Design for Dying

by Timothy Leary

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Historical Context

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The 1990s witnessed the popularization of the rightto- die movement, the movement seeking the right to doctor-assisted suicide for the terminally ill, and support for euthanasia. Oregon has been the national focal point of the debate. In 1980, Derek Humphry founded the Hemlock Society in Eugene, Oregon. The group has grown to be the oldest and largest right-to-die organization in the United States. Humphry is the author of the popular book Final Exit, a primer on self-euthanasia (what Humphry calls ‘‘self-deliverance’’), including the thirteen steps for using a plastic bag to kill oneself. In 1994, Oregon became the first state to vote into law a measure guaranteeing the right to doctor-assisted suicide, passing it with 51 percent support.

From the beginning, opponents of physicianassisted suicide measures and bills argued on religious, philosophical, and legal terms against such a right. Many of these arguments turn on the idea that those with terminal illnesses are not mentally quali- fied to make such a decision. Opponents tried to repeal the Oregon law in 1997 but were defeated with a 60 percent vote in favor of retaining the measure. Congress has sought to circumvent Oregon’s law, fearing that other states would follow Oregon’s example and pass assisted-suicide measures or bills. The House of Representatives has passed an act which prohibits federal financial assistance to support assisted suicide and intends that federal funds not be used to promote such activities. Congressional opponents to the right-todie movement have also attempted to pass legislation banning the federal government from licensing physicians to prescribe drugs for assisted suicide.

The man at the center of the assisted suicide movement has been Jack Kevorkian, a Michiganbased physician whose personal crusade is to help the terminally ill end their lives in dignified and comfortable manners. Kevorkian took to draping himself in the American flag during press conferences and posing as Uncle Sam to underscore his point: that he is fighting against government’s intrusion into the most intimate parts of its citizens’ lives and for individual freedom. After years of being charged but never convicted, and of helping others to end their lives, Kevorkian was found guilty of second-degree murder in 1999 and sentenced to ten to twenty-five years in prison for injecting terminally ill fifty-two-year-old Thomas Youk with a lethal cocktail of chemicals. The primary evidence against Kevorkian, whom opponents deride as ‘‘Dr. Death,’’ was a videotape Kevorkian made of the event and sent to the television show 60 Minutes. Kevorkian claims that by doing this he was trying to force the legal system to grapple with the reality of assisted suicide. Although Leary did not commit suicide, physician-assisted or otherwise, he praises Kevorkian for sacrificing his own life and freedom to help others who were suffering end their lives in a way of their own choosing.

Literary Style

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StyleDesign for Dying is both a memoir, a recollection of personal experience, and a treatise, a formal, systematic description of a subject. It is a memoir because Leary reflects on his life and the lessons he has learned; it is a treatise because Leary outlines not only how he lived, but why he made the choices he did. By systematically laying out his thinking on subjects such as drugs, language, technology, death, sex, and consciousness, Leary shows readers the principles that undergirded his life.

Leary was a scientist and he often wrote as one. His prose, even in a book as intimate as Design for Dying , is frequently dominated by jargon, awkward metaphors, and convoluted reasoning and syntax. The sections that Sirius wrote are more direct and less weighed down by Leary’s attempts to articulate...

(This entire section contains 304 words.)

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paradox. Leary’s problem was in trying to find a language for experiences that are mystical and beyond language’s capacity to describe. Sticking to scientific concepts and terminology only obscures his message, and when he tried to use common speech, he often sounds goofy and dated. This flaw can be partially attributed to the challenge Sirius faced in constructing the book from Leary’s notes and past essays. Sirius and Leary each narrate part of the book, then a host of friends and associates recount their experiences with Leary. The effect is closer to collage than unified narrative.

Testimonials are first-person accounts of an event or phenomenon. The addendum to Design for Dying contains numerous testimonials by various friends of Leary’s, recounting memories of him. In this way, the addendum functions as a series of eulogies (tributes to the deceased often delivered by loved ones at the funeral). Ending the book in this manner gives the work as a whole a warmer tone.

Media Adaptations

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Beyond Life with Timothy Leary, a video released in 1997, contains interviews with Leary just before his death, as well as interviews from the 1960s.

The documentary Timothy Leary’s Last Trip, released in 1997, provides an in-depth history of Leary’s place in America’s counterculture, from the early 1960s until his death. Much of the film concerns Leary’s associations with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and their experiments with LSD.

Timothy Leary’s Dead is one in a spate of documentaries released after Leary’s death, but it is probably the most controversial. Directed by Paul Davids, this 1996 film gained fame for its shocking scene of the removal and freezing of Leary’s head, something sources closer to Leary insist never happened.

Leary’s homepage, at (March 2001), contains a trove of text and photos on Leary’s life and work.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Humphry, Derek, Final Exit, Dell Publishing, 1997.

Keelehear, Allan, Dying of Cancer: The Final Year of Life, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1990.

Leary, Zach, ‘‘I’d Love a Hot Dog from That Central Computer,’’ in Whole Earth, No. 90, Summer 1997, p. 33.

Matthews, Ryan, ‘‘Turn On and Tune In,’’ in Progressive Grocer, Vol. 76, No. 7, July 1997, p. 19.

O’Sickey, Ben, Review in Library Journal, Vol. 122, No. 12, July 1997, p. 116.

Self, Will, ‘‘A Teen for Eternity,’’ in New Statesman, Vol. 126, No. 4351, September 12, 1997, p. 44.

Timothy Leary, (May 1999).

Webb, Marilyn, The Good Death: The New American Search to Reshape the End of Life, Bantam Books, 1999.

Further Reading
Dass, Ram, Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying, Riverhead Books, 2000. Ram Dass, formerly Richard Alpert, philosophizes on aging and dying, writing that self-enlightenment comes from stepping away from the ego-self and into the soul-self, where people can witness their thoughts and emotions and assess their effects.

Forte, Robert, ed., Timothy Leary: Outside Looking In, Park St. Press, 1999. A documenter of psychedelic history and phenomenology, Forte provides a multi-faceted look at Leary’s life and writings. These essays by and interviews with Leary address the philosopher’s favorite themes: drugs, religion, and death.

Wolfe, Tom, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1999. Perhaps the definitive book of the 1960s, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test recounts author Tom Wolfe’s trip across America with Ken Kesey and his band, The Merry Pranksters. Wolfe recounts a visit to Leary’s Millbrook house in upstate New York, where experiments with LSD were a part of daily life.


Critical Essays


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