For nearly four decades, Derek Humphry has blazed a trail for the right to die movement. He founded the Hemlock Society, pioneered Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, and wrote the bestselling books Final Exit (more than one million copies sold, and a New York Times bestseller for eighteen weeks) and Jean’s Way (UK bestseller). But before his wife’s terminal illness ravaged his life, Humphry was a successful journalist. In Good Life, Good Death, readers will learn how the twists and turns of fate led him to his life’s purpose.
In his poignant memoir, Derek tells of his broken family, his wartime experiences as a boy in England, and rising to the highest rungs of journalism on two continents. In 1975, he lived with crippling fear and sadness when his beloved wife, Jean, was diagnosed with cancer. As the disease gradually spread, they both decided that rather than let a terminal illness run its course through extreme physical and emotional pain, Jean would end her own life on her own terms, at an agreed upon time and manner, arranging her own last days. Readers will witness the personal pain and emotional distress they endured, as well as the legal repercussions Derek faced following her death.
As Humphry writes, “It would be far more preferable to legalize medically assisted suicide for terminally ill adults, for it is a tremendous strain and risk put on families.” To know why he has maintained this struggle for choice in dying, against powerful religious and political forces it is necessary to understand the whole man. In Good Life, Good Death, readers will appreciate the fight he has gone through so that others might consider the option of dying with dignity.
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About the Author
Derek Humphry is regarded as the grand old man of the euthanasia movement, in which he remains deeply engaged. A dual citizen of the United States and the United Kingdom, he resides in Junction City, Oregon.
Stephen Jamison, PhD, is a social psychologist, medical ethicist, and author. He resides in Woodland, California.
Read an Excerpt
A Shaky Start
THIS EVENTFUL LIFE FOR me began in Bath, Somerset, England, on April 29, 1930. My father, a traveling salesman, was renting a two-room apartment on the second floor of a four-story Victorian row house, 3 Belvedere Villas, on the steeply sloping Lansdowne Road, in this elegant Roman and Georgian city. There he had temporarily installed my mother and my older brother Garth, then two years old. Bath was the grandiose background to Jane Austen's novels, and the handsome movies of her stories made in the city, but our family's life was much more mundane and shaky.
I do not owe my parents much beyond the act of procreation and early succoring. The few facts I know about my mother, Bettine Elizabeth Duggan, are that she was born in Athlone, County Westmeath, Ireland, in 1910, to racehorse trainer James Duggan and a Belgian woman, Charmaine De Silva. She had, so I heard, been brought up in Roman Catholic convents in Ireland and Belgium. That was the extent of the information I ever knew of that side of the family. A few faded snapshots of her taken in the 1930s show a tall, slim, dark- haired woman with sharply molded features. Old photos show a carefully groomed and elegantly dressed woman, a description that fits the rumor that she was both a nightclub hostess and fashion model in London when she met and married my father in 1927.
Many people try to spell my name as Humphrey, which is the generally common way. It comes from Middle English, of Germanic origin, introduced into England by the Normans in 1066. It has been used over the last one thousand years both as a first and a last name. There are thirteen known variations of its spelling in modern times, chiefly because in olden days the parish registers were kept by the only literate person in the village, the priest, and he often accidentally changed the spelling or it was misread by others. Anyway, for many generations, my family has consistently spelled it Humphry without an "e" or any of the other ways. When people have taxed me about using this rarer form of spelling, I've countered that Humphry is the shorter, thus a more convenient, mode.
My father, Royston Humphry, was born in 1903 to a Bristol couple, the second of their four children. The Humphrys were pillars of middle-class respectability and were upwardly mobile. My grandfather, Ernest Humphry, was a Somerset country boy who moved into the city to fight his way up to become area sales manager of the North British Rubber Company. He was a prominent Freemason, in 1940 becoming Worshipful Master of Bristol lodge. They expected their children to emulate them. All but my father succeeded. Roy was the black sheep of the family, always in financial trouble, forever shocking people with his outrageous lifestyle and heretical views. After winning a scholarship to one of the best schools in Bristol, he was expelled for misbehavior. He gave up on job after job as too boring and then plunged into the maelstrom of crazy life in London in the 1920s with gusto. This was his ideal world — fast and wild with the promises of easy riches. He drank until his eyes nearly popped out of their sockets, and his large nose (which I have inherited) turned permanently lumpy and bright red, not unlike that of W. C. Fields. He had lost a piece of a front tooth in a fight, replacing it with a gold chip, which was rather cute. He drove fast cars — chiefly Studebakers and Railtons — and chased women relentlessly. Good-looking, charming, and personable, I heard him described — even by his detractors — as "perhaps England's finest salesman, able to sell anything to anyone."
