“On ‘Choosing Suicide’: Documentary as Confrontation”

In the following article, originally published in the Summer 1980 edition of Television Quarterly, documentarian Richard Ellison describes the production of his highly controversial special “Choosing Suicide”. The documentary was produced at the request of its subject, Brooklyn-based artist and psychotherapist Jo Roman, who had decided to end her own life after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis.

Jo Roman’s book Exit House: Choosing Suicide as an Alternative is recommended for further insight into her philosophy of life, art and death.

Above: a 1980 TV Guide advertisement for the documentary Choosing Suicide.

Some documentaries simply deliver information; some are aimed at social change. Few deal with taboo subjects so directly that they arouse strong, personal responses – fear, anger, sorrow – in viewers. Choosing Suicide proved to be one of those exercises in confrontation. It was, in consequence, highly controversial.

Writing about the program now, weeks after its June 16 airing on Public Television, I realize that objectivity is beyond my reach. While much of the response to this portrait of a suicide has been rational and thoughtful, I remain astonished by the vehemence – and bitterness – of those who denounced it. The intensity of their feeling is perhaps a measure of our success in confronting a subject so fraught with pain, terror and a sense of sin.

A quick summation of the facts is in order here.

In the summer of 1979, a 62-year old woman named Jo Roman ended her life with 36 sleeping capsules. Mrs. Roman, and artist, psychotherapist, and cancer patient, did not quit this life quietly. She sent out 100 farewell letters. She composed a suicide note and had it notarized. She sent her obituary to the New York Times. In the last hectic weeks before her death, she decorated a pine coffin with mementos of her past, a collage she called a “life sculpture”.

Finally, in a gesture some found touching, others horrifying, Jo Roman invited 12 friends to a symposium (in her home) on “rational suicide”. I was asked to produce the video tape of these conversations. There were 20 hours in all, which we edited down to one hour for the broadcast.

At the time, Mrs. Roman was writing a book about suicide. She feared that her illness might worsen, making it impossible for her to finish the book. She asked my help in getting her philosophy, her feelings on record. I agreed, with no idea of what the ultimate disposition of that record might be.

Jo Roman had a theory of suicide seldom expressed in our culture. I respected it without fully sharing it. I could only assist her as a documentarian, recording her talks with friends about death. I now had to involve professionals who would be total strangers to Jo and her – to some – bizarre theories on carrying out one’s own death wish. I was fortunate in enlisting Leah Siegel and Don Blauvelt, experienced “video- makers” willing to risk their time and talents in an uncertain enterprise.

We met with Jo and her husband, Dr. Mel Roman, (a psychologist and teacher) to draw up plans for a weekend talk-marathon. Twelve friends were invited to the Saturday taping. Among them: psychologists, lawyers, painters, a literary agent and a restaurant owner. The Sunday taping was confined to the immediate family. With so many participants, we had to add an extra camera team, under Barry Rebo.

The setting was a sky-lit studio that ran the length of the Romans’ apartment. We decided that Blauvelt’s camera would focus on Jo, while Rebo would pick up the other speakers, and handle reaction shots. Monitors were placed so that each could see the framing of both cameras and make adjustments without further direction from me. Jo wore a wireless microphone and there were several fixed mikes as well as two “shotguns” (directional microphones).

A few lights were pre-set in case the sessions ran into evening (which they did), and we started one camera ahead of the other so that one was always recording while the other was changing cassettes. That was the extent of our technical planning. Our basic strategy was to be as unobtrusive as possible. The participants said later that they were hardly aware of our presence.

To be present at this colloquy on death was an extraordinary experience, both exhilarating and draining. All of us involved in the taping felt great tension between our emotions and our professional concerns. Over that weekend we recorded some eight hours of discussion. Screening it repeatedly over the ensuing weeks, Leah, Don and I found that the talk still fascinated us, even after several viewings.

In May, the three of us took our camera equipment back to the Romans’ apartment. This time we interviewed Jo alone. She urged us to “Ask anything you want.” I had many questions: about her childhood, her religious upbringing; about the relationships between her careers in art and psychotherapy, her philosophy of life and death. Above all, I was mindful that I was speaking with a woman who knew, almost to the hour, the time of her own death. How had she decided on the day? I found asking the questions difficult but Jo was perfectly at ease. As we packed up our equipment she invited us to return if we had further questions.

