Thursday 3 March 2016

Extra! Extra!! 'Murder' Sent to Rewrite

I woke the other morning to the radio blaring about a wonderful story that had just appeared on Toronto Life Magazine's website. The show host almost gargled with excitement.

"It`s called `By the Time You Read This,  I'll Be Dead,`" he shouted, "it's amazing." Why? The author, John Hofsess, confessed in the subtitle (the deck, as we call it in the magazine business) to having killed eight people who wanted to die, among them the famous Canadian poet Al Purdy. Hofsess had legally ended his own life just as this story appeared online. He had gone to his reward under a physician's care in Switzerland where assisting death has been legal for several years. The show host insisted that what made this story so terrific was its careful and detailed description of the method used to kill Purdy, the how of a mercy killing.

That John Hofsess is dead was sad, but not surprising. After all, he was in his late 70s. What was surprising was this praise for a published confession to multiple "murders." I put quotations around that word because the law concerning assisted suicide is undergoing a rewrite. Until last year, anyone, including a physician, who killed, or helped to kill, someone else, regardless of their circumstance, was guilty of a crime -- murder. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled last year that the criminal law forbidding a doctor to cause someone to die -- someone who begs for it because he/she is irremediably, terminally ill, suffering terribly, yet of sound mind -- is unconstitutional. The details of  this newly articulated right to a physician-assisted death will be -- must be -- spelled out in law by Parliament before June 6, or there will be no law at all to regulate medical killings in Canada. Between now and June 6, anyone suffering unbearably can apply to the courts for permission to be killed if they can find a physician willing to do it and another willing to concur that the person is of sound mind yet beyond help.

It makes me cringe to write this, but this weird exemption business brings to mind Sarah Palin's nutsy claims about Canadian death panels.

It is the job of a good magazine editor to publish stories on subjects just as they become public preoccupations. Since the Supreme Court's ruling, the subject of an assisted death at a time of one's own choosing has become a leading concern. Gifted editors see such issues developing long before ordinary folk, and they assign journalists to explore them so that an article is published at just the right moment. When an editor really gets this right, everybody wants to read that story and other media pick it up and amplify it everywhere. As a former journalist, Hofsess understood very well how to make his story go pop in the public arena. When an author actually dies for his story, you've got to give it a go in spite of what you may know about him. (Yes, I knew Hofsess. See below.) If it bleeds, it leads. If you can hang the story on the life (or death) of  a celebrity, people will pay attention. Not surprisingly then, Poet Al Purdy and Quebec film director Claude Jutra's stories are at the core of the Hofsess piece though seven other deaths are mentioned and only Purdy's is detailed. Luckily for Hofsess, Jutra, who ended his own life in 1986, had been in the news just the week before when it was revealed that he had had sex with boys as young as six. Luckily for the editors, another story appeared on the same day as Hofsess's concerning a Calgary judge's decision to grant an exemption to a woman suffering from ALS. Her physician put her out of her misery at about the same time Hofsess died.

Talk about amplification.

I got up and ran like a lemming to my computer.

I expected to read the whole natural history of Hofsess's decades-long devotion to helping others die. But he gives us only slivers on that, nothing more. He tells us that his friend, Jutra, asked him for help with killing himself a few years after reading an "idealistic"  piece Hofsess wrote on the subject back in 1982. But Hofsess was afraid to comply. He tells us he felt awful when Jutra, who suffered from early onset Alzheimers, resorted to a horrible method -- jumping into the frigid St. Lawrence River where he drowned. The death that galvanized Hofsess, or at least led him to become an activist, was the suicide of a conductor he didn't know but whose work he loved.

He became a founding member of something called The Right To Die Society.  The Society at first mounted court challenges to get assisted suicides blessed by the courts. These challenges failed. The Society gathered members. Members paid an annual fee and got a  publication in return. Al Purdy was a member. And then, for some reason not made clear, Hofsess and his fellow Society member Evelyn Martens partnered up to assist other members of the Society who wanted to die.  This started in 1999 and ended in 2001. Though he is vague on the subject of money, the piece makes it clear that the Society expected people who had means to help pay for the deaths of those who had none and so it also took in gifts and bequests. He and his partner worked with an inventor to develop novel methods of painless death.