Nowadays, a wild couple like my parents would probably practice birth control, or abortion, to avoid childbearing until their marriage either cemented or cracked up. In those days, however, knowledge and availability of birth control methods were both taboo and rudimentary, so my brother and I arrived within the first two years of their marriage. There was no fixed home, no steady job, and both Father and Mother loved to dance and drink all night. In mitigation, I should point out that they were not unusual for their time. Both were high-spirited people caught up in the "live for today" lifestyle so common in the 1920s and 1930s. Between the two genocidal world wars it was fashionable — perhaps logical — to "live for the moment."
The instability of this union is shown by Mother's action in 1930. The three- year-old marriage, with one two-year-old child already, saw my mother flee the home and board a cargo ship bound for India. She was heavily pregnant with me, thus as soon as the captain realized that he would be dealing with childbirth on the high seas — without a doctor or nurse — when he refueled in Gibraltar, he had her taken off and put on a ship back to England. A few weeks, later I was born in an apartment in Bath. Soon after, the marriage broke up, with divorce proceedings following. Despite their appalling records as parents, each fought furiously for custody of Garth and me.
For a couple of years, Garth and I lived most exciting lives, although hardly conducive to family values and sound education. As a typical example, I have vague, leftover impressions that we would be walking along a street in Bristol when a taxi would draw up alongside and Mother would beckon us over. Once inside the cab, there would be hugs and kisses and Mother would say something like: "I'm taking you on a trip. Don't worry. It's okay." There would follow a hundred-mile dash to London either in the cab or by train, depending on Mother's current financial situation. Once in the great city, we would be hidden in a small apartment with nothing else to do but play and read. We were never allowed out. Mother had to earn a living, of course, so at night we were left to ourselves.
Meantime, Father would have employed a private detective to trace our whereabouts, and within a few weeks we would be located. The kidnap scenario would be reversed: Father would pull up in one of his big American cars (never paid for, apparently), get into the apartment while Mother was working, and off we would race back to our other life in Bristol.
I do not remember very much of these snatches happening to me because I was only between two and five at the time. Garth and my aunts told me about these events over subsequent years. I do have faint memories of the car dashes between London and Bristol, but I wasn't sure what all the commotion was about — which was probably merciful. I recall hours spent staring out of windows at city streets, watching other children at play or with their parents, not understanding that I was a pawn and a prisoner of a crazy war over custody. Childlike, I assumed that everybody's lives were a constant push-and-pull between people who lived in lots of different homes between which they commuted at ridiculous speeds and at great expense!
For my older brother it was much more painful. I came to realize in my adulthood that our nomadic childhood experiences had permanently scarred him psychologically. Two years older, and very bright, Garth must have known exactly what was behind the antics going on and suffered appallingly. He grew up a somewhat arrogant man, touchy and tetchy. Although intelligent and extremely well read, he had trouble in achieving any of his ambitions. His first two marriages proved desperately unhappy; fortunately the third union worked, and it was not until he was in his fifties that he had fewer personal stresses and began to prosper financially.
Garth became my substitute father and mother between the ages of two and thirteen. He was most valuable at shielding me from the vicissitudes of those mobile and angry years. It did not matter a lot that our parents were hopeless, because Garth was always there to protect me. At the same time, I expect it gave him a mission, a purpose in life. Using his powerful imagination, already bolstered by extensive reading, Garth spun a fantasy world of words for the two of us. We played a game of two children who enjoyed a domain of their own with no adults present. Somewhat like the African slaves to the New World who devised their own language so that the white master could not overhear their conversations, we devised special words and phrases that only we understood. We gave ourselves new names — mine was "Tiddler," after the little fish, because I was so small. Alone by day and far into the night in the safety of our beds, we imagined and verbalized splendid adventures: fighting battles on the high seas, parachuting in the nick of time from crashing aircraft, and waging titanic struggles between armies of which we were the undisputed generals.
