of actual suicide, to essentially normal levels. Which is to say: at precisely the same time that wider society was beginning to perceive suicide as the normal -- even the preferable -- option for infected individuals, these persons were no longer any more likely to seek death, than was anybody else!

And again, what can be said in this light, about a film like “The Event” which was only released in 2003, at a time when Aids was considered a fully manageable condition? How could we justify the depicted mother’s grim determination, to make absolutely sure of her son’s atypically motivated death? And how could we justify the film-maker’s obstinacy in perpetuating a narrative which had never had a legitimate grounding in proportional quantitative fact, even ten years earlier, during the worst phase of the epidemic?

But above all: how can we qualify the uncritical yet enthusiastic unanimity – which still persists among our cultured and educated classes -- in support of an objectively marginal suicidal ideal? How can we pardon the willingness of our Canadian policy makers, to prepare for real volumes of future euthanasia service delivery, based upon these entirely mythical, literary constructs?

To be cont’d...

This article is the sixth in a series of articles.

No comments: