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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

June 04, 1995|ERIKA TAYLOR

A CHOSEN DEATH: The Dying Confront Assisted Suicide by Lonny Shavelson (Simon & Schuster: $23; 240 pp.) "I smoothed the hair back from Renee's brow. Cradling her head in my hands, I brushed against the hard tumor just under the soft skin of her neck . . . I slipped the black plastic bag over Renee's head . . . for two minutes, the bag rose and fell with her breathing. Then all was still." This is writer and physician Lonny Shavelson recounting one of the five assisted suicides that make up his extraordinary, deeply disturbing book, "A Chosen Death." Shavelson is a passionate advocate of assisted suicide, and while he actively participated in only one death, he was very much there for the other three. (One of the people portrayed was not quite a suicide, since he died three hours before his friend was to administer a previously agreed upon lethal injection.)

Regardless of one's opinion on assisted suicide, as a literary documentary "A Chosen Death" is almost perfect. Shavelson writes with a combination of intelligence, simplicity, and emotion that, on a visceral level, gently forces these five very different people straight into our lives. "A Chosen Death" celebrates the courage and even the flaws of these individuals as they move towards dying so that in the end one just feels glad to have known them.

The only problem area in "A Chosen Death" is its agenda. Instead of allowing the stories to speak for themselves, we are too often given Shavelson's well conceived, but overwrought, argument for medically sanctioned assisted suicide. However, a little pushiness does not seriously detract from this compassionate, brilliant book.

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