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.
Jack Lessenberry, the longtime head of journalism at Wayne State University, can be heard on his podcast on YouTube via the Zing Media Network. He also is a winner of a National Emmy Award for a 1994 Frontline documentary on Dr. Jack Kevorkian, has served as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is now a columnist for and a consultant to both that newspaper and Block Communications, Inc. He is also the co-author of “The People’s Lawyer,” a biography of Frank Kelley, the nation’s longest-serving attorney general, and is working on a book on a pioneering newspaper family and race.