Disclaimer: This story is based on the true story of John Hofsess, a Canadian writer who helped 8 people to commit suicide before committing suicide himself in 2016, and Jack Kevorkian, a doctor who was convicted of second-degree murder for helping more than 130 people commit suicide. This story doesn’t reflect the author’s point of view on assisted suicide in any way.
Featured image courtesy of I make stuff sometimes.
Editor’s Note: Elaine Johnson-Woods (born 1991) was a medical student at University of John Hopkins when she was arrested on suspicion of first-degree murder. Between 2013 and 2016, she was involved with the death of 5 people, who she claimed to have come to her for help to end their lives. Below is the letter she wrote to the Judge to appeal for her case.
When Maddie asked me to help her to commit suicide, I had said no. Like all sensible people would, I had held her manicure-perfect hands in mine, leaned in so close that my face was only inches away from her tearful mascara-ed eyes. I had told her to be strong. I had asked her to think of all people who loved her—me included—and of all the things she had not tried in life. She was only 19, for God’s sake. Her skin still had that baby glow no matter how many drinks and how little hours of sleep she had had last night. Her breasts were still so new and firm—the nipples still pointed up from underneath her braless shirt.
“If you don’t help me, I will die alone,” Maddie said.
And die alone she did. Jumped off the university’s library on a Sunday afternoon. The sun was bubbling down the violet sky. The wind was straddling the palm fronds—their silhouettes danced merrily in a wild-west waltz. The view from the roof of that building must have been spectacular. You could probably see the ocean from there—I wondered if Maddie took a look. Her arms flailed around like she was trying to dog paddle to the other side. Her left leg folded backwards. One of her eyes fell out of its socket, rolled along a crimson trail and nested underneath a bike rack. Long after I had left the scene, that eye followed me and stared at me in my sleep. Her unattached body stood next to it, her voice echoed through the four corners of my room: “I told you!” There were tears coming out from her eyeless socket. She didn’t die right away. She was in pain for the next 10 days before she could finally go.
Maddie was depressed—I knew it all right. I was her confidante and her 2am therapist. She had the classic story of a troubled teenager. Abusive parents. Check. Unrequited love. Check. Inability to find passion in anything she was doing. Check. I will not try to justify her suicide—I myself don’t believe it could ever be justified. However, up until this day, up until this very moment writing this letter to Your Honor, I wish I had helped her. Maddie didn’t come to me to put the weight of her sufferings on me. She came to me because she knew I could help. I was a human biology major and a premed student at that time. My advisor was a world expert in thanatology. We observed death. We followed death. We made a living on the dying. Death is not pretty, Your Honor. A peaceful and painless death is as elusive as a forbidden elixir that I unfortunately know how to create. Maddie, and the majority of the world, did not. If I couldn’t convince her to go on living—nobody could—the least I could do was to help her die the way she had wanted. That way, the net amount of misery she had to suffer could have been reduced. That way, the last image the world had of Maddie, a girl oh so obsessed with aesthetics, could have been different.
Assisted suicide is not the kind of thing you can run a promotional campaign for. You cannot put out an advertisement on Spotify every time a Radiohead song is played. Neither can people who have used your service refer their friends to you. Your satisfied customers, excuse me for my language, would be a little too dead to give you a five star rating. No, Your Honor, I was never on the lookout for the next person who wanted to end their life. They found me, either through the article I wrote after Maddie’s death or through the papers I wrote with my advisor about a painless death. They came from all walks of lives: struggling fellow students, lonely homeless grandpas, devoted artists who have lost their senses of wonder. None of them had the kind of illness that would qualify them for a legal physician-assisted suicide in a state where it was allowed. They had the other kind of terminal illness, the kind that killed hopes and spoiled dreams.
It was never the case when someone came to me and then, bam, died. I didn’t have a hatchet in my handbag or a knife under my sleeves. There was always a lot of talking. I would treat them to my favorite restaurants. I would take them on one of the scenic drives through the country. I would be their friend and their confidante. Your Honor, I never charged anyone for my time or my service. I did all this using the little I make from working at the hospital. On rare occasions, I could talk them out of suicide. But on most cases, I would give them a date: three to six months away from the day we decide on the time. I told them that was the time it took to acquire the equipment. I didn’t need any time to get the equipment. I was hoping that during these three to six months, they would give their lives another chance.
Knowing that their misery had a deadline, people usually cheered up. “Living every day like your last” is not just a cliché. People stopped doing things that made them miserable and started doing things they loved. They sold their houses. They got a divorce. They quit their jobs. They dropped out of school. They drove a bus across the country. They flew to the other side of the planet to climb that mountain they wanted to climb before they died. They volunteered at a shelter. They learned to dance the way they had always wanted to. When the day came, most people had decided that they did not want to die anymore. During those four tumultuous years, 40 people came to me. Only 5 decided to go ahead with it.
These five people, I knew that there was no stopping them. There was that forlorn look in their eyes, that emptiness of emotion in the way they speak, that resignation in their gait as they went about doing their daily chores. They were already dead inside. I knew that if I didn’t help them, they would do it their way—painful and grotesque—and they would come back and haunt me for the rest of my life the way Maddie did.
Your Honor, let me ask you a question: “What circumstances can justify a suicide?” Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act stated that “Under the law, a competent adult Oregon resident who has been diagnosed, by a physician, with a terminal illness that will kill the patient within six months may request in writing, from his or her physician, a prescription for a lethal dose of medication for the purpose of ending the patient’s life”. Why should we decide the worthiness of living based on quantity and not quality? If you knew that you would lose your sight within six months, shouldn’t you make your life a visual fiesta instead of poking your eyes blind? Why six months and not five months, or seven months? Any law that aims to rule if someone’s life is worth living is as arbitrary as the next. Who are we to point our finger at someone and say: “You’re right, your life is not worth living anymore?” What is the freedom to live if we don’t have the right to die?
I respect the law. I have never had as much as a speeding ticket in my 25 years of existence. I worked 10 hours a day and I volunteered to teach low-income children 15 hours a week. I was aware that what I was doing was illegal. However, being illegal does not make it any less right. My only fault is that I live in Maryland. Had I been in Uruguay, I would have been pardoned. “Freedom to love and right to die” act of Uruguay stated that “The judges are authorized to forego punishment of a person whose previous life has been honorable where he commits a homicide motivated by compassion, induced by repeated requests of the victim.” Had I been in Switzerland, what I did would not even be a crime. Yet, Your Honor, because I’m in Maryland, I’m lumped together with John Joubert, Ted Bundy and the like. I’m a serial murderer. I’m a savage. I’m the Charon that ferries people across the river to Death. Without me, you would have to wander the shores for one hundred years. Fear me, living people.
Am I sorry? Yes, I am. I am sorry that life is hard and people want to die. I am sorry that people lose their loved ones for the causes that they have no control over. But do you what I am most sorry for? I’m sorry that if the law doesn’t change, Maddie’s story will happen again and again and again.