They killed Al Purdy in 2000. The method they used involved music, wine, the date rape drug, and the helpful application of an "exit bag" over Purdy's unconscious head. The bag was filled with helium from tanks used to fill birthday balloons. Purdy's wife was sent to another part of the house while this went on, and reported the death the following day after all incriminating evidence had been removed. Purdy's advanced age and health issues may have deterred the coroner from any thought of an autopsy.

Hofsess stopped killing others when Martens was caught and charged with killing two women. All of the records of the Society were in her home and were confiscated by the police. According to Hofsess, a $50,000 bequest also disappeared. In 2004, she was acquitted. In 2011, she died. The other partner has also died. There is no one left alive to confirm or deny Hofsess's statements.

A good piece of confessional writing should not leave you with basic questions about the author's motivation. Yet Hofsess never really explains what drove him to move from words to deeds, why he transformed himself from a film critic to Canada`s secret Dr. Kevorkian. If he'd been caught, he could have done many years in jail, so why did he take such risks? Did he watch in horror as his parents suffered? A lover? Most of us sympathize with the pain of others but very few of us are moved to do something about it, never mind something that could cause us to spend many years in jail. Why did Hofsess feel so compelled to help others die that he killed eight people in the span of three years?

Unlike most of Toronto Life's readers, I once knew John. In the 1970s, when he was the movie critic for Maclean's, I became his editor when I was assigned to manage what was called the back-of-the-book section. The back-of-the book consisted of short, critical articles about books, visual arts, movies, television, and politics. Some very talented writers published regularly in that section, including Heather Robertson, Barbara Amiel, George Jonas, etc.  My job was to suggest changes that would sharpen their prose, to make sure their facts were correct and that they defamed no one, to help them find the right subject, but not to change their opinions (which, in the case of George Jonas, drove my managing editor, the marvelous Mel Morris, up the wall as Jonas was right wing and Mel was not). John Hofsess was one of the few writers I worked with who had consistent trouble with clarity yet did not appreciate suggestions. In fact, he took them with ill grace. But he liked working for Maclean's. It gave him a significant audience. He tried to inform that audience about Canadian film-makers who, in those days, had trouble finding any audience at all.  Hofsess's most referenced Canadian film was Jutra's Mon oncle Antoine. Most Canadians never saw it: film distribution and theatrical releases in Canada then, and now, were mainly controlled by the Hollywood majors and Canadian filmmakers had a very hard time raising even tiny heaps of production money. Getting theatrical distribution of any significance was almost impossible.

None of us working at the magazine knew John well. He lived in Hamilton, and didn't come to the office very often. But one year he invited all of us to a Christmas party at his home.  His invitation was also extended to people who wrote for the magazine as freelancers: Margaret Atwood was among the guests, already a stand-out among her generation of writers. Getting to the party involved piling into a bus he'd chartered. Many of the attendees are, like John, on the other side of the grass now, and Canadian journalism is the poorer for that. The list includes: Susan Kent, then a junior editor slumming at the magazine after having been a book editor with Andre Deutsch in London; Don Obe, then a senior editor but later Editor of various national magazines and the teacher of generations of journalists at Ryerson; Bill Cameron, a wonderful writer who went on to a storied career in television journalism; Christina McCall Newman (later Clarkson), a superb political reporter who, after she married Stephen Clarkson (who passed away this week), wrote two great books about Liberal Party politics. Maclean's fairly burst with talent in those days. Peter C. Newman, our Editor, was on a mission to make the magazine a vehicle for great writing, great thinking, a place for Canadian voices telling Canadian stories.

But back to Hofsess. He looked then like a skinny version of the man pictured in the Toronto Life story: medium height, balding, of indeterminate age and sexuality, and given to wearing Tilly style hats, tweed jackets, and ascots. If he had a partner, that partner did not attend the party. He  lived with his aging mother. The house was Victorian, with many small rooms. There were too many closed doors. You could almost hear the skeletons rattling in the closets. There was also a lot of wine and food on offer. My memory says champagne and caviar, but perhaps this is an exaggeration. Yet I do remember thinking: this is costing John a fortune. Why is he doing this? 

