An extraordinary and moving personal love story which deftly combines emotion and rationality. Many New Zealanders will be familiar with the story of Lecretia Seales’ death, as it was widely covered in the media in 2015. Lecretia’s Choice tells the story of how it all happened, by her husband Matt Vickers.
I was working with Matt at a Wellington design agency around the time that he first met Lecretia, so my impressions of the book are filtered and mixed with memories of Matt’s cheeky creativity and strong recollections of what Wellington was like back then. The familiarity and ease with which I could enter the story and picture the places and people described only makes the impact more devastating.
Several important achievements here worth mentioning.
Firstly, the book exists to ensure that Lecretia’s life is not framed as a tragedy, and not remembered by the single defining story of her death. When following the events of a real person’s life, it’s easy to fall into the shorthand of narrative thinking, looking for an arc of beginning, middle and end, forcing the detail, diversity and wonderful meaninglