Assigning the Blame for a Young Man's Suicide

Nov. 18, 1991

Deeply depressed, Adrian Adelman, 29, killed himself in September. ETHEL ADELMAN, the victim's mother, and her younger son ALAN claim that Adrian followed the instructions in the best-selling suicide manual Final Exit, and blame the book's author for their tragedy.

By Bonnie Angelo and Ethel Adelman, Alan Adelman

Q. Do you think Adrian would still be alive if he had not read Final Exit?

Ethel: Yes. I think he would still be here today if it weren't for this book.

Alan: He would still be suffering and suicidal, but the book certainly facilitated his death. This book took his life away.

Q. Why did Adrian turn to Final Exit?

Alan: He was 29. He had been suffering from major depression for seven months. As far as we know, he became a member of the Hemlock Society [a group co-founded by Derek Humphry that advocates the right of the terminally ill to take their own life] in July by sending them a check for $25. They don't screen members.

Q. Why are you so angry at the book's author, Derek Humphry?

Alan: Because he published a book that we consider very dangerous.

Ethel: Some people want to kill themselves, but they can't find an easy way. Humphry outlines it step by step, even to fooling your doctors to get Seconal. This is why we're angry.

Alan: I'd call it a suicide cookbook. It tells you which drugs are most effective, which are least effective, how to combine drugs with alcohol, how to enhance the toxicity of certain drugs. It's very, very explicit.

Q. Had Adrian talked about or ever attempted suicide before?

Alan: Yes, I don't know if it was a very determined attempt. At times he spoke so morbidly we weren't sure whether he actually tried something or not.

But we did not ignore it at all. He announced his intention to do it, and we did our very best to talk him out of it, to reason with him, to show him that that was the wrong way to alleviate his pain, that it was, as his therapist called it, a permanent solution to a temporary problem--depression.

Q. How can you be sure that the book affected his actions?

Ethel: He talked about the book. He ordered it. When it came, we didn't give it to him. We hid it in the closet.

Alan: I read part of it, so we knew what it was about. He went out and purchased another one.

He followed the format in the book exactly. On page 81, the book says that if the survivors want to cover up the suicide, they can refuse an autopsy on religious grounds. Unless, of course, the state has a compelling reason to perform the autopsy, the wishes of the family will be respected.

Ethel: He left notes, like this one: "Do not under any circumstances permit an autopsy. It is against Jewish law." And this kid didn't know the first thing about Jewish law, because we're not that religious.

Alan: On page 88, the book tells you what letters to write, gives you a format to use, instructs you to prepare and leave a copy of your living will and to appoint a power of attorney for health care. He did it all.

Ethel: It's in the book, and it's in his notes: "If I am discovered before I have stopped breathing, I forbid anyone, including doctors or paramedics, to attempt to revive me. If I am revived, I shall sue." He followed the format.

Alan: We thought he was being original.

Q. What did the toxicologist's report show?

Alan: He took Seconal--a lethal dose, far above a therapeutic dose--phenobarbital, codeine and alcohol. He was legally drunk. The book tells you to chase the pills down with vodka, and we found an open bottle of vodka in his apartment.

Phenobarbital, Seconal--I understood those because they're both barbiturates and powerful sleeping pills. But I couldn't understand why codeine. Then I found on page 110 that Jean Humphry, his first wife, died in 1975 within 50 minutes by taking a combination of Seconal and codeine. There it was. There's where Adrian got the idea.

Ethel: The book also tells you to take a Dramamine first so that you don't become nauseated and throw up. He took that too.

Q. Any other links?

Alan: The book instructs you how to trick the doctor to get drugs strong enough for suicide. Adrian went to three doctors. We've reconstructed this through his bills.

Ethel: Our family doctor told us that he gave him 30 Seconals. He couldn't believe that this boy was depressed. Adrian said, "I have insomnia." He lied. He fooled a lot of people.

Alan: The book also tells you to put a plastic bag over your head after you take the pills, and he did this as well.

