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Diane Rehm is not a radical. Her eponymous WAMU show is marked by its evenness, its emphasis on civility and respect. It’s an oasis on the garbage island that has become national radio and TV media as the 2016 presidential season grows more absurd and distressing. While “gotta hear both sides” has become a punchline at a time when people in power will twist any situation to fit their worldview, The Diane Rehm Show consistently puts fairness first.
That’s what makes Rehm’s clearheaded yet emotional call for national right-to-die laws in her new memoir, On My Own, so important to the death with dignity movement.
In the book, Rehm examines her life after the death of her husband, John, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease for a number of years. To say he died from complications of the illness oversimplifies the truth, gravely: John Rehm refused food, water, and medication in order to end his life.
“Throughout those ten days, surely the longest of my life, I could only watch his breathing, steady and deep, and listen to his cough, which became more and more ragged,” Rehm writes of John’s final days. “I sat by his side, never forgetting that he had chosen to die. I totally understood and support his decision. But it was excruciating to witness.”
Rehm has become one of the most famous names attached to the death with dignity movement in the U.S.—she appeared on the cover of Compassion & Choices’s magazine and attended fundraising dinners—an association that has earned her praise from activists and supporters and an admonishment from NPR’s ombudsman. Opponents of the right-to-die movement may imagine this book as a piece of propaganda that seeks to glorify and promote what they deem assisted suicide. On My Own is not a rallying cry—indeed, Rehm spends most of the pages on her life rather than her eventual death—but it does seem like a radical moment of activism in the least radical way possible.
The Rehms were married in 1959; Diane, at the time, was a secretary at the Department of State, where John was an attorney. She did not have a college degree and saw John as a teacher; he introduced her to new books and bought her a piano so she could take lessons. It wasn’t until 1973 that Diane, “desperately seeking something to expand my horizons,” began volunteering at American University’s radio station, a decision that would ultimately change her life.
The majority of On My Own finds Rehm in the various stages of grief, feeling deep sadness over her loss and guilt over her relief, and reflecting on her happy but complicated marriage. Her prose is much like her radio style: simple and to the point. She offers no guidance, instead posing questions about what it means to be in a partnership, what it means to be alone, and what it means to die without control over your own suffering.
“I do believe I can be of use in this controversial movement, carrying on for both myself and John. It feels ironic that I have been thrust into an ambiguous situation with regard to my employment,” Rehm writes toward the end of the book. “Somehow the right to die seems such a basic issue, one that perhaps should not be left up to state legislators. Why should someone who may have a totally different set of beliefs and values from my own have the legal authority to decide whether I should continue to live and suffer or die peacefully? It makes very little sense to me.”
John’s illness and death pushed Rehm to do many things—learn about their finances, deal with “minor problems [like] leaks throughout the living-room ceiling,” refuse to “crumble” after badly botching an interview with Sen. Bernie Sanders—but most importantly to find her own voice. And with that voice, Rehm is advocating, with an openness and honesty familiar to her listeners, for an end-of-life option that some see as extreme or dangerous.
Perhaps Rehm is a radical in 2016: a person brave enough to declare publicly that her life is her own while still respecting those who say it isn’t.
Diane Rehm discusses On My Own at Politics & Prose April 5 at 7 p.m. Free.