Thursday, March 10, 2016

Miriam Toews' Alex Fountain Memorial Lecture

I attended a great event tonight at my alma mater, the University of King's College. Miriam Toews, also a King's alum from a few years before my time, delivered the Alex Fountain Memorial Lecture, an annual talk named for a young King's student who committed suicide. Toews was there to talk about suicide, about the right to die and her writing life, which has been very much entangled in these questions, since she has written books about her sister and her father, both of whom took their own lives. She said she regretted that she hadn't helped her sister go to Switzerland, to end her life in a peaceful way, in the company of people she loved. Instead, her end was solitary and violent. As Rachel reminded me, both Toews' sister and father used trains as the instrument of their death. I was saying to Rachel afterwards that, in all the discussion right now about right-to-death legislation, assisted suicide, etc., something I've never heard mentioned is the trauma that suicide, as a prohibited individual act, visits on others and how giving people a legal, regulated avenue to pursue their own death might mitigate that trauma. I thought of Russell Wangersky's book Burning Down the House, in which he writes so poignantly of the PTSD he suffered as a result of his work as a firefighter. How many first responders have been permanently scarred by witnessing the effects of violent self-inflicted death? And of course, I thought of my colleagues, especially those engineers who become, in a sense, the helpless agents of other people's intentional demise. Just a few months ago, in November, I was on a train full of people that ran over a suicide victim. There were people on board who were profoundly upset by it, even without seeing the body. That person who killed herself, irony of ironies, worked in a hospital. There's debate as to whether assisted suicide should take place in hospitals or in other venues. One thing I know: a gravel roadbed in the dark and the snow is no place for it.

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