Kevorkian archive opens as assisted deaths rise
Ann Arbor — Just days before she died with Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s assistance, Merian Frederick could not speak or hold up her head without help from her daughter, Carol Poenisch.
On a video recorded by Kevorkian in 1993, Poenisch steadies Frederick’s Lou Gehrig’s disease-ravaged body as she signs a form requesting help to die “in the most humane, rapid and painless manner” possible. Then, Poenisch reads words just penned by her mother that convey her final, fervent, wish: “My tears should not be taken as an indication that I am in doubt.”
The videotaped interview, clinically labeled “Medicide: File 8,” is one of many in a new archive at Kevorkian’s alma mater, The University of Michigan. It’s been digitized and included in one of nine boxes stored in the stacks of the Bentley Historical Library in Ann Arbor — available for the first time as legislation supporting physician-assisted deaths makes gains in the U.S.
Poenisch was among the first to visit the archive, a gift donated by Ava Janus, his niece and sole heir. It spans from 1911 to 2014 and includes correspondence and manuscript drafts, and files on assisted suicides, including medical histories, photographs, video and audio.
“It did bring emotions. … I was kind of happy to have that behind me because it was such a crazy time,” Poenisch, a Detroit-area physical education teacher, told The Associated Press. “I was kind of amused, looking at some of his history, hoping this would benefit somebody someday.”
Kevorkian, a graduate of Michigan’s Medical School, died in 2011 in suburban Detroit at 83. He sparked the national right-to-die debate with a homemade suicide machine that helped end about 130 ailing people’s lives, using the term “medicide” to describe physician-assisted suicide. Kevorkian was convicted of second-degree murder in 1999 for assisting in the 1998 death of a Michigan man with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was released from prison in 2007.
While rooted in the past, the archive has been unveiled at a time when the movement gains ground. In October, California became the fifth state — following Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana — where physician-assisted deaths are legal, and that’s made proponents of right-to-die legislation optimistic about possible successes elsewhere. Other bills are pending.
Where does the outspoken, unapologetic and now archived Kevorkian fit in the current debate? Some see him and his efforts at the center. Others, like Poenisch, praise his trailblazing but believe his approach — wearing costumes and plugging his ears in court, once talking to reporters with his head and wrists restrained in a medieval-style stock — was detrimental to him and the cause.
Poenisch said she hoped to find a deeper, fuller archive, including letters that she and others wrote to Kevorkian while in prison, and a journal he kept during his incarceration. What she viewed didn’t do much to change her mind.
“He was unpredictable — you didn’t know what he was going to do next. It was always a show,” she said. “Was he really doing it because he really believed in it, or did he really enjoy all of the attention he would get?”
“He would have had more respect if he had done in a more dignified way — (as a) dignified doctor, not a showman,” she added.
Others say the outlandishness was necessary. Mayer Morganroth, Kevorkian’s attorney and friend, said people who have said he had the right message but was the wrong messenger are missing the point.
“The only way to get out there was to be out there himself, go over the top,” Morganroth said.
Kevorkian’s ghoulish reputation is belied by the videotaped consultations in the archive. They show Kevorkian turning down many people seeking assistance and only signed on after he spoke to them and their family members and was assured of their terminal state.
That can be seen in interviews with Poenisch’s mother, Merian Fredericks, and an unidentified woman suffering from severe rheumatoid arthritis and other ailments. The 1994 interview shows the woman from the neck down, in a wheelchair, with her legs amputated and one eye removed.
She says that Kevorkian had “counseled me a couple years ago” and suggested that she should keep trying other remedies. Now, she tells him, “I am really full of despair because the pain can’t be controlled. And I’d really like an out.”
In Frederick’s video, Kevorkian speaks with Poenisch and the Rev. Ken Phifer, Frederick’s Unitarian Universalist minister. Phifer tells Kevorkian, “I’ve tried to explain all the options” to her during many conversations, but adds “she really doesn’t want to go on.” Kevorkian then asks Fredericks if she has any doubts, and she writes “no” in large letters on a pad.
“None of us, of course, want to see her end her life,” Kevorkian says. “But it’s her decision.”
For lead archivist Olga Virakhovskaya, the collection sums up Kevorkian’s paradoxes and reflects his past and present influence.
“This conversation (on physician-assisted suicide) that we have as a nation is his legacy,” she said. “He was a controversial person, but he was a brilliant scientist.”