People magazine tells us today, via Drudge, that Brittany Maynard killed herself in Oregon on Saturday November 1, the day she said she would. She is the beautiful 29-year-old woman who became famous recently for publicizing her diagnosis of terminal brain cancer, and her decision to move to Oregon so she could take advantage of the state's law allowing terminal patients to commit suicide with legally prescribed barbituates.
This story caught everyone's attention, and it caught mine too especially because Brittany Maynard's disease, glioblastoma, seems to be exactly the one that Bette Davis' character suffers in the movie Dark Victory. I hope that will not sound trite to the point of being grotesque. It's just that the association leaped out at me, and I was a little surprised that, in what I have read of Ms. Maynard's decision, no one mentioned it. Perhaps it is too trite, or perhaps the movie is so old everyone has forgotten it. It used to be that people remembered it as "the one where she goes blind in the end."
Yes, her character does go blind, but she also dies. She says goodbye to her dogs, climbs the steps to her bedroom, kneels at the bed for a minute, and then lays down. The maid comes in and lays a blanket half over her, and she says she doesn't want to be disturbed. The maid leaves, you hear a sort of angelic choir, and then the camera close-up on Davis' face washes out and goes black.
Earlier in the film, Davis' character Judith, exhausted, says to her best friend, "It's the waiting, Ann ... would it be so terrible if I were to make it happen?" Ann recoils in dread and says, "You mustn't even think of doing such a thing!"
There it is. You mustn't even think of it. It's only a movie and it was 1939, but if movies can reflect something true about their societies, then why was it understood, 75 years ago, that suicide is wrong even for the deathly ill, whereas today Brittany Maynard types a farewell statement to the world which she concludes by saying "Spread good energy. Pay it forward"?
There is nothing good to pay forward here. I am not even talking about the likelihood that societies which embrace "death with dignity," a cause Brittany Maynard charged us all to work for, end up using euthanasia more than they thought they would. I am talking about a mindset completely missing from Brittany Maynard's life, apparently, and that is the mindset that life is not something we made, control, or understand. I don't mean life as in the way we spend our days, I mean life as in the utter mystery of why a collection of atoms or minerals or carbon or whatever it is, should move, think, be aware, grow. Live. If you have no conception that someone or some force outside yourself perhaps made or understands or governs, even cherishes, life, then you probably will see yourself as a wholly autonomous being, bar nothing; you will probably not be able to see why you should not kill yourself if it seems logical. You may regard people who disagree with you as "evil." "They are trying to mix it up with suicide, and it's not that," she told People. Yes it is.
I don't for one second doubt that it was a "huge relief" to Brittany Maynard, as she put it in her first video, to have those bottles of pills in her cabinet, given what she was told about the process of death from "glioma" (as it's called in Dark Victory). I too would have fondled those bottles gratefully, and I might have used them, as she decided to do two days ago. Not for one second do I want to hear the usual comments (not that I think I'll get any) about how I have no right to decree that someone else must wait and suffer a hideous death because Life is Sacred and God is "good."
It's the missing mindset that worries me. If Brittany Maynard was, in her own person, sacred enough and special enough to refuse to be degraded by a full-on death from brain cancer, then what actually made her special? Youth and beauty? The last tatters of health, quickly vanishing? Being still of sound mind? Or was she, herself, uniquely sacred, and as Brittany Maynard, would have remained sacred and deserving of life and care -- not to be killed under any circumstances -- through all suffering and all needs, until the end?
An ancient pagan of Greece or Rome might easily have seconded her decision. In Pagans and Christians Robin Lane Fox writes that when Christianity got underway, worshipers of the old gods did not understand why the new believers permitted a text, the Bible, to infiltrate their minds and cause them to self-govern from the text's outside standards. To them, this seemed a crazy imposition on adult thinking. By the same token, in his book Introduction to Christianity Pope Benedict writes that in order for the English to outlaw suttee, the burning of widows in India, they had also to impose the idea of the unique worth of each person. The widow is not A Widow among hundreds or thousands; she has a name and a worth; she is not anyone's to kill.
They are two entirely different mindsets and it's Brittany Maynard's mindset now seeming brave, compassionate, and normal that is the problem. Her choice is the sign of a society living off the fumes of an old supply of fuel, abundant in our grandfathers' day, that yes the individual is of supreme value and dignity. She just didn't really know why. She did not know all that the word dignity encompasses. The writers of so trite a thing as Dark Victory still did.