Not too long afterward, my bosses began to complain about John's movie reviews. He rarely told us what he was going to write about, or why. Often the movies he reviewed weren't available to be seen by our readers. This was not his fault, but it was a problem. It's hard to interest readers in something they will never see.  But more than that, his writing was stodgy and vague. I was told to take him to lunch and explain that his job was in jeopardy unless he found a way to improve. We went to a Chinese joint behind City Hall. When we got to the fortune cookies, I tried to be kind but truthful.

He didn't take it well.

And soon he sought his revenge on the messenger-- that would be me.

In those days, each editor circulated his/her edited versions of stories to the other editors on staff for their comments and approval before they were sent to the plant for printing. A few weeks after our lunch, John sent in a new review. It arrived late, very close to deadline, but it was much better written than usual so I heaved a sigh of relief, rearranged a few sentences and passed it around quickly for comment. It was late on a Friday afternoon, past deadline time, when Don Obe came into my office with a weird look on his face and the review in his hand. Uh, Elaine, Don said, uh, didn't I just read this last week in the New York Times? I think this is a Vincent Canby review.

I am sure my heart stopped. I know I flushed bright red. I had to confess that I had not read the New York Times last week. (In fact, in those days I never read it though now I plow through the Sunday New York Times religiously: this has something to do with age.) It never occurred to me to read Vincent Canby's movie reviews to be certain that John Hofsess hadn't plagiarized them. It never occurred to me that any Maclean's writer, never mind one of John's distinction, would stoop to such a thing. If Don hadn't read the Canby review the previous week, we'd have published Hofsess's plagiarized version, and John Hofsess's career would have come to a full stop. (Mine would have been ruined too.) If Don was right, it meant Hofsess was willing to kill his own career in order to punish me and make a point.

We kept copies of the Times in the copy editor's office.  I ran down the hall and grabbed the previous week's editions. I scrabbled through them until I found Vincent Canby's by-line. Don was right: Hofsess's review was Vincent Canby's review with a few tweaks. Basically, it was identical.

So I had to call him up and tell him he was fired for plagiarism. But I couldn't just leave it at that. I wanted to understand his motivation. I asked him: were you going to tell us? He said he was. Before or after it went to the plant? I asked. After, he said. Why did you do this, I cried?

John said had wanted to demonstrate that there was nothing wrong with his prose: there was something wrong with us, with me, that we were so picky we would even blue pencil the published work of a great American critic.

Except I barely touched it, John, I said. I was surprised at how much better it was than your usual. So what point did you make?

That was the last time I spoke to Hofsess, though I followed his involvement in the Right to Die Society with interest. Sometimes I'd find myself wondering, again, why he'd done what he did. I grasped immediately that he'd wanted to punish me, to punish all of us for criticizing his work, yet the only person who suffered in the end was him. Some deep, self-destructive urge had made him do the one thing that would guarantee we would fire him.  He said it was about some sort of principle, but his behavior lacked clarity, just like his prose.

Was he really acting on principle? Or was he the kind of person who did hurtful things, because he could not help himself, and called it principle?

I do know that the title of this story, his latest work, his last magazine story, is also, in effect, plagiarized. While copying titles is fair game, it's not a good idea. Google  By the Time You Read This, I'll be Dead. You'll find it is the title of a well-reviewed book published in 2010.


  1. My my my. This is the same man who lived with my mother in San Diego from 2005 until 2008 when I discovered he was stealing money from her and she and I evicted him. When I saw his oh so soulful and dramatic report of his suicide I felt relieved I wouldn't have to worry about him anymore. After the eviction he returned to Canada and continued to send Christmas and Birthday cards to my mother. Once he sent a card to me. I could never understand why he did that; perhaps it was meant to be a comment on his capacity for forgiveness. He thought quite well of himself and never seemed to recognize how wrong and deceitful he had been with my mother

  2. Thank you for your comment. I am so sorry to hear that your mother was victimized.