Hazel McHaffie

The Universe versus Alex Woods

The Universe versus Alex Woods

I’m happy to report that the new computer is flying along and overall I’m loving it. Still a few things to get the hang of, but happily writing my blog is not one of them. So here goes.

As you may (or may not) recall, I went to hear Gavin Extence speaking at the Book Festival in August. He wasn’t actually talking about his book, The Universe Versus Alex Woods, (he was presenting the case for assisted dying in a debate) but nevertheless, I bought a copy – of course I did; it’s his version of my Right to Die! And I’ve now finished reading it.Two novels about assisted dyingThe Universe Versus Alex Woods (perfect title, by the way) is very readable, touching and amusing, and I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. Extence says himself he didn’t set out to deal with assisted dying; he wanted to write about this teenager who’s had a difficult life who goes on to perform an act of unconventional selfless heroism.

Which probably accounts for the structure. We know from the outset that Alex Woods is connected to Mr Peterson when he’s stopped at Dover customs with an urn of ashes and 113 grams of marijuana, but it takes Gavin Extence 100 pages to get around to the two meeting. And another 100 pages to present the kernel of the story. First we must get to know Alex Woods: details of his extraordinary accident (hit on the head by a 2.3 kilogram meteorite travelling at 200 miles an hour) and the consequences of his resultant epileptic fits, his puny person, his zany mother, bullying, difficult relationships, his own bizarre responses, his regular sparring with big moral questions and social niceties.

We know far less about Mr Peterson, a rather bad tempered but grieving widower, very attached to his dog and his books. He and Alex are thrown together when Alex has to do penance for a crime he didn’t commit, but they discover mutual interests and develop a strange but warmly wholesome relationship. Through Alex’s eyes Mr Peterson becomes a sparky character given to wise words and robust common sense.

So, although Alex is a teenager, below the age of accepted moral competence, he is the only person Mr Peterson confides in when he develops the intractable neurodegenerative disease, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. It’s a heavy burden for Alex to carry.

PSP might well ring vague bells for you. Remember the real-life case a few years ago, plastered all over the papers, headline news on TV, of the doctor, Anne Turner, who left 100 letters saying, ‘By the time you read this I’ll be dead‘? She’d already nursed her husband through something similar, and she was determined not to linger with it herself. Her three grown up children accompanied her to Switzerland where she drank a lethal dose of medicine. Her decision and the reactions of her family and the authorities were all replayed on TV.

Anyway, Mr Peterson knows he’s destined to lose his ability to take action before too long and he’s mapped out a pathway for himself. Only things don’t go according to plan, and Alex becomes embroiled in his exit. The police characterise Alex as vulnerable – ‘intelligent but extremely naive, and possibly disturbed,’ brain damaged, fatherless, friendless, with a mother of ‘dubious credentials and capabilities‘. He’s easily manipulated, his ‘ethical abilities‘ have been ‘compromised‘. The media spin him into a violent sociopath with an inability to feel emotion, the product of a sinister religious cult, with a troubled record as a young teenager.

Mr Peterson’s unsound judgement is beyond doubt in the eyes of the press: he’s psychologically damaged by the conflict in Vietnam; he’s recently bereaved; he’s been sectioned and incarcerated in a psychiatric ward after attempting suicide; he’s been fraternising with a minor …  they weave all sorts of innuendos through this inexplicable relationship.

We, of course, know the reality. Both Alex and Mr Peterson are into moral decision-making in a big way, analysing things in private and together to tease out the right course of action. As the old man says: ‘Don’t ever surrender your right to make your own moral decisions, kid.

Mr Peterson sums up his predicament succinctly while he’s still in the psychiatric ward after attempting suicide: ‘I don’t want to die, kid. No one wants to die.  But you know where I’m heading a little down the line. My future’s already written. If I don’t want to face that, there’s only one way out.’ And later: ‘I have a life worth living at the moment and I might still have a life worth living six months from now. Even a year from now. I don’t know. But what I do know is that sooner or later the balance is going to tip. Sooner or later I’m gonna have a life I can no longer bear. And by that time, chances are there won’t be a damn thing I can do about it. I’ll be in some kind of hospice. I won’t be able to stand or speak, let alone take the necessary steps to end it all. That’s what’s unbearable.’

 And Alex understands that: ‘Knowing that there was a way out, and that his suffering was not going to become unendurable, was the one thing that allowed Mr Peterson to go on living, much longer than he would otherwise have wanted. It was the weeks leading up to our pact that were shrouded in darkness and despair; after its inception, life became a meaningful prospect once more.’

This is an ambitious debut novel. Extence has delved deep and wide  – into human relationships, epilepsy, meteorology, astronomy, tarot card reading, mathematics, theoretical physics, literature, classical music, neurological disease … Some aspects I found rather less than convincing – the accident, the escape, the ending; but for the most part he has woven an intricate and compelling story. And he’s gone right to the kernel of the ethical debate, so this book sits comfortable in my list of novels dealing with assisted dying.

