Monday, April 26, 2010

You Don't Know Jack

No, not the game show or video game. When I first saw the name of this HBO film, You Don't Know Jack, I thought the title seemed a bit casual for a movie about Jack Kevorkian and assisted suicide. The word flippant came to mind. What I realized as I starting watching the film was that I really don't know Jack. So, maybe an appropriate title (and probably intentionally flippant). I have heard about his work, his court case but I never really knew anything about the man. This film focuses on the years Kevorkian spent as "Dr. Death" but also gives a lot of personal insight into his life, relationships, personality. It shows him as an eccentric man who knowingly gave up his freedom for his cause.

Below is the trailer for this film which just premiered on HBO this past weekend.


Regardless of how you may feel about the topic, you can not (if this film is an accurate portrayal) argue the passion he feels for his cause. He so believed in this cause that he put his own freedom on the line with every death. The last death was not actually an assisted suicide but euthanasia. He went into this knowing it would force a court case.

He pleads a sympathetic case for his cause. The terms he uses are ones that we would be familiar with: death with dignity, quality of life, end suffering. He speaks about why must someone make the decision to have their feeding tube removed and die slowly when we could just end things quickly, humanely. Who are we as doctors to make someone go through that when we have the ability to spare them?

One statement I found interesting: "terminally ill is not a definable term". I would love to hear what everyone thinks of that.

I wondered when I started watching the film how the story would be slanted. It was clearly pro Dr. Kevorkian. I was left wishing for more balanced view of the issues. I felt those against what he had done were vilified and painted as overly religious. (I know very nonreligious people who are against assisted suicide.) I have always seen this as a very complex issue. To just get one side does not do it justice. I was left feeling a bit like the media was trying to manipulate my views rather than just trying to entertain me or even educate me. I would like to see a palliative care perspective. Is death all we have to offer?

From a film perspective, this is very well acted, starring Al Pacino (a remarkable resemblance to Dr. Kevorkian), John Goodman, Susan Sarandon. Intermixed with the main storyline are interesting personal relationships between Jack and his best friends, sister and lawyer. He struggles with the issues that brought him to embrace assisted suicide in the first place, the suffering and death of his mother.

One line in the movie describes Dr. Kevorkian as "the last doctor you'll ever need". My thought was, does that describe me too?

7 Responses to “You Don't Know Jack”

Drew Rosielle MD said...
April 27, 2010 at 5:28 PM

You can count me as a non-religious person who is against assisted suicide (at least professionally; I don't think it should be criminalized but am not sure what legal status I think is best for it otherwise). The other thing I'm against is ideological 'passion' about things like this, if you couldn't already tell by my cautious, and overly-hedged opening statement.

Passion is something that gives one pause, yes, and sure at times you can't help but respecting it, but passion without wisdom seems like a one-way ticket to war, genocide, financial market deregulation, and other plagues of the last century.


Sean Marks said...
April 29, 2010 at 6:49 AM

Like your comment Drew. While we're in the spirit of plainly stating things we don't like, let me proclaim that I am not a fan of these biopic films. By their design, they're meant to entertain and in order to do that dialogue is fabricated, conflicts are created to make specific scenes and the movie as a whole move forward and gel. I don't feel you can trust the information you glean from these things such that you can walk away and say, "ahh now I know Jack Kevorkian." If I'm stuck in a room and forced to watch one, I try to view it as pure fiction and just appreciate the story-telling, the acting, the cinematography, what have you, but why even bother to assume that these films have historical value or insight.


Amber Wollesen, MD said...
April 29, 2010 at 3:36 PM

Drew,
But there is good that can come from passion with wisdom. The best example I can think of is the civil rights movement. I don't think that feeling passionately about a cause is a bad thing. I'm sure there is some war and genocide that came out of the very rational, dispassionate mind. There is a trap in that too. It seems that wisdom is the better question.

Do I think Dr. Kevorkian fits into the same category as the civil rights movement? No. I'm actually not a Kevorkian supporter. This movie actually made me less of a supporter, not sure why as that was clearly not its intent (maybe thats why). But I do respect that his life experiences lead him to the beliefs that he has (speaking as if the movie is entirely true which I know it probably isn't) whether or not I share those beliefs.

Sean,
Thanks for your comment. I do agree. Movie writers are so much more clever with their dialogue than we could ever be.


Stephen Drake said...
May 6, 2010 at 6:27 AM

FWIW - and I know it's late in the game - the story about the death of Kevorkian's mother being the event that motivated him to begin on assisted suicide is a fiction - certainly the conversation between Kevorkian and Janet Good is.

In real life, Kevorkian began writing about wanting to "facilitate" deaths long before his mother died - beginning in the late 1950s. His main focus was on getting access to death row prisoners who would volunteer to be put to death under general anesthesia - which he would gladly do as long as they agreed to be kept alive and unconscious long enough for him to conduct medical experiments on them. He left a long paper trail on this - including a 1991 book he published devoted to the topic. His list of those he thought would be appropriate for "planned death" (and experimental exploitation) included the death row prisoners, people with disabilities, disabled infants, and people with dementia.

After seeing that movie, you really don't know Jack at all.


Lori Lucas CRNP said...
May 21, 2010 at 10:06 AM

yikes...that last blog was scary. I'd love to read that book. that being said, I think that assisted suicide should be an option (albeit monitoring it would be quite a challenge/there is so much potential for abuse). those brief clips (during the movie) of patients asking for his help convinced me even more. not even the best palliative care can relieve all suffering. and why should someone in such a situation HAVE to 'do the work'if they don't want to? haven't they worked enough already? I agree that a non-religious representation of opposition would have added some validity to this lopsided film.


Stephen Drake said...
March 16, 2011 at 11:54 PM

FWIW - and I know it's late in the game - the story about the death of Kevorkian's mother being the event that motivated him to begin on assisted suicide is a fiction - certainly the conversation between Kevorkian and Janet Good is.

In real life, Kevorkian began writing about wanting to "facilitate" deaths long before his mother died - beginning in the late 1950s. His main focus was on getting access to death row prisoners who would volunteer to be put to death under general anesthesia - which he would gladly do as long as they agreed to be kept alive and unconscious long enough for him to conduct medical experiments on them. He left a long paper trail on this - including a 1991 book he published devoted to the topic. His list of those he thought would be appropriate for "planned death" (and experimental exploitation) included the death row prisoners, people with disabilities, disabled infants, and people with dementia.

After seeing that movie, you really don't know Jack at all.


Sean Marks said...
March 16, 2011 at 11:54 PM

Like your comment Drew. While we're in the spirit of plainly stating things we don't like, let me proclaim that I am not a fan of these biopic films. By their design, they're meant to entertain and in order to do that dialogue is fabricated, conflicts are created to make specific scenes and the movie as a whole move forward and gel. I don't feel you can trust the information you glean from these things such that you can walk away and say, "ahh now I know Jack Kevorkian." If I'm stuck in a room and forced to watch one, I try to view it as pure fiction and just appreciate the story-telling, the acting, the cinematography, what have you, but why even bother to assume that these films have historical value or insight.