Rita Marker

(New York, William Morrow and Company, 1993, pp 302, $24.95)

The deadly truth about euthanasia

It seems more likely as a plot for an ambitious novel than the basis for a true story: the co-founder if a radical pro-euthanasia group seeks out and then becomes a dear friend of the founder of an anti-euthanasia group.  But it did happen, Rita Marker’s account of the unlikely friendship between herself and Ann Humphry is compelling reading.

Ann Ayers Kooman was a woman who needed a cause.  A cold yet privileged upbringing; an early abortion and a second child given up for adoption; a failed marriage.  And then she met and married Derek Humphry, who had managed the death of his first wife, Jean.

The Ann and Derek team went into the business of marketing euthanasia, co-writing books and co-founding the Hemlock Society.

Rita Marker recounts Ann’s story, as told by her over two years of their friendship before Ann’s suicide.  Through this story comes a very chilling portrait of Derek Humphry and the euthanasia movement as a whole.  Ann recalled Derek’s attitude shortly after they had managed the deaths of her parents, saying to him:

“I saw you mourn for Jean for two years, and I held your hand.  I saw you through the grieving, and helped you write a book about it.  She’s been a part of our marriage for all three years, and I’ve never complained.  Yet my parents have been dead for just two weeks, and you’ve told me I should never speak about them again.”

“Ann told [Rita Marker] Derek just looks at her and said, ‘Well, that’s different.  We made a business out of Jean.”

And, as Ann’s story unfurls, it becomes clear that the business of selling euthanasia is one that Derek Humphry will protect even to the point of destroying his wife’s mental stability, leading to her suicide.

Ann’s intellectual commitment to the euthanasia cause became shaken by her participation in her parent’s deaths.  Derek and Ann prepared the pills, pulverizing them and mixing them with food.  Derek went with her father into his bedroom, and Ann went with her mother, feeding her the lethal mixture.  She described what happened:

“My mother started to die, and then something went wrong, and it was awful.  Her breathing started to get sort of agitated, and I got really scared.  And Derek had always said to me, you know, ‘Just use a plastic bag or a pillow.’  And I just did it because I was so terrified.  There was a plastic laundry bag with her linens, her soiled linen in it, and I took the bag and I just very gently held it over her mouth.  And I have never gotten over that.  And she died very peacefully.

“But I walked away from that house thinking we’re both murderers and I can’t live like this any more.”

In September 1989 Ann was diagnosed with breast cancer, the same disease that Jean Humphry had been battling at her death.  Within two months Derek had abandoned her – leaving a message on the answering machine saying that he would not be returning home from a business trip.  He then began a campaign to undermine her emotional stability and isolate her from her work and friends at the Hemlock Society.

Just over two years later, Ann Humphry committed suicide in the Oregon wilderness.  In a note left for Derek, she wrote:

“There.  You got what you wanted.  Ever since I was diagnosed as having cancer, you have done everything conceivable to precipitate my death…What you did – desertion and abandonment and subsequent harassment of a dying woman – is so unspeakable [sic] there are no words to describe the horror of it…”

Rita Marker, as director of the Anti-Euthanasia Task Force, is an expert on the pro-death movement.  Interspersed with her account of Ann Humphry’s life and death is a solidly-written background to the euthanasia movement and its activities world wide.  She explains the various states’ initiatives for Living Wills, and discusses some of the prominent court cases on euthanasia.

Ann Humphry killed herself with pills obtained by Derek for use in her parents’ deaths.  He was nowhere near her when she died but, morally, if not legally, he was certainly the prime player in assisting her suicide.  Ann asked Rita Marker to tell her story.  In her last note to Rita, she wrote, “Do the best you can.”

Rita Marker’s best is very, very good.