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A moral quagmire

I hope you’ve been rejoicing in the several days of silence. Things have ratcheted up several gears chez moi, though – final proofs for the book have been checked, a new website created, this website updated … I won’t bore you with the rest or the detail.

And now, here I am back at the Book Festival again, in the Spiegeltent this evening. The subject of the session is … don’t groan … The Ethics of Dying. Look, I didn’t put this Book Festival programme together!

The Spiegeltent

But the organisers reckon it’s expedient to consider whether it’s ‘time to reevaluate our thinking‘ on this subject now we have so much power over life and death, and advances in medicine are allowing us to keep people alive so much longer than nature ever intended. So who am I to argue? It’s a question I’ve often asked in conferences and seminars: just because we can, does it mean we should?

And on the flip side, what do we think about assisted suicide for those people who’ve had enough of life? Is it right to stop them? OK, we did that last week too, but hey ho.

Inside the Spiegeltent

It’s a strange feeling sitting here. Exactly five years ago I was wheeled into this very tent as the author of Right to Die, debating this very issue alongside Baroness Mary Warnock, with Richard Holloway in the chair. Tonight the author is Gavin Extence and the academic, Professor of Divinity, David Fergusson, with Richard Holloway in the chair.

Extence has recently published his debut novel, The Universe versus Alex Woods, which is curiously similar to Sparkle and Dark’s, Killing Roger, which I told you about last week: young man meets old man, old man wants to die, young man has to decide where he stands. But he’s not talking about it; he’s presenting the case for assisted dying based on the research he did for the book. Curious choice, and I hear mutterings from various ‘older’ folk about his not having lived yet, all theory, second hand.

Richard Holloway maintains his customary firm grip on proceedings, dismissing irrelevancies and keeping the debate focused. He sets the tone for a much more moderate discussion by saying it’s not a good/bad divide, but a matter of opposing goods, and both speakers echo that. And he points out that it’s right and proper that we should be discussing this matter and feeling a sense of anguish about it. We shouldn’t be dismayed that we find it difficult.

Extence’s main points are that technology and advances in medicine are the main reasons why we have a problem with aging or ill people living beyond the point they would choose to. Dwindling resources and poor care mean we are heading to a situation where only those who can afford it will be able to die well, so for him the pressing issue is freedom of choice. His solutions: learn from the experience of other countries who allow assisted dying; clarify the law for relatives; educate society in relation to end of life; fund quality research into these horrible diseases.

Fergusson makes the point that doctors no longer have the latitude to quietly help people to die, and in consequence the old fear the dying process. Repeated parliamentary bills have polarised opinion unhelpfully, with both sides tending to caricature the other and present them in an unfavourable light. As a theologian he declares himself in support of the notion that life is God-given and to be used responsibly, but he fully accepts that some lives should not be prolonged unnecessarily, and that people should be able to exercise some choice in the manner of their dying. He further concedes that even though he might not choose to end his own life, he feels uncomfortable with the idea of imposing his view on others. Hurrah! say I.

The problems for him relate to public safety, not prohibition. The difficulties of specifying safeguards, knowing when death is less than 6 months away, being sure the wish to end a life is sustained and for the right reasons. He fears a shift in the law might make certain people more vulnerable and divert attention away from good palliative care. Doctors do not want to take on this task, and Fergusson feels it shouldn’t be forced on them. But he doesn’t like the idea of specialists in ‘killing’ either. He concludes that the law must be tailored to all, not just to hard cases. Therein lies a real problem, say I.

There are seven disabled people in wheelchairs at the front of the tent and predictably they leap in with questions. Most of the comments lament attitudes and provisions which make life intolerable; things which could be improved with more money and better education.

An advocate of assisted dying calls for accuracy in quoting statistics: the incidence of assisted suicide abroad is very small and most people who subscribe to it never actually avail themselves of the drugs; it’s more an insurance against a lingering or intolerably undignified or painful death which in fact allows them to live longer.

As always, the particular difficulties of those who are no longer mentally competent to make the choice for themselves comes up. And the importance of compassion and excellent care. Assisted suicide is not a genuine choice if it’s in response to substandard provision.

David Fergusson picks up on the repeated invoking of human rights and autonomy, reminding the audience that all of us operate in relation to other people; what we choose for ourselves affects them too. Wise words.

Richard Holloway sums up the discussion as temperate, elegant, modest and humane, and he takes two votes at the end. There’s a clear majority in favour of having some provision for people in certain circumstances to be assisted to  commit suicide. And no one has changed their mind as a result of what they heard tonight. C’est la vie!

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