Terkel on death -- what of transcendent future?

October 14, 2001|By Paul R. McHugh | By Paul R. McHugh,Special to the Sun

Will the Circle be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, by Studs Terkel. The New Press. 407 pages. $25.95.

Studs Terkel has published another collection of interviews continuing on his path as a cracker-barrel philosopher producing and promoting ideas for our consumption from folksy conversations with people who have had an experience he wants to explore and to explain. He calls this oral history, but it's just talk and flippant talk at that.

He has previously published interviews on working and on war, chosen to support his left-wing stance on social and political matters. With this book, Terkel enters the realm of attitudes and experiences with death and dying -- a domain of concern to him in part because of the death of his wife, and in part because he wants to tell us how we should think about these vital matters.

He organizes these interviews into themes that form the sections of the book. The book begins with interviews with doctors and emergency room staff and ends with undertakers. In the middle are sections devoted to the AIDS afflicted, cancer patients, assorted padres of different religious persuasions and various minor celebrities of the arts and literature who happen to live in Chicago. Each one gets several pages to describe his or her contact with and attitudes towards death and dying, occasionally prompted by some question from Terkel but mostly free-associating to the theme.

The book is replete with repetition: How dying as a process holds more terror than death itself, how powerless one feels in witnessing the death of friend or family member and how death draws out our shared experience of circumscribed lives into which we must pour our efforts and our hopes.

Some of the interviews provide accounts in which the person nearly dies, loses consciousness but then recovers to remember his or her "near death" psychic experience. A Los Alamos physicist describes his delirium produced by lithium toxicity, a graduate student describes a two-year coma from respiratory failure, a development director describes her feelings and thoughts when she lost consciousness during a heart attack. None of these stories tell us much about what "comes after" but rather demonstrate that mental life has some continuity during periods of conscious impairment.

I cannot say I learned much from all these accounts. Perhaps the off-beat folk whom Terkel selects and their tendency to wear trite feelings on their sleeves ("death is the great unknown" says Pastor Kok) blocked out any reciprocating response. In fact I found nothing inspiring here even though the book in its title promises to reflect on death, rebirth, and hunger for a faith.

Each story is reminiscent of presentations heard at encounter groups in the 1970s where a speaker was to bare his soul and the listener to see "courage" in this behavior and support the speaker's feelings. Like those old veterans of that psychotherapy fad, these speakers are exhibitionists of their psychic innards. It's all so repellent.

Discussion about death and dying calls for roots, for meaning, for transcending understanding. Nowhere in this book will you find an accounting that moves you forward. And hasn't that always been the problem with these left-wing humanists who work on polishing the present and have nothing to offer for a future?

Paul R. McHugh recently retired as the Henry Phipps professor and the director of the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. He, along with Phillip R. Slavney, M.D., wrote The Perspectives of Psychiatry, a standard text used in American medical schools. He has also written for the American Journal of Psychiatry, Medicine, Nature Medicine, The American Scholar and other journals.

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