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A Bitter Legacy : Angry accusations abound after the suicide of Hemlock Society co-founder Ann Humphry.


EUGENE, Ore. — In the early afternoon of the day she killed herself, Ann Wickett Humphry, 49-year-old author and once-vocal right-to-die activist, made a final call to her friend Julie Horvath in Los Angeles.

"She said she was checking out," recalls Horvath, who had just returned from visiting Windfall Farm, Humphry's 50-acre ranch 25 miles north of Eugene. "I said, 'Let me come up.' She said, 'No.' I said, 'I love you. Come down here and I will support you. I will help you.'

"She said, 'Julie, you've got your life to live, and I'm not going to do that to you.' . . . I said, 'OK.' . . . She sounded so tired."

Shortly after hanging up, Humphry--co-founder with then-husband Derek Humphry of the controversial Hemlock Society, which advocates assisted suicides for the terminally ill--took a last drive, a winding 100-mile journey into the Oregon wilderness. She was headed for one of her favorite places.

And all of a sudden she was in a hurry.

After a morning spent methodically writing letters and notes, Humphry's mood apparently shifted and she left Windfall Farm in haste. A friend later discovered the door to the house standing wide open. Humphry also had uncharacteristically left the gate to the cattle pen open, allowing her five prized Scottish Highland cattle--long-horned, yak-like creatures--to escape.

With her Chevrolet pickup pulling a horse trailer carrying Eben, her chestnut Arabian gelding, the trip probably took about four hours. Along the way, Horvath believes that Humphry "made peace with herself."

Another friend, Pam Wilson of Monroe, Ore., wonders if Humphry listened to some of her favorite music, albums by Ray Charles and the soundtrack from the movie "Rocky IV."

Humphry passed through the McKenzie River Valley, east of Eugene, before climbing into the mountain town of Sisters. There, she turned right on a narrow road that meanders 15 miles to Three Creeks Meadow. She parked, saddled the horse and rode another three miles up a trail before veering into the forest. She found a place that faced the Three Sisters Mountains, unsaddled the horse and sent it away.

Then Humphry, daughter of a Boston banker, a former Peace Corps volunteer and a student of Shakespeare, sat down against a tree and swallowed a fatal dose of pills. Friends calculated that it was about sunset on an October day.

Deschutes County searchers found her body six days later, on Oct. 8. Vials of pills lay scattered nearby. The searcher who found her said she looked as if she had gone to sleep.

Afterward, Ann Wickett Humphry's small band of friends took some comfort from the fact that Humphry had gone peacefully and that she had picked a gorgeous place to die.

But since her headline-making suicide, those small consolations have been overshadowed by what her friends say is the tarnishing of a valiant legacy.

At the end of a brave fight against physical pain and emotional torment, Humphry had been unfairly demeaned by assertions that she was mentally unstable and could not "cope with life," they say.

Above all, they assert, Humphry was a woman in rebellion against the darkness of her own past. A bout with breast cancer had changed her perspective on illness, they explain, and turned her against the philosophy of the Hemlock Society.

In life, Ann Humphry had fought for the right to die. Now her friends are determined to make her death a battleground. Motivated by grief, they are determined to tell the story of Humphry's final struggle--and they note with some satisfaction, their friend left them plenty of ammunition.

The target of their anger is the Hemlock Society and its executive director, Derek Humphry, Ann Humphry's former husband and the author of "Final Exit," a self-help manual on suicide that has topped several best-seller lists this year.

In an advertisement placed by the society in the New York Times, Derek Humphry wrote, "Sadly, for much of her life Ann was dogged by emotional problems, and although she had extensive treatment and fought for stability, her life was a series of peaks and troughs." The ad was placed to counter what the Hemlock Society admits was a public-relations setback for its cause.

"People will use this to distort the purpose of the Hemlock Society," says the group's deputy director, Cheryl K. Smith.

The ad notes that the Hemlock Society "supports suicide prevention in appropriate cases" and ends with the statement, "What organization does not have casualties? Emotional illness knows no boundaries."

Ann Humphry's friends say these and similar statements show a callous disregard for Humphry, whom they see as a tragic and poignant figure, and the agonizing battles of her last two years.

Moreover, they say, Humphry had come to regret helping her aging parents kill themselves in 1986, a double suicide depicted in excruciating and thinly disguised detail in her 1989 book "Double Exit."

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