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Jack Lessenberry

You Don’t Know This Jack

April 23, 2010

Have you ever thought about what it would be like to see yourself being portrayed in a movie? Would you be flattered? Outraged? Freaked out or creeped out?

Though I have my own fantasies, mainly involving the sudden inheritance of vast wealth and, occasionally, major league baseball talent, this was, frankly, something I had never thought about.

Until it happened. I have just finished watching a movie in which I am a character, and it was an odd experience. This weekend, HBO is airing a made-for-TV movie called You Don’t Know Jack, about the apostle of assisted suicide, Jack Kevorkian.

I covered the Kevorkian saga, principally for The New York Times and the Boston Globe. I did long pieces about him in Vanity Fair, Esquire, and other magazines, and saw him and his flamboyant attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, often between 1993 and 1999.

Presumably because of this, the movie makes me into a fairly important secondary character, although, as you might expect from Hollywood, the script doesn’t stick to the facts.

The character who was given my name actually seems to be a composite of me and several other reporters. In the movie, I am depicted as a staff writer for the Detroit Free Press. (I never was.) The actor who plays “Jack Lessenberry” (James Urbaniak) appears younger, thinner and probably better looking than the real McCoy, but a tad scruffier. (“No, it is you. See, he eats awful food,” my significant other whispered after a scene in a greasy spoon.)

Actually, I was surprised to find that I felt no emotional connection at all. Most of my character’s lines are things I never said, and the movie completely turns around one thing I did say.

After Kevorkian videotaped himself committing euthanasia, the event that ultimately got him sent to jail, Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes asked if I thought he were sane.

“I am not competent to deliver a clinical diagnosis,” I said. “But if you mean, is he rational, the answer is yes, he is rational.”

The movie has me saying the opposite.

But leaving my own portrayal aside, You Don’t Know Jack does stick closer to the essential facts than many “biopics.” Al Pacino, indeed, does an absolutely amazing job at capturing Kevorkian‘s mannerisms.

Kevorkian himself, who now spends his days writing books in a rundown apartment across from the Royal Oak Public Library, said he found it hard to believe he wasn’t watching himself.

I could well believe it. The real Kevorkian, however, was scrawnier and bonier than the Pacino version, and his irrational rages were more explosive and terrifying than shown here.

On the other hand, the producers might have done better had they asked Geoffrey Fieger to play himself; Danny Huston delivers at best a smirking parody that fails to show how completely the charismatic lawyer dominated both the coverage and the courtrooms.

Possibly the film’s most revealing moment comes when Kevorkian tells sidekick Janet Good, played by Susan Sarandon, that he ought to have married and had children to perpetuate the family name. “Yes, but could you have loved anybody?” she asked.

Kevorkian cannot answer, which is an answer in itself. The movie follows the Kevorkian saga as it unfolded between 1990 and 1999, when the renegade pathologist finally managed to get himself convicted and sent off to prison, which is what he in fact wanted.

Yet it fails to solve the enigma of this baffling little man, who was utterly mesmerized by the transition between life and death, but whose self-destructive instincts torpedoed his own cause.

Though his crusade was presented as being about relieving suffering, that was an intellectual abstraction for him. He did not emotionally engage with anyone. When, in real life, his sister died of a massive heart attack, I went to her apartment to write about it.

Her daughter was there, crying. Geoffrey Fieger was considerably shaken. Margo’s shawl and knitting needles were on the table where she had left them before going to the hospital. Kevorkian sat next to me on a couch. Finally, he whispered to me, “Do you think it would be okay if I watched TV?”

The man himself may be an unsolvable riddle, but the issues he raised haven’t gone away. The national climate changed dramatically after Kevorkian went off to prison.

September 11 followed, as did two wars and a massive recession. Physician-assisted suicide largely disappeared from the national debate, in part because of world events, in part because of better pain management and hospice care.

Yet there are still people who are kept alive long after life has lost its sweetness. “You’ll see this legal, but not for the right reasons,” Kevorkian told me once. “Society won’t be able to afford to do otherwise.”

The Kevorkian I knew was sometimes a crank. He was not, however, always wrong.

Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

April 22, 2010 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry Tags: , , , , ,

34 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bill Gill // Apr 23, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    Great piece about an issue that grows in
    importance by the day. Kevorkian was ahead of his time, from all appearances just trying to help those who wished to bring their suffering to an end. Does anyone have the right to deny that decision to another human being? Not me.

  • 2 Chris Cavanagh // Apr 24, 2010 at 5:17 am

    “this baffling little man, who was utterly mesmerized by the transition between life and death” This quote is the most interesting insight of Mr. Lessonberry. This is what bugged me most about Jack Kevokian. Putting someone out of their misery is one thing, being turn-on by the process (being fascinated watching life leaving someone’s eyes) creeps me out.

  • 3 Dick McKnight // Apr 25, 2010 at 2:06 am

    As a person who has had Parkinson Disease for at least 16 years, this story is more than academic. It’s a real issue that might not have been exposed to public light without Dr. Kevorkian. But his quirkiness is and always was a side show—entertaining as well as educational.

  • 4 Richard Cole // Apr 25, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    I had the honor of having to ask Jack K to quit eating lunch in the Blue Cross cafeteria while he was on trial in Greektown. He thought the food was great, but I thought the photo could easily be misinterpreted.
    I thought the movie would have been much better if Geoff played Geoff and you played you. But Pacino is a hoot. Take care Jack.

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