Kevorkian, remember him?

Mar 10, 2004 at 12:00 am


Both Bush, a mendacious bewitcher
And sly Cheney, his policy pitcher
Scheme for taxes and oil
And will let nothing foil
Their slick plot for the rich to get richer

—Jack Kevorkian, from prison, 2004


These days, when you mention Jack Kevorkian in conversation, you get the sort of mildly startled look you’d expect if someone had brought up mood rings or Earth shoes, followed by: “Is he still in prison?” or “Is he still alive?”

This week, he may get a minor flurry of attention, since his new book, GlimmerIQs, written from his cell in Lapeer, has just been published. Actually, it was self-published, and is available only on the Internet at or locally (for $26) at Ariana Gallery in Royal Oak, which may tell you something.

Alas, it isn’t very good. More on that later. But it is amazing that its author, once virtually the world’s most famous physician, now is nearly forgotten.

Five years ago, when Kevorkian’s final trial was coming to its sorry conclusion, this would have been inconceivable. He was then still a national figure of enormous prominence. He had been on magazine covers and virtually every TV newsmagazine. He had even been feted as one of Time magazine’s newsmakers of the century.

Not only was Dr. Death hot copy, he had become a cultural icon, inspiring novels, rock bands, and virtually every other Letterman and Leno monologue. At least one prominent Hollywood screenwriter was talking about a Kevorkian movie.

Then, bang. He taped himself doing euthanasia; fired his lawyers; got himself convicted of second-degree murder; and vanished into the maw of Michigan’s prison system. He thought an indignant world would clamor for his release.

It forgot him instead. “Prisoners don’t usually hold press conferences,” the prosecutor in charge purred the day the K was sentenced to 10 to 25 years. He was dead right too. John Engler quickly announced a new policy that prisoners could no longer give on-camera interviews. With that, the world forgot Kevorkian, and the media, which has the attention span of a 2-year-old, was off to other things. It was the era of impeachment and blow jobs, followed by the stolen election.

Next came Sept. 11, and talk about dying suddenly became bad form. Having fired the flamboyant Geoffrey Fieger, and failing monstrously at defending himself, K hooked up with Mike Morgenroth, a genteel establishment attorney.

Taking the case pro bono, Morgenroth pursued a gentlemanly strategy of filing appeals, which he argued reasonably and tactfully. The courts dragged their feet and took years to turn them all down. Having been defied and embarrassed by the apostle of assisted suicide for years, the system wasn’t about to set Jacko free.

Today, Jack Kevorkian, no-longer-licensed physician, shares a cell in the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, forgotten by most of his once-fervent supporters. Recently, a loyal band of his old neighbors in the Armenian community sent a petition to Gov. Jennifer Granholm, asking that she pardon him.

They didn’t even get a reply. Nor can one greatly blame her. If she let him out and he began presiding over assisted suicides or euthanasia again (even though he says he wouldn’t) it could have a Willie Horton effect on her political career.

Technically, he will be eligible for parole at age 79, in May 2007. But the state is under no obligation to spring him then. Technically, it can hold him till 2024, by which time he will almost certainly have long since become room temperature.

Yet the problem that brought him to national prominence is getting worse. Every year, thousands learn that science can keep them alive, often in conditions of embarrassment, pain and squalor, draining their families’ finances long after the point when the sufferers got anything meaningful out of existence.

Jack Kevorkian thought if these people wanted to end their suffering they ought to be able to seek medical help in doing so. Naturally, for years the well-connected had been doing so secretly. Nobody who knows anything about Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s passing believes she didn’t have help. Yet Kevorkian did it openly and defiantly.

Denouncing hypocrisy, he rubbed it in the establishment’s face. Thanks in large part to agile legal tactics, juries refused to convict him. He made assisted suicide de facto legal here, and it was well on its way to being fully accepted.

Then, however, he went and dynamited everything he had accomplished with reckless, in-your-face behavior calculated to force the authorities to arrest him and force a jury to convict him. Whether or not he was self-destructive is not important.

What he lacked was a sense of proportion. The tragedy is that with the World War II generation now dying en masse and the baby boomers aging, the social problem he was trying to solve will just grow exponentially.

The media and our politicians now have moved on to gay marriage as the cutting-edge issue of the day. Yet the nursing homes and back bedrooms of the country are slowly filling up with those who want out, now.

Meanwhile, our health care system is headed for financial collapse. Society is certain to revisit this, remembering Dr. Death as perhaps its John Brown.

Sadly, however, his new book doesn’t offer much new. Though Kevorkian is actually a skilled writer, GlimmerIQs clearly suffers from being written in a prison cell, without proper conditions for research or writing.

It is a pastiche of his past writings, musical compositions, family photographs and letters and the usual dreadful paintings, plus a couple decent new essays. The best part about it, oddly, may be his criticism of the Bush regime. Kevorkian, who was apolitical for most of his life, seldom voting, now waxes politically insightful through limericks:

A quite gaudy, uncultured grandee/Uncle Sam has imposed this decree/ As your lord I command/ All my fief’s vassal land/ to democratize the way I see!

Yeah, we sorta knew that too.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]