Good Life, Good Death: The Memoir of a Right to Die Pioneer, by Derek Humphry. Foreword by Stephen Jamison (New York: Carrel Books, 2017, ISBN-13: 978-1631440663 and ISBN-10: 1631440667). 352 pp. Hardcover, $34.99.
No one in the last forty years has thought or written more for the general public about a person’s right to choose when it is time to die than Derek Humphry. And, without question, he is a freethinker. Humphry writes from the conviction that opinions should be based on logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than on authority, tradition, or religious and political dogma—the very definition of a freethinker. His humanism is evidenced by the compassion he has shown toward those who experience unbearable suffering from terminal illness.
Humphry seems to have been a freethinker all of his life, and his humanism manifested itself in his journalism, his private life, and the right-to-die organization he created. He was a founder—some would say the principal founder—of the Hemlock Society, from which he borrowed the epigram “Good Life, Good Death.” He had not planned to be involved in the movement, but circumstances led him there. After his first wife, Jean, developed breast cancer, Humphry helped her to hasten her death when treatment was no longer an option and her suffering caused her quality of life to deteriorate to the point that continuing to live became unacceptable to her.
Humphry and Jean were living in England at the time. After Jean’s death, Humphry notified the authorities of his role in helping her to die. He had prepared the secobarbitol and codeine, provided by a friendly doctor, for her to drink when she decided that the time had come for self-deliverance. The legal authorities declined to prosecute him for assisting Jean, partly because there was no physical evidence to support a charge, and no one disputed that his actions were an act of compassion. A few years later, Humphry wrote the book Jean’s Way, describing in detail how Jean had taken her own life with his assistance.
Long before Humphry became a public figure in the U.S. right-to-die movement, he had a distinguished career in journalism, which began at age fifteen. The first half of his memoir describes his childhood leading up to and during World War II, and it continues with his early journalism career. His childhood story will be familiar to those who were children in England then or have known someone who was. Humphry’s stories about writing for a half-dozen British newspapers before he moved to the United States and reported for the Los Angeles Times provide a fascinating look at the journalistic practices in England from near the end of the war into the early 1970s, including his work for the prestigious London Sunday Times.
In his early journalistic career, Humphry covered weather events, sports, and community crime and disasters. By the time he arrived at the Sunday Times, he had written also about nuclear energy, Sputnik, the arts, and the conflicts in Ireland. The Sunday Times expanded his horizons to race relations in both Britain and the United States and honed his interest in the social and cultural developments that have challenged the status quo in both countries for the last century.
It is unusual for a private person to write as candidly about family dynamics as Humphry has done in his memoir. His family and the war provided a chaotic upbringing, which seems to have given him empathy that is reflected in his journalism and his work in the rightto-die movement. And Humphry frankly describes his difficult second marriage (and subsequent divorce) to a woman tormented much of the time by mental illness, though there were periods when the two of them collaborated successfully on writing projects and founding the Hemlock Society.
Humphry’s thoughts and feelings about Jack Kevorkian match my own. Kevorkian was the pathologist who invented at least two devices to help people end their lives. Humphry makes clear his view that Kevorkian’s methods may have generated publicity, but they did not otherwise advance the movement to help people gain the legal right to have the assistance of a physician to hasten their deaths. The Hemlock Society predated Kevorkian’s activities by a decade, and he never participated in right-to-die organizations, preferring to go his own way alone.
Humphry expressed his view directly to Kevorkian in their only face-to-face meeting in 1988: “I don’t think we can at one and the same time be an acceptable campaigner for law reform on this issue while also blatantly breaking the law.” Kevorkian never spoke to Humphry again after that meeting, though Humphry did provide financial support to Kevorkian’s legal defense in the case for which Kevorkian was successfully prosecuted and sent to prison for eight years.
The second half of Humphry’s memoir deals mostly with the developing right-to-die movement in the United States, interspersed by scenes from his second and third marriages. The Hemlock Society’s name was changed by subsequent mergers with other right-to-die organizations, and its philosophical successor is the Final Exit Network, an organization started in 2004 to continue the work of Hemlock’s Caring Friends program, educating about how terminally or irreversibly ill members can peacefully hasten their own deaths. Humphry serves as chair of the Final Exit Network’s Advisory Board.
The success of Hemlock was due in no small measure to the skills Humphry learned in newspaper and television work, which enabled him to organize and develop Hemlock, explain its purpose and rationale, and counter the many attacks on it, especially those from the Catholic Church, a perennial bête noire of the right-to-die movement.
Humphry has never been one to flaunt his atheism. It is just another fact of his life. He acknowledged it publicly when asked in an interview in 1995, and he confirmed it with me in correspondence. While his freethinking stance and humanism are not mentioned in the memoir, he clearly demonstrates both by his approach to death and dying and in his writings.
It is an understatement to say that Humphry has led a fascinating life. At the least, his life recalls the reputed Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Fortunately for us all, Humphry has managed to live through his interesting times and, in his mid-eighties, write an engaging memoir.