August 11, 2014

"Freud's Last Session" and Reflections on His Assisted Suicide

Last month, just before my Norway cruise, I saw a revival of the play Freud’s Last Session at Theater J in DC’s Jewish Community Center. The two-character drama is based on an imagined meeting between Freud and C. S. Lewis in which they debate God’s existence. The conversation takes place a few weeks before Freud’s assisted suicide.

Either I hadn’t known or had forgotten how Freud ended his life. I made a note to research the topic when I got back from my trip, and I did this weekend.

Freud's Last Session
It’s September 3, 1939. Freud is 83 and suffering from advanced oral cancer. Germany has just invaded Poland. Freud has summoned C. S. Lewis -- still a a young, little-known professor and author -- to his London home. Freud wants to know how such as an intelligent man could suddenly abandon his atheism and turn to religion... or as Freud puts it, “embrace  an insidious lie.”

For 80 minutes (longer than the standard therapy session), they engage in a wide-ranging theological debate that eventually turns personal. Their conversation is punctuated by radio news bulletins -- like Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war against Germany -- and an air raid scare.

Freud’s Last Session, written by Mark St. Germain, opened Off-Broadway in the summer of 2010. It enjoyed an unusually long run, perhaps because (it was said) every psychiatrist in New York went to see the show.


Freud’s Assisted Suicide
The cigar-smoking Freud was diagnosed with oral cancer in 1923. He could never give up the smokes... which he believed made him more creative and productive. Freud had to use a crude prosthesis to talk and eat, and he dealt with the pain from more than 30 surgical procedures.

When he decided the time was right\ -- September 23, 1939 -- Freud murmured to his doctor, “This makes no more sense,” and the doctor injected him with a lethal dose of morphine. He died two days later after two more shots. While this account of Freud’s death is generally accepted, some have argued that the dose (actually three doses over three days) was not lethal and Freud’s doctor was only continuing the palliative care he had been providing for years. 

Many physicians willingly help terminally ill patients end their lives, even though doing so is against the law in most places. A friend who is terminally ill with cancer told me he had obtained a lethal dose prescription several years ago. So far he hasn’t touched it, and gets it renewed every year. Just knowing he has that control over his exit makes his life more bearable. 

The physician may do nothing more than answer a patient's question, like “How many of these would be lethal for me to take?” That's all the doctor has done: provide information. The responsibility -- decision and execution -- rests with the patient.

Each of us should have the right to decide how we want to die, and when. But I worry about making it too easy to commit suicide. Many suicides certainly result from hasty decisions by people who are depressed or angry. 


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