A Matter of Time and The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death offer a reader the rare opportunity of seeing an author tell the same story in two different ways: one as a novel, the other–ten years later–as a memoir.
The story is about how Jessamyn West helped her sister, Carmen, in the terminal stage of bowel cancer, commit suicide in 1965. In A Matter of Time, Jessamyn’s character is named Tasmania, Carmen’s Blix. In the novel, Blix is able to kill herself with the help of a cache of pain-killers conveniently left her by her doctor over the preceding weeks. In the memoir, Jessamyn vaguely suggests that Carmen was able to buy them herself over the preceding months, while still able to drive herself to pharmacies around her area, but one suspects this is in the interest of protecting Carmen’s doctor, who would certainly have risked real, not fictional, prosecution in 1976.
For their time, both books were courageous. The right to die question was just becoming a very public issue in 1976 over the case of Karen Ann Quinlan, and even in her 1966 fictional version, West makes it clear that she aided her sister in the process. In neither book, however, does she attempt to make any generalizations or moral judgments. West simply responded to Carmen’s plea, which reached her by letter, while she was working in New York: “Sister, dear sister, come home and help me die.”
Revisiting the story as memoir ten years later, what changes is not the narrative but the perspective. Not to be too simplistic, but in A Matter of Time, the story is told from the inside looking out. Through Blix’s sleepless nights, the sisters sit together, reminiscing about their family, contrasting Tasmania’s older, more distant and intellectual outlook with Blix’s younger, more sensual responses. In The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death, West takes a big step back, devoting the first half of the book to the story of her own illness and care.
While working on her Ph.D., West was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and, through her mother’s swift intervention, quickly admitted to a sanatorium outside Los Angeles. First considered a terminal case, she was able to be moved where she could get more active treatment, again thanks to her mother’s hounding of the hospital management. For the better part of two years, her mother would visit her four times a week,
… driving the round trip of eighty miles through rain, through Santa Ana sandstorms, through fog so thick headlights were turned on at four in the afternoon. She came with brow anointed with Musterole, with varicose veins swathed in stretchable rubber bandages, with truss laced in place. What I suffered, in actual pain, dying though I might be, was a pinprick to her multiple aches. But she came. She came laughing. She came laden with things I had never dreamed of wanting, but which proved exactly what would give pleasure to a patient next door to a terminal ward.
Aided perhaps from the long, reflective spell alone in a trailer in the Arizona desert that she recounted in Hide and Seek, published a few years earlier than The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death, West new sees how much of her response to Carmen’s illness is rooted in her mother Grace’s response to Jessamyn’s tuberculosis. Not so much in approach–Grace recognized how much the weak and ill Jessamyn needed a strenuous advocate, while Carmen, worldlier and possessed of a self-confidence Jessamyn always envied, needed an accomplice she could trust to carry out her plan. Grace said “Yes” to life, nursing and coaxing Jessamyn back from death, and Jessamyn said “Yes” to Carmen’s wish to end her own life. But her memory of her mother’s care helps West set aside personal concerns and simply focus on Carmen’s needs, whether it was to talk into the night or to be left alone to struggle with her pain.
And this, in the end, is what makes both books–but particularly The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death–so effective. West tells us how three women dealt with the life-and-death crises they encountered together, and nothing more than that. There is no message but that of accepting and understanding a specific situation on its own. Carmen chose to end her life rather than endure what West calls “nature’s savage torture,” but there is no suggestion that any general principles can or should be derived from her example. There are only these two versions of what happened.
A Matter of Time, by Jessamyn West
New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966
The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976