Kevorkian 101: Understanding Dr. Death with Books

Kevorkian 101: Understanding Dr. Death with Books

File under: Things that creep us out. Today marks the 13th anniversary of Jack Kevorkian’s conviction for second-degree murder. Known as “Dr. Death,” Kevorkian was a physician who rallied passionately throughout the 90s for the decriminalization of euthanasia. He had already established himself as a controversial figure when, in 1998, CBS’s “60 Minutes” televised a tape of Kevorkian administering a lethal injection to a consenting patient, lateral sclerosis sufferer Thomas Youk. Kevorkian dared authorities to prosecute, and they took him up on the challenge. After a much-publicized trial, Kevorkian was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison. He was released on parole in 2007 and died in June of 2011, at the age of 83.

Kevorkian’s sentencing was a major turning point in the euthanasia debate—one that continues today. These titles will serve as a guide to the controversy and the man behind it.

The Man Behind the Moniker
Just five years before his death in 2011, Kevorkian sat down with biographer Neal Nicol and opened up about his life and the personal motives that led to him to argue vehemently for patients’ right to die. Kevorkian was famously reticent about his personal history, and “Between the Dying and the Dead: Dr. Jack Kevorikian’s Life and Battle to Legalize Euthanasia” presents a unique look at the man—born to Armenian immigrants in small-town Michigan, prone to failure and frustration early in his career—who would become known to the nation as “Dr. Death.”

In His Own Words
In the controversial “Prescription: Medicide: The Goodness of Planned Death,” Kevorkian lays out his full defense of euthanasia, championing it as a means not of causing death but of ending suffering. Kevorkian is strikingly compassionate when discussing his ideas and practices. Here you’ll find his recollection of Janet Adkins, a terminally ill Alzheimer’s sufferer who became the first patient to choose to die with his assistance, and his argument for extending the right to die to non-terminally-ill patients and Death Row inmates. He also reports on his invention of two “suicide machines”: the “Thanatron” (meaning “death machine”) and the “Mercitron (meaning: “mercy machine”).

A Novel Interpretation
In his 1999 novel, “God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian,” Kurt Vonnegut (self-imagined here as a fictional “reporter on the afterlife”) is dispatched into the strange and fascinating expanse of the afterlife, with the help of—you guessed it—Dr. Jack. Kevorkian’s brief role is one of many cameos in the novel—once past the Pearly Gates, Vonnegut also runs into William Shakespeare, Mary Shelley and James Earl Ray, among others. The novel, though, remains a weirdly admiring tribute to a man synonymous with death, from a novelist whose work is so often preoccupied with it.

The Straight Story
Derek Humphry’s “Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying” is a no-frills, unbiased assessment of the debate. Cutting through medical jargon and reactionary hype alike, the author explains in full the benefits and drawbacks—medically, legally, ethically and biologically—of the practice. At times it can seem impossible to separate the issue of euthanasia from the strong language and moral controversy it provokes—“Final Exit” boils it down to the basics.

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