In the mid-1930s my father and mother fought bitterly in the divorce courts for custody of us. Coming from a solid, middle-class family, Roy was able to employ better legal services. My middle-class grandparents also appeared to offer us a stable home. The courts naturally came down on Father's side. Crushed by the defeat, Mother contracted a hasty marriage with a man called Wills, fled from Britain, and started a new life in Australia. My father's family, cocky and victorious, constantly informed Garth and me that Mother was "no-good," had "abandoned us," and was not worth thinking about. Because of this brainwashing and because I was so young at the time, I grew up without any idea of what Bettine even looked like. But I never really swallowed the story about her running away from us. Even at that impressionable age I preferred to wait, find out the facts, and then judge for myself.
Cared for by loving grandparents, our lives settled down for the first time, and I attended a junior school (grades nine through twelve) regularly. Grandfather had a stern, controlling manner, whereas Grandmother was sweet and warm — but always shrewd. She arranged a nanny for Garth and me, easing the workload of looking after two lively boys. As a salesman, Father traveled all the time, and he had several love affairs going on in London (one with a well-known actress of the day). But some Sundays he would come back to see his sons, and there is no doubt in my mind that he loved us.
Our calm existence lasted only one year. I went off to Cub camp for a week (Cubs are a junior version of Boy Scouts) and I returned to chaos. Grandmother had been taken ill and suddenly died at the age of sixty-one. She had contracted severe septicemia in her throat in an age when there were no antibiotics and choked to death within days. Ten years later, penicillin would have saved her. With the "earth mother" of the Humphry family gone, Grandfather was absolutely shattered and closed up his home. My aunts and uncles were all deeply involved with their own early careers, new marriages, and children. Father was permanently absent; Garth and I were stranded. Nobody knew what to do with us.
The solution arrived at was to alternate us between all the family homes. We would spend one month at a time in each of three different places. That way, it was reckoned, we would not be an excessive burden on anybody.
The resulting lifestyle taught me early on to respect dates and schedules and to be punctual. On the first day of each month, Garth and I packed our suitcases and went to a different house. Only seven years old, I dreaded forgetting the switchover date or turning up at the wrong house, which I sometimes did and got scolded. To handle the scheduling problem, I memorized a little rhyme that I happened upon:
Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November All the rest have thirty-one Excepting February alone Which has twenty-eight days clear And twenty-nine in each Leap Year
Aided by the dates on newspapers, this rhyme guided me so that I did not overstay my welcome and get scolded. Not that my aunts and uncles were at all unkind; they did their best to succor the two stray kids. But their young lives were full. Moreover, they resented Roy's total abandonment of his responsibilities. One day I left school at the end of the day's lessons badly in need of a bowel movement. I thought I could hold on until I reached my current "home." I arrived at Aunt Gwen's door but was told politely that I had made a mistake and come to the wrong place. Ashamed of my carelessness, I made haste to Aunt Ena's, which was about a mile away, but as I ran, my bowels began to move on the city street! To my mortification, the excrement began to fall from my shorts onto the sidewalk. I felt that the whole world was watching my disgusting behavior and was repulsed by this little boy who was not even toilet trained.
My anger at this humiliation ran so deep, it must have been then that the seeds of my independence were sown. I realized that I needed to take control of my own life and not rely on other people — with the exception of Garth, my only support.
Of course, while this nomadic life was unsettling, to a certain degree it was not without many happy moments. Father — when he appeared — lavished love and toys on us. Relatives, trying to compensate, took Garth and me to the circus, the pantomime, and the seaside, just like other middle-class families. Compared to millions of other children in the world, Garth and I were pampered. The Depression era had passed as the 1930s wore on, and the whole family was doing fairly well economically.
Eventually, the "family committee" realized that the monthly transfer among homes was unsatisfactory; it's possible that a coincidental tragedy influenced events more than I knew at the time.
