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American Literature 76.4 (2004) 777-806

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The Cultural Logic of Euthanasia:

"Sad Fancyings" in Herman Melville's "Bartleby"

Emory University

On 26 February 1998, Roosevelt Dawson, a twenty-one-year-old, African American college student in Southfield, Michigan, chose to die with the help of Jack Kevorkian. Dawson was the first African American and the youngest person among Kevorkian's then ninety-seven assisted suicides. The prognosis for his disability and the prospects for his life were uncertain. Dawson had been quadriplegic for thirteen months due to a viral infection. Although he had been living in hospitals for over a year, his disability was stable, and he was not terminally ill. His mother, single with three younger sons, was not able to provide financial assistance. Even though it was publicly acknowledged that Dawson was depressed and lacked social services and strong personal support, a local court ruled that he was competent to decide to leave the hospital. The hospital, church officials, friends, and family knew he had contacted Kevorkian and intended to die.1

Underpinning local responses in the media to Dawson's death lurked the sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit assumption that his life was no longer worth living. Indeed, Dawson's preference to die validated such a belief. A letter to the editor of the Oakland Press concluded that because he used a ventilator, had "tubes stuck in him," and—worst of all—supposedly needed "diapers," his life was unlivable.2 In a speech at Dawson's memorial service, Kevorkian's lawyer offered consolation by imagining the dead man nondisabled in some other life: "Wherever Roosevelt is today, he can breathe, he can run, and he can reach down and hug every person here, and not as a slave to a machine."3 No one in Oakland, Michigan, who commented publicly on Dawson's death—or even Dawson himself before he died—suggested [End Page 777] that as a disabled person he might have a worthwhile and fulfilling life. Nor did anyone challenge the cultural logic that disability makes living untenable.

The collective logic that Dawson's life as disabled was hopelessly reduced by suffering and no longer worthwhile boldly contrasts with another logic of disability prevalent in the popular imagination. Whereas Dawson's life is seen as hopeless, the cultural narrative of the famous, wealthy, quadriplegic actor Christopher Reeve, the former star of Superman who was paralyzed in a 1995 horseback riding accident, is one of hopefulness—indeed of inspiration. Although Reeve's and Dawson's lives prompt different responses in the public consciousness, the physical limits and requirements of their impairments are precisely the same. Both men's lives and bodies were substantially transformed instantaneously, requiring them to breathe through a ventilator and to be assisted by others in daily life tasks. Although their impairments rendered their embodied existence substantially the same, Reeve's story inspires hope, whereas Dawson's inspires despair. Where Dawson's disability justified his death, Reeve's disability galvanizes his life and stirs ours. Dawson's preference to die and Reeve's preference to live both seem warranted. This essay is ultimately about the ways that we as a culture understand those preferences.

What makes death preferable for Dawson and life preferable for Reeve, I argue, is that the narrative emerging from Dawson's life imagined him as incurable, but Reeve—including his extensive support system and positive media image—focuses a great deal of cultural, economic, and racial capital on creating an optimistic narrative of cure. At the 1996 Academy Awards, for example, Reeve urged Congress to fund research intended "to fix people like me."4 An advertisement during the 2000 Super Bowl embodies this illusionary fulfillment of the cure by showing a digitally enhanced Reeve rising from his wheelchair and striding haltingly forward to cheers and clapping.5 In contrast to Dawson, Reeve's ventilator, tubes, and diapers signify not desolation but courage and spunk. Time magazine put him on its cover in November 1998. Dawson's scant resources, on the other hand, endorse...