Mar 16

Assisted Dying: Amy Bloom’s “In Love”

Heller McAlpin, NPR, asks potential readers of the new book by writer/therapist Amy Bloom, In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss, “Would you agree to help your beloved end his life when he receives a hopeless diagnosis?” The issue of assisted dying is what Bloom faced in her own marriage.

The diagnosis in question is early-onset Alzheimer‘s, which struck Brian Ameche in his mid-60’s.

Not everyone will agree with Brian’s decision, or with Bloom’s agreement to support his wishes. Bloom understands that euthanasia is a controversial subject, and she addresses it with the gravitas it deserves. At various points, she worries ‘that a better wife, certainly a different wife, would have said no, would have insisted on keeping her husband in this world until his body gave out.’ In Brian’s sharper moments, she worries that they’re acting too soon. She also, rightly, rails at a system that allows animals to be put out of their misery, but not human beings.

The bumpy road to assisted dying, or in this case legally “accompanied suicide” (involving drinking sodium pentobarbital) brings the couple to an organization in Switzerland called Dignatas. But you can’t just access Dignatas because you want to. One of the stumbling blocks was proving Brian’s level of “discernment and determination”:

The couple know that if they wait too long, he will no longer be capable of passing this test. They hit an upsetting delay when they learn that Brian’s neurologist had written on the MRI report that the reason for the test was a ‘major depressive episode.’ Depression is a deal-breaker for Dignitas, which does not want to be in the business of helping clinically depressed people commit suicide. Brian and Bloom have to prove that the neurologist’s note is simply not true.

Simon Van Booy, Washington Post, believes In Love demonstrates that “perhaps the two most challenging issues for Bloom as a wife” are finding alternatives to Dignatas if rejected and deciding how to tell loved ones.

While the latter, i.e., telling others, produces “some unusual reactions,” the former involves pondering various other methods of assisted dying: “The author recounts how she considered drowning, procuring fentanyl from a drug dealer, DIY suffocation, and VSED (voluntary suspension of eating and drinking), which in the case of her husband (a former Yale football player) could take as long as a month…”

In Love is currently on many critics’ must-read lists. The following review excerpt from Publishers Weekly echoes the sentiments of many, including my own: “With passion and sharp wit, [Amy Bloom] jumps back and forth between the beginning of their relationship, the Herculean effort it took to secure an agreement with Dignitas, and the painful anticipation of the final trip to Switzerland. Most poignant are the intimate moments they share as they make the most of their last days together. As she writes, ‘I imagine that Brian feels as alone as I do but I can tell he isn’t as afraid.’ The result is a stunning portrayal of how love can reveal itself in life’s most difficult moments.”

Nov 25

“One True Thing” About Family Relationships

The one true thing that can be said about families is that there never really is just one true thing, only a multiplicity of truths, a plurality of perspectives at least as numerous as the participants themselves. Marjorie Baumgarten, Austin Chronicle, reviewing One True Thing

One True Thing is a film adapted from Anna Quindlen‘s second novel (1995) that’s set at the holidays and deserves to be seen for its depiction of family relationships (by three strong lead actors) and “plainly portraying and exploring the treacherous emotional depths of a situation that most of us must face at some point in our lives” (Stephen Holden, New York Times).

That situation involves providing care to a terminally ill parent or other family member.

The Amazon editorial review of the book now sets up the movie (1998) as well, starting with an intro to the main characters. Meryl Streep is the homemaker mother who has cancer. The daughter, Reneé Zellweger, becomes her caregiver. William Hurt is “the chilly professor who lets the women in the family do the heavy emotional lifting dying requires. But the real star of the project remains former New York Times everyday-life columnist Anna Quindlen, who quit her top-dog job to write novels (and who took time off from college to nurse her own dying mother).”

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “This is far from a disease-of- the-week picture, and it’s not the usual number about families coming together in bad times. Illness is a backdrop for a more complicated story about a young woman’s finding her values tested and discovering the mother she took for granted.”

The Trailer

Notably, the trailer features Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide and its I’ve been afraid of changing… lyric that was the subject of a recent post:

Additional Info About the Plot and Family Relationships

The movie is told through flashbacks. We know at the outset that Kate may have been illegally euthanized. Also, Ellen’s expected by her dad to make major sacrifices to care for Kate.

Todd McCarthy, Variety: “The main problem…is that Ellen and her mother have never gotten along. Ellen, a determined career woman, has increasingly come to view her mom’s world as an unbearably boring, circumscribed one defined by dreary housekeeping duties and silly relationships with endlessly chattering old biddies.”