Aunt Gwen's first baby, Michael, was eighteen months old when he contracted pneumonia and would later die. I was seven. Unfortunately, it was my turn to stay at her home when he first took ill, and I had caught the measles at school. I quickly got over the minor disease. Very soon after Michael's death I went into my aunt's bedroom to take her a cup of tea. She was prostrate with grief. Demented, she suddenly sat up in bed and screamed at me: "You killed my baby! Get out! You killed my baby!"
Horrified, I rushed downstairs. My shocked countenance must have alarmed Gwen's husband, Harry, a kind and intelligent man. He asked me what was wrong. I told him what had happened upstairs.
"How could I have killed Michael?" I begged. "I loved him."
Uncle Harry sat down with me and explained that I had brought home the measles infection from school, which Michael contracted on top of his pneumonia. The doctor had told Aunt Gwen that the combined illnesses had killed her baby. With extraordinary patience and tact, Uncle Harry explained to me that this was how life sometimes worked — cause and effect — in this case, it was disastrous. Although I had contributed to Michael's death, it was totally accidental. I was not to blame myself. Uncle Harry explained that he did not hold me responsible and that he did not think Aunt Gwen would either once she had recovered from her terrible anguish and despair.
"You will learn, Derek, that in life people say many things that they don't really mean," I recall Uncle Harry saying. "Things are said in the heat of the moment which we later regret. The secret is to remain calm over time and try to judge for oneself the truth of a situation."
Aunt Gwen recovered and later gave birth to another child, Christopher. She never again reproached me about Michael. I doubt if she even remembered her crazed accusation. Until she died at the age of ninety, she was one of my best friends and supporters. There was real affection between us, and we kept in touch even when separated by thousands of miles. I wept at her funeral fifty-four years after Michael's death.
The story of Michael's death, of course, left a lasting impression on me. First, as Uncle Harry had wisely pointed out, never rush to take literally what people shout in anger. More significantly, bad things happen in life that are nobody's direct fault even though one might be involved. It struck me pretty forcibly, after all that had happened to me in my first eight years, that everybody — other than babies in need of care — must take responsibility for their own lives. This was a harsh philosophy, perhaps, at so tender an age, but necessary. Between periods of happiness there were more trials to come.
Not long after this, Uncle Harry saved my life.
I was always "weak chested" as it was called in the 1930s. A bout of influenza turned into pneumonia and, in the days before antibiotics, this was often a killer. One night I was so ill the doctor warned that if I went to sleep, my lungs would collapse and I would die. So Uncle Harry sat up all night talking to me and keeping me from sleeping. I dimly remember that as dawn came up I extracted a promise from him.
"Please, I want a bus conductor's outfit," I implored. At that point I considered this the most glamorous, worthwhile job in the world. Later that day he brought me the uniform, cap, tickets, and ticket punch, and I was on the road to recovery.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Good Life, Good Death"
Copyright © 2017 Derek Humphry.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Stephen Jamison xi
Introduction Life After Death 1
Chapter 1 A Shaky Start 3
Chapter 2 Runaway 35
Chapter 3 Getting to the Truth 47
Chapter 4 Acquiring Home and Family 61
Chapter 5 A Curious Reunion 81
Chapter 6 Reporter at Large 87
Chapter 7 World's Greatest Paper 103
Chapter 8 Terminal Illness 123
Chapter 9 Jean's Way of Dying 129
Chapter 10 Off to California 137
Chapter 11 A Book's Inspiration 143
Chapter 12 A Horrible Year 171
Chapter 13 To See Yourself as Others See You 185
Chapter 14 Enter "Final Exit" 191
Chapter 15 What Happened to Mother? 199
Chapter 16 Divorce Wars 207
Chapter 17 Farewell to Hemlock 223
Chapter 18 Kevorkian and Me 233
Chapter 19 Where We Are Now 245
About the Author 255
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This memoir of a right to die advocate and successful journalist is an exceptional read for anyone interested in what life was like in England for a boy during World War II, journalism during the later half of the 20th century, and the creation of the right to die movement. Mr. Humphry over came family obstacles to become a well known journalist and a famous advocate for the right to die movement through his own experience with his first wife's terminal cancer. My favorite part of the book chronicles Derek's journalism career. He was a reporter for smaller local papers and moved up to national papers such as the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times of London. The stories he covered during his career are amazing and highlights the back story from the reporters perspective. This a great read and I would recommend it to anyone.