Q. Could you say exactly what happened over Labor Day weekend?

Alan: On Sunday night, Sept. 1, my sister and her husband went to Adrian's apartment, to bring him to our place for dinner. They found him lying in his hallway with a plastic bag over his head.

The police went through the apartment, found his prescription drugs and found a copy of Final Exit in his raincoat pocket in the closet.

Q. Have you communicated your concern to Derek Humphry?

Alan: No, I have not.

Q. Why not?

Alan: I honestly don't think he cares. He is indifferent to who might read it.

Q. Do you think assisted suicide or euthanasia is ever acceptable?

Alan: Under certain circumstances. If people are terminally ill, yes, they have a right to do it. But I think if they're determined to make that decision, they can go out and do the research on their own. They don't need the Hemlock Society.

Ethel: I don't know. I feel that if you're racked with pain, I don't think you're in your right mind to make a decision like this, to take your own life. When people become depressed, they can't always tell right from wrong. This was not the same Adrian anymore.

Alan: It is possible that you're no longer competent enough to make that kind of decision. But my view regarding the right of a terminally ill person to commit suicide does not change my belief that publishing a book like this is reckless and negligent. The dangerous thing about the book is that it falls into the hands of teenagers and clinically depressed people.

Q. Would you, if you had had the power, have prohibited publication?

Alan: Absolutely. Or regulated it in some way.

Q. How do you square that with the First Amendment?

Alan: Since I think the book is dangerous, I think this information that he so carefully researched and packaged could have been communicated, distributed, in a different way.

If people want to go to the Hemlock Society and sit down with a representative face to face, and tell him that they're dying, he could give them information right there on the spot. There's a difference between someone going to the Hemlock Society and just putting the book on the shelves in a bookstore.

Q. Humphry says that "suicide for reasons of depression has never been part of the credo of the Hemlock Society."

Alan: The only warning I found was on page 123, listed under the heading of "Advice," not warning. It says, "This information is meant for consideration only by a mature adult who is dying..."

Even if he thought his words under the heading of "Advice" constituted a plea, isn't page 123 a little too late, after he already outlined dozens of methods of suicide? If there was a warning, it should have been placed at the beginning of the book. He's not telling depressed people not to use the methodology in the book. I don't find it to be a warning at all.

Q. Adrian's therapist was dealing directly with his suicidal talk?

Alan: This is important. His therapist thinks he had a chance. Although there's no way to measure something like this, she thinks there was a shift away from his suicidal impulses. But, she said, once he got that book, we lost him. The book gave him confidence.

He became obsessed with the book. It showed him the way. He wanted it to be a nonpainful way. The book was clearly the answer to his dilemma of how to commit suicide without feeling any pain. He said he would never shoot himself or do anything like that.

Everybody tried to help him; but when he got his hands on the book, he was no longer interested in psychiatric help or therapy.

Ethel: He said it's not easy to kill yourself. This made it easy.

Q. Why do you think Final Exit is on the best-seller list? More than 500,000 copies have been sold since mid-July.

Alan: There are a lot of terminally ill people in the country. But there are as many, if not more, clinically depressed people--people who are not terminally ill, who are just unhappy, just can't cope, who find the book fascinating.

Ethel: And what about 16-year-olds? Suicide is a problem among teenagers.

Alan: Why did he put the book where minors could get their hands on it? They don't let minors buy cigarettes. And he knew it would fall into the hands of depressed people. Why didn't he regulate the distribution? That's why I strongly believe he's not concerned at all with whose hands the book falls into.

While I don't object to euthanasia, his way of expressing his beliefs and disseminating the information is reckless.

Q. Does the book suggest ways to avoid rescue?

Alan: It advises you to make sure you have absolute privacy for up to eight hours. Friday or Saturday night is usually the quietest time. They don't want you to be discovered.

Ethel: Like Labor Day weekend...

Copyright (c) TIME Magazine, 1995 TIME Inc. Magazine Company; (c) 1995 Compact Publishing, Inc.

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