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We are all entitled to dignity, we should all be able to distinguish what is right and wrong for ourselves, but what if your freedom of speech was taken away?
Until we reach the age of eighteen we live our lives under the supremacy of our parents, this is for our better being. Once we have reached adulthood we are expected to make our own judgements, we should be able make rational decisions for ourselves. Teenagers eagerly work towards this goal of freedom with little thought for how they will always be under authority, whether it be in the workplace, the community, or in everyday life. But these rules which we unconsciously live under are supposedly for our own benefit.
Brian Clark wrote “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” in 1972. Ken Harrison is a artistic and intellectual man, a sculptor by profession. Until he is involved in an unfortunate accident which leaves him paralyzed from the neck down.
His witty, vibrant mind is left trapped, in a useless shell of a body. Throughout the book we sadly witness a man of great intrepidity have his independence stolen, along with his dignity.
The books vast majority is set in Ken’s hospital room where he waits indefinitely. Kens only contact with the world outside, ironically, are the doctors and nurses, which have become the reason for his confinement. Clark cleverly uses the unvaried setting to give you a clear insight into the monotonous non-existence of Ken’s life.
Quadriplegia encages Ken’s body within four square walls. But his mind remains acute, as he apprehends the struggle that lies ahead of him. Kens voice protests on the behalf of all the patients who’s dignity, and self-determination is overruled by well-intention and expert opinion.
Dr. Emerson poses as his main opposition, he is a doctor with much experience, and he is unquestionably loyal to his profession. The conflict between patient and doctor becomes a delicate contrast between ethics and politics.
Dignity begins with choice, Kens choice to die only becomes inhumane once he is refused it, society would find a mans existence declined equally unethical.
Ken is aware of the limitations on his improvement, that he will be spending the rest of his life dependant on others, nothing more than an active brain in a non-functional body. As a man of previous etiquette, he decides death will be his only release.
Ken sees the hospital as a place where they “grow the vegetables” the hospital maintains their health until they reach “a position of stability” and then they are moved into “the vegetable store”. This is a prime example of kens sense of humour, the things he says are said jokingly enough to not be taken seriously, but the underlying truth is sinister, something that the “optimistic” staff try to avoid.
Ken Harrison is well aware of his vulnerability, he uses humour, and continually mocks himself as a form of protection from others taking pity. He believes that if he mocks himself, he prevents other people from doing so. Ken is indignant about retaining his morality. He constantly battles with the masked smiles of the doctors and nurses, whom are all apart of the “optimism industry”, their job requirements include being capable of displaying a effortless smile on cue.
Dr Emerson and his team of dedicated nurses and doctors attempt to retain and preserve Kens life as best they can, as they do with all their terminally ill patients. But their expert and experienced opinions have begun to base their judgements on the many hundreds of patients who are just like Ken. This repetitive way of working has become second nature to them, they only want the best for their patients, but they fail to see them as individuals. Their detached lifeless buoyancy is much like talking to a brick wall, with the same rehearsed response to most questions. They use “a series of verbal tricks to prevent them relating to their patients as human beings”. These “highly qualified nurses” are taught to find “potential” at “the bottom of every bed pan”.
The nature of their jobs requires that they perceive human life as a priceless gift. The life of the patient is always paramount in every situation. Dr Emerson above all, believes in the sanctity of life, and that nothing compares to humans fragile existence. But to Ken his “shadow of a life” is barely worth living.
Someone such as Ken who has recently undergone such a traumatising experience is expected to of suffered some mental anguish, depression is common in patients struck with a terminal illness such as himself.
In this crucial time after the accident, ken is prescribed a drug designed to insert “rose coloured filters” behind his eyes. To Ken his consciousness is the only thing he has, ken is petrified of losing the only thing he has left, the only thing he can control.
“My consciousness is the only thing I have and I must claim the right to use it…”
The only thing holding Ken in the balance is his capability to think for himself, to lose this would be “a catastrophe” his voice is the only way he can continue to express himself. Ken believes that the tranquilizers have more of a positive effect on the staff than himself. In kens words “I get the tablet and you get the tranquillity”. Ken is paralyzed and the doctors are powerless to help, seeing a fully grown man as dependant as a child disturbs any sympathetic person. Their impotence means that ken must remain this way, day in, day out, with partial consciousness, no more than a quick fix.
There is no excuse for any human to take the role of god. Man is merely “a labourer in this here vineyard. Fertilisers pruning and bedding out is up to the head gardener”, when john says this to Ken, its interpretation could be taken two ways. Is head gardener the title of god, or Dr. Emerson. Emerson is solely mortal without medicine, but with it, he is given a far greater authority. As man has become more and more powerful, it has become far easier for man to make godly decisions with the assistance of our ever advancing technology.
Doctors intervene with fate every single day, nature is rarely aloud to take its course.
Ken makes the decision that he wishes to stop all medical intervention, he has a neurogenic bladder meaning without medical attention he would die within a week.
His doctors interference in not only the course of nature but his own decisions angers him, he is not only allowed a say in his death, but any part of his situation.
His frozen limbs means he must lie in a hospital bed and let other people lead his life. As time goes by, it is not so much his condition that will have improved, but his ability to accept reality.
Time is the only medicine that will ever be able to improve Kens quality of life, but Ken is not satisfied with living his life waiting for it to get better. Waiting years to achieve something inconsequential.
Like a father Dr. Emerson wants the best for his patient. When a parent disciplines a child they are often doing it for the future, the child wont appreciate it at the time, but the Dr. Emerson hopes he will look back and agree with his experienced decision.
In Kens situations there simply is no “right” or “wrong” answer, he has a mind healthy enough to make a rational decision, but should such a mind be wasted? Kens answer would be that it is not a waste, it is freedom, a mind so healthy should not be left to rot in a dead body.
The decision is left to a judge, a man of no connection to either argument, this “catch 22” has only one outcome. When the board is so evenly divided, a man should be given his desire.
Ken is granted his wish, and as the play comes to an end, a few words pass between Ken and his doctor. Dr. Emerson offers that ken stays at his hospital, so he can be looked over in his last days. Ken asks why Emerson is displaying this sudden act of kindness, to which the reply is “Simple! You might change your mind”.
The audience is left feeling as everyone around ken does at this moment, with one question lingering in their minds, “What If…?”