Anne Lamott is a writer of incredible honesty and uncommon candor. Beyond this, she is a highly gifted artist, writing with a fluid and passionate style that attracts readers who quickly feel drawn into Lamott’s life and experiences.
Additionally, Anne Lamott is a zealous proponent of her own personal causes. Passionately liberal, she is known for her fervent support of abortion on demand (she recently wrote of women whose lives were “righted and redeemed” by Roe v. Wade). Yet, at the same time, she has managed to identify herself in some sense as a Christian writer, and she describes her own mode of Christian discipleship in terms of being “Jesusy.” She has become something of a literary icon among mainline Protestants and leftward evangelicals. Now, however, she appears to be launching out into previously uncharted territory.
Writing in the June 25, 2006 edition of The Los Angeles Times, Lamott begins with these words: “The man I killed did not want to die, but he no longer felt he had much of a choice.” The language is truly shocking, and Lamott obviously intends to catch the attention of readers when she speaks of “the man I killed.” If it is attention she wants, she is almost sure to get more than she intended.
In her essay, “At Death’s Window,” Lamott traces her involvement in the assisted suicide of a close friend. She introduces him as having “gone from being tall and strapping, full of appetites and a brilliant manner of speech, to a skeleton, weak and full of messy needs.” Lamott’s poetic description of her friend’s plight underlines the tragedy of his illness.
As Lamott traces his decline, the man who “had always been passionately literary” was losing his ability to read or write. No longer able to travel, hike, or share cherished experiences with his wife, he was only sixty when he was diagnosed with cancer.
The man Lamott helped to die is not identified with his real name. Instead, Lamott refers to the man and his wife as “Mel” and “Joanne.” Refusing aggressive chemotherapy treatment, Mel “wanted to feel as well as he could for as long as he could,” Lamott recounts, in order to “savor his family and friends and the beauty of life, on his own terms, in the strange basket of sickness.”
As is so often the case, the specter of precipitous physical decline accompanied by pain was a real concern. As the prescribed opiates no longer seemed to cover his pain, Lamott told Mel over lunch one day that “if he ever experienced too much pain or diminishment, I would try to help him die on his own terms, if he wanted.”
Taken in itself, this is a remarkable offer. Lamott’s essay appeared even as the legislature in California is debating the legalization of physician-assisted suicide. The proposal, now making its way through the California Senate and General Assembly, is modeled after Oregon’s statute. If adopted, California will become the second state to legalize assisted suicide.
Clearly, Anne Lamott is enthusiastic about the process. As she recalls her lunchtime conversation with Mel, Lamott recalled that she had not premeditated making her offer. She also recounted the experience she shared with her brothers when they contemplated assisting their own father to die, even as he was slipping away from them due to the ravages of brain cancer. “Two months before he died, when he lay in a hospital bed in our one-room cabin in what amounted to a coma,” Lamott recalls, “my younger brother and I crushed up some barbiturates that his doctor had given him to help him sleep, but we couldn’t do it. We were too young.” Now older, Lamott was apparently ready to act when it came to her friend Mel. When Mel asked Lamott about her understanding of death, she spoke of having heard an Eastern mystic “say that it was like slipping out of a pair of shoes that had never fit very well.”
The most revealing section of Lamott’s essay is this: “Mel was sort of surprised that as a Christian I so staunchly agreed with him about assisted suicide. I believed that life was a kind of Earth school, so even though assisted suicide meant you were getting out early, before the term ended, you were going to be leaving anyway, so who said it wasn’t OK to take an incomplete in the course?”
In the economy of just a few words, Lamott effectively turns the Christian understanding of life and death on its head.
No wonder Mel was “sort of surprised” that Lamott, identifying herself as a Christian, would agree to participate in an assisted suicide with such enthusiasm. Christianity teaches a distinctive understanding of human life. At the onset, the Bible reveals that we are not the lords of our own lives in the first place. Life is a gift, and human life is a special gift given to the only creatures who are made in God’s own image. We are, in effect, the only sentient beings able to ponder the meaning of our own lives and the reality of our own death. The Christian understanding of humanity insists that we are not autonomous creatures that have the right to determine when we shall live and when we shall die. To the contrary, our lives are in the disposition of the Creator, and human life is understood to posses inherent dignity from its natural beginning until its natural end. Any affirmation of assisted suicide or any form of euthanasia as a way of “releasing” persons by voluntary or involuntary intervention is a rejection of God’s sovereign prerogative and a denial of His providence as gracious, merciful, and righteous.
Furthermore, Christianity does not teach that life is just “a kind of Earth school.” To the contrary, Christianity affirms the inherent dignity and meaning of our earthly lives. Life is not a course we are taking, so much as it is a stewardship of a priceless gift. It is profoundly true that Christianity points to eternal life beyond this earthly life as the realm of our ultimate existence as believers, but we are not invited to “take an incomplete” in the course of life as we may choose.
As Anne Lamott continues her story, she tells of Mel reminding her of her offer. “I won’t be me for much longer,” he said. Having communicated with the Hemlock Society (a group that ardently supports euthanasia and offers advice to those wishing to die or to assist someone to die), Lamott “knew exactly how many Seconal pills it took to kill a big person.” As she recalls, she knew how to crush the pills and add them to applesauce, and then feed them to the sick person, along with toast and tea so that the pills would not be rejected.
Shortly thereafter, Lamott used what she describes as “wily and underground ways” to amass a sufficient number of Seconal pills to constitute a lethal dose. “That night, Mel and I had a cryptic phone conversation. ‘I got it,’ I said, like a spy, or a drug dealer.”
A month later, Lamott shared dinner with Joanne and Mel and, along with another friend, listened to his favorite music and told favorite stories. “He was absolutely clear as a bell, brilliant as ever,” she remembers. Using the full power of her descriptive ability, she wrote of the air smelling “faintly of honey and laundry, and illness.”
After dinner, Mel changed into comfortable pajamas and got into his bed, “wasted, sad, sweet and comfortable.” Lamott then went to the kitchen to get the pills, and then made the deadly applesauce “in a tiny Asian bowl.”
After eating the applesauce, Mel thanked his friends and wife, and “told us how much he loved his life, and how he wished he could live with us forever.” Finally: “After a while, Mel looked around, half smiled and fell asleep. People got up to stretch, for wine or water, or to change albums. He breathed so quietly, for so long, that when he finally stopped, we all strained to hear the sound.”
Those words end Lamott’s essay. There is no extended moral argument for her action in assisting the suicide of her friend. There is no engagement with the Christian moral tradition, and there is no real sense of moral reflection at all. As with the issue of abortion, Anne Lamott is simply guided by her own sense of what is right and wrong.
With the ease of an author beginning to write on a clean sheet of paper, Lamott effectively jettisons Christian concern for the preservation of life and dismisses centuries of Christian conviction on the questions of life and death. She describes herself as a Christian, but there is nothing even remotely Christian, in any distinctive sense, to be found in her essay on a matter as serious as ending a man’s life.
When Anne Lamott writes of “the man I killed” like this, she willingly enters uncharted terrain and forges a brave new morality, embracing assisted suicide as a moral good.
Mel was rightly shocked that a Christian would be such a staunch supporter of assisted suicide. Will Lamott’s Christian readers be equally shocked to read of her views now? Those views led directly to Mel’s poisoned applesauce.