Book Bag: ‘A Dignified Ending’ by Lewis Michel Cohen; ‘Reckoning: The Epic Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment’ by Linda Hirshman  

Published: 7/11/2019 4:25:28 PM
Modified: 7/11/2019 4:25:16 PM


By Lewis Mitchel Cohen

Rowman & Littlefield

“The United States is deeply conflicted about whether to allow the terminally ill to shorten their lives,” writes Lewis Mitchell Cohen in his new book, “A Dignified Ending.”

It’s a conflict he knows something about. Cohen, a longtime Valley resident and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts-Baystate School of Medicine, notes that’s he spent much of his own professional life trying to deter patients, many of whom have struggled with depression or other illnesses, from taking their lives — and that there is a “powerful and laudable American suicide prevention lobby” that’s dedicated to saving lives.

But Cohen says his thinking on the issue has changed — as it has for many other Americans — when he considers older people who are suffering and want to meet death on their own terms. “Death no longer means failure, and I can recognize that improving the quality of dying is an admirable goal.”

In “A Dignified Ending,” Cohen uses case studies of a number of people, some famous and others less well known, to examine the controversial subject of medically assisted suicide. From profiles of people like Jack Kevorkian, the late doctor who became one of the more noted champions of euthanasia, to other activists and opponents of assisted suicide, Cohen looks at the timing of such decisions, the legal risks and the mixed reaction of the disability community.

Some of the stories can surprise. Consider the case of retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Jr. and his wife, Joan, who in early 2002 gathered their extended family outside Boston to say goodbye: Struggling with multiple illnesses and pain, they were about to take their lives, a decision they had long discussed with their family.

When the couple’s children later shared the news of their parents’ death with friends, people responded positively, Cohen writes. Yet public reaction was more mixed, he notes, with some doctors criticizing the decision and conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan railing against the Nimitzs’ lack of belief in religion and the sanctity of life.

Elsewhere in “A Dignified Ending,” Cohen, who is also a palliative medicine researcher, examines other famous cases of assisted suicide, like that of Dr. Sigmund Freud, who, stricken with cancer in 1939, asked for and was given lethal doses of morphine by his caregivers. He also looks at how assisted suicide can be complicated by poorly made, last-minute plans, or when patients are suffering from dementia, making their wishes unclear.

“His vivid prose tells the stories of leaders and opponents in the right-to-die movement without shying away from their missteps and conflicts,” one critic writes. “His sympathies are clear, but Cohen has tried to listen attentively to and represent fairly a full range of voices in this most divisive debate.”

In conclusion, Cohen points to the growing number of states that now have “right to die” laws on the books and says death is part of “the connective tissue” that is an essential part of the human experience and of history.

“Humans engage in rites, explanatory narratives, mythological stories, and acts of transcendence that offer the promise of fortitude and consolation when we cross the bridge to our deaths,” he writes. “My sincerest hope is that we will persist in trying to help each other with dignity, respect and compassion on all stages of this journey.”



By Linda Hirshman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Attorney and author Linda Hirshman made her most recent big splash in 2015 with the New York Times bestselling “Sisters in Law,” a biography of Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Now she’s back with a new book that examines another critical part of recent cultural history.

In “Reckoning: The Epic Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment,” Hirshman takes a decades-long look at the struggles women have waged against sexual harassment, beginning in the the 1960s when such a term didn’t actually exist but a growing women’s movement was beginning to demand changes from men, especially in the workplace.

A key figure in the issue is legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon, who as a Yale Law School student argued that sexual harassment was discrimination, prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. MacKinnon’s 1979 book “Sexual Harassment of Working Women,” Hirshman argues, opened the door to greater challenges by women to workplace misconduct.

“Reckoning” also looks at Anita Hill’s testimony in 1991 against Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas, the election to congress the following year of several women angered by the treatment Hill received from the Senate Judiciary Committee, and then the uproar over Bill Clinton’s affair with the intern Monica Lewinsky in the late 1990s.

Hirshman, who called for Clinton to resign over the issue, faults other liberal feminists for giving the former president a pass, and she writes that Hillary Clinton herself “got to decide when the women in her husband’s sphere were political subjects, with human rights.”

“Reckoning” takes the narrative up through more recent developments such as date rape on college campuses, the indictment of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and other powerful male figures on charges of sexual assault and harassment, the birth of the #MeToo Movement, and the election of many new women to political office in 2016. It’s a history that Kirkus Reviews calls “brisk, authoritative, and timely.”

Linda Hirshman will read from and discuss her book on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

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