Jo’s serenity and self-assurance at that juncture still surpass my understanding. I knew I could not make another intrusion upon her last few weeks of life. We did correspond -she was an inveterate letter-writer -and I met her one more time to bid her farewell.

One week after Jo Roman’s death, the Sunday New York Times ran the story of her carefully plotted suicide on page one. And four days later we recorded an interview with Dr. Roman, which forms the last segment of the documentary. Now we had more than 20 hours of what seemed to us highly significant video tape. We could not proceed further without financial help and a confirmed air date. We were fortunate in getting both from the Public Broadcasting Service.

As we analyzed the hours of talk, we discovered that each participant had his own personal agenda. Whether supporting Jo’s projected suicide or opposing it, each one made the same points, over and over. We were able to select the core, the pure culture of each person’s argument, making the discussion fairly succinct.

What was more difficult – and never completely solved – was the mystery of Jo Roman herself. In the course of our sessions, she had told us much about herself. How much of that story should we retain for the light it shed upon her wish to die by her own hand? Should we emphasize her religious upbringing?

Mary Jo Clodfelter’s grandparents were Missouri farmers and fundamentalists who believed in hellfire and brimstone for sinners. Her father, a minister of the Swedenborgian sect, had a gentler concept of the afterlife. In the edited tape we hear Jo say, “For me, it doesn’t matter what each of us believes. We believe what we believeā€¦.” When a friend says, on tape, that she fears what may follow death, Jo replies, “That would stay your hand. It won’t stay mine.”

In the 17 weeks it took to edit the film we were aware of moving away from the anecdotal, and biographical material toward a summary of Jo Roman’s position, vis-a-vis life and death. It was a process analagous to sculpting in stone. We chipped away the irrelevant, working toward the final, irreducible form.

The essentials of the Jo Roman story were simply these: Here is a woman who says that suicide is a natural human right, like getting married or having children. She says, moreover, that she plans to exercise her right to suicide – and soon. She is a woman who says she is sick with cancer, but she neither looks nor acts sick. She declines to die like a wounded animal. She is planning to depart in comfort, surrounded by her loved ones. Not only is she involving friends and family in her suicide, she is positively euphoric about it, enjoying the drama, the attention. As a crowning touch, she is permitting a video tape to be made of a major event of her final days – a symposium on suicide with her best friends!

Now, this series of statements can only strike some people as offensive, even threatening. We did not expect Choosing Suicide to be greeted with universal acclaim. We knew only that we had made a truthful record on one woman’s carefully plotted death. Still, we were surprised by the vehemence of some of the critics’ comments.

The controversy gathered momentum slowly. PBS had the program in hand some three months before the broadcast date. A preview was fed to the network, with the announcement that Choosing Suicide would be followed by a responsible discussion on the pros and cons of taking one’s life.

The result of the preview was predictable. Some station managers decided that here was the kind of “advocacy piece” from which they must protect their viewers. A few managers believed that the documentary could stand alone, with no coda or epilogue. In general, the follow-up was deemed a sound idea and I agreed to produce it.

In the search for panelists, I screened Jo Roman’s story for several physicians, psychiatrists and other medical personnel. I also showed it to lawyers, clergymen and representatives of the American Cancer Society, The Samaritans, Concern for the Dying and similar groups. The overwhelming conclusion: here was a responsible, important work that deserved to be seen on television.

This view was not shared by all television critics. John O’Connor of the New York Times found the program “terribly unsettling.” Kay Gardella of the New York Daily News called it “not only embarrassing but obscene”. To Tom Shales of The Washington Post the hour was “repugnant” and “deplorable”, as well as a “sickening and pointless spectacle.” By contrast, Judy Flanders of The Washington Star saw it as “a provocative and stimulating documentary that brings into the open something that people have been talking about – and doing – for thousands of years.”

When the dust of controversy settles, I hope that Choosing Suicide will be seen as having made a significant contribution to public understanding of a painful subject. I believe also that it will be useful as a teaching tool, illuminating some dark paths for students who, as professionals in many areas, will find themselves confronting issues of life and death.

Finally, I salute the Public Television Service as – alas! – the only electronic forum extant for this radically different and controversial genre of programming.

Educational institutions may purchase Choosing Suicide for $265 or rent a DVD copy for $125 from the Cinema Guild International website. An archival copy is also held at the Paley Center for Media.

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