Committed and convicted, Anne Else

To Cry Inside: Love, Death and Prison
Lesley Martin
Penguin, $29.95,
ISBN 0143020382

“You are best to read To Die Like a Dog first”, writes Lesley Martin, introducing To Cry Inside. So I did. Written as a film script, the first book clearly conveys that nursing her dying mother (who had refused to return to hospital) placed Martin under immense physical and emotional strain. It’s also clear that, probably because she was a trained nurse, the extent of this strain went unrecognised by busy health professionals. In fact, To Cry Inside reveals that for a month, the GP and the surgeon each thought Joy Martin was under the other’s care.

Then her mother asked her daughter to help her: “when it’s time … don’t let me lie there, not alive and not dead.” One night, finding her mother unconscious, Martin gave her a relatively large amount of morphine, though exactly when and in what doses is unclear. In the first book, she said she gave her 60g in one dose. She now says this was a deliberate distortion in order to make it seem as if she was indeed attempting euthanasia, and thus provoke the authorities into putting her on trial, when “the truth was a mess of conflicting intentions that resulted in no clear intention at all.” She asserts that if she had indeed given such a large dose at one time (and expert witnesses backed her up), Joy Martin would almost certainly have died very soon after. As it was, she lived on for another day and night.

It seemed to be Lesley Martin’s encounter that day with an astonishingly insensitive hospice nurse, who realised what she had done, and told her, “Your mother is not so bad. She could go several days on the flesh she’s carrying”, that pushed her to her final breaking point. There is a harrowing scene in which the daughter sees the mother apparently weeping and hugs her with a pillow between them until Joy stops breathing. The doctor and nurse initiated a homicide inquiry, but eventually it was dropped.

To Cry Inside explains that while Martin initially wrote To Die Like A Dog for her own sake, her experience had also driven her to research euthanasia, to which she had “never given much thought” before:

I so desperately wanted never to experience that shifting of soul again, so, if for purely selfish reasons, I had a responsibility to do all I could …. I just knew that my crisis of soul was my truth and that it was unjust for Joy not to have had better choices and for people in my position to have to experience not only that crisis of soul, but also the legal consequences that so often followed.

 

So she decided to publish her first book (with its deliberate lie about the morphine dose) to make one such experience public, knowing and indeed intending that it would result in the trial that had earlier been averted, and that in the “worst-case scenario”, she could end up in prison.  However, To Cry Inside shows that she did not really expect to be found guilty, let alone be given a prison sentence, then have her application for home detention refused. The deciding factors seem to have been her refusal to express remorse for what she did, and her insistence on continuing to campaign for euthanasia.

The transcript-based sections covering her encounters with the justice system itself are fascinating, but they are also fragmented and frustrating. This is probably an accurate reflection of how Martin experienced the system – and how the system regarded her. They form a striking contrast with her no-holds-barred, utterly compelling account of her time in Arohata. All I could think was that she coped, and so survived, a damned sight better than I would have done – but at enormous cost to herself and her family. What’s more, she knew she had incurred this cost deliberately.

Two of the most prominent related cases in New Zealand have involved parents ending the lives of a baby and a teenager. But it’s probably fair to say that the steady growth in the proportion of older people, along with medical advances which make it possible to prolong the existence of the terminally ill, are the major drivers behind the current surge of interest in the euthanasia debate.

Unfortunately, the most ardent advocates of New Right doctrines have come perilously close to encouraging the view that growing numbers of inconvenient, unproductive, costly elderly represent nothing but an intolerable burden, which taxpayers should refuse to shoulder. Some of those who are adamantly opposed to providing the legalised option of voluntary euthanasia believe that it would quickly become an all-too-logical, irresistible “solution” to this “problem”.

I don’t think their fears can be entirely discounted. (After all, it’s only 15 years since Ruth Richardson and Jenny Shipley were narrowly deterred from turning the universal basic pension into a meagre, tightly means-tested welfare benefit.) But the argument that a strictly controlled, voluntary euthanasia option must be provided, alongside the best possible palliative care, for the sake of the dying themselves is based on a completely different stance: one of respect for their dignity and inherent worth as sentient human beings. It is this stance that underpins the high levels of support New Zealanders express for the legalised option.

I don’t want to indulge in amateur psychologising about Lesley Martin, or to speculate about what she could or should have done differently. It appears that the circumstances of her mother’s death, together with her own history and temperament, propelled her into a situation where she came to believe so profoundly in the need for the legal option of euthanasia that she was driven to commit herself (and, willy-nilly, her family) to this cause. In the process, she discovered capacities she had not known she possessed – including the power to reach an audience with words. Her books are strongly personal and often hard to take. But everyone concerned about euthanasia, no matter where they stand or what their own experience has been, should read them. And To Cry Inside should be required reading for anyone who claims that prisoners have it far too easy.

 

Anne Else is a Wellington reviewer. 

 

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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction and Review
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