Rita Kempley, Washington Post:

Ellen’s contempt for her mother is undisguised, but Kate is too loving to chide her daughter or complain. Then, Ellen is forced to confront her greatest fear. ‘The one thing I never wanted to do was live my mother’s life,’ she observes, ‘and here I am living it.’

Gradually, she realizes that her father is hardly the great and good man she believed him to be, nor is Kate merely a chipper, cookie-baking nitwit. And after wearing Kate’s apron for a time, she is awed and humbled by all that her mother has accomplished in what was a wonderful life.

Other Lessons Learned

Lisa Alspector, Chicago Reader: “…(I)ts limited agenda is to remind us that physical and emotional suffering lead to revelations, because a sense of mortality puts things in perspective the way nothing else can.”

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “…not really about an adult woman’s relationship with her father or mother. It’s more subtle. It’s about her relationship with the internalized Mom-and-Dad within — and how a crisis causes her to reassess what she values.”

Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com: “No matter how well we eventually come to understand our parents, our deepest feelings about them are formed at a time when we are young and have incomplete information…The movie’s lesson is that we go through life telling ourselves a story about our childhood and our parents, but we are the authors of that story, and it is less fact than fiction.”

May 29

“The Farewell Party”: Assisted Suicide

Not for nothing is this film’s poster a series of old naked people inviting you to their celebration. It’s not just an announcement of tone, it’s a warning that you might be offended. Odie Henderson, rogerebert.com, regarding The Farewell Party

Can assisted suicide be funny? Writer/directors Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon of The Farewell Party think it can be, or at the very least tragicomic.

The plot of Israeli film The Farewell Party, via IMDB: “Residents of a retirement home build a machine for self-euthanasia in order to help their terminally ill friend, though they are faced with a series of dilemmas when rumors of the machine begin to spread.”

The Mix of Humor and Seriousness

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “…steers a careful course between humor and pathos while playing down overtly political and religious arguments for and against assisted suicide.”

Odie Henderson, rogerebert.com: “There’s an infectious joy to how the actors handle the morbid humor here, and it is never mean-spirited…(C)haracters are not without respect for the gravity of their situation, but they are also old enough to have developed a humor-laced and fearless acceptance of impending death.”

Kevin P. Sullivan, ew.com: “Whereas a typical film reserves death for its darkest scenes, the end of life looms over every minute of The Farewell Party. And yet somehow this tale of retirees in Jerusalem assisting terminal patients with suicide comes off as warm and compassionate. The drama falls somewhere on the spectrum between Michael Haneke’s devastating Amour and the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies, but the result is a film that’s frank about death without leaving you cold.”

More About the Plot and Cast

Stephen Holden, New York Times:

[The] inventor, Yehezkel, a robust bear of a man (Ze’ev Revah) and his wife, Levana (Levana Finkelshtein), a couple in their 70s, are distressed by the acute suffering of their friend Max (Shmuel Wolf), who is dying of cancer and against his will is kept alive by doctors. Max’s wife, Yana (Aliza Rozen), entreats Yehezkel to assist Max, however he can, in ending his agony.

Enter Dr. Daniel (Ilan Dar), a retired veterinarian and a resident of the retirement home who has put down many animals. He agrees to help Yehezkel perfect the design of a machine that will allow Max to end his own life by pushing a button. Raffi (Rafael Tabor), a retired police officer, advises that a pretaped video from Max stating that he alone is responsible for his suicide will help avoid trouble with the law…

The Trailer

Overall Reviews

Abby Garnett, Village Voice:The Farewell Party makes drama out of right-to-die politics and asserts that just about everyone who makes it past a certain age will have to contend with the issue in one way or another.”

Odie Henderson, rogerebert.com:

I rated it highly because I was moved and amused by it, and I enjoyed the characters and the actors who superbly play them. They are afforded an agency we don’t see given to older people in mainstream cinema. They’re allowed to make tough decisions, good and bad, without interference from a younger, supposedly smarter world. They’re depicted as people full of energy and contradictions, regardless of age. For example, Dr. Daniel is not only afforded an active sexual relationship with the married, closeted Raffi, but is also a septuagenarian still hiding his homosexuality from his mother.

Brandon Judell, The Huffington Post:

The Farewell Party moves about at a brisk pace with flawless acting, majestic cinematography by Tobias Hochstein, and a warm sensibility, while convincingly arguing Schopenhauer’s point that ‘they tell us that suicide is the greatest piece of cowardice…that suicide is wrong; when it is quite obvious that there is nothing in the world to which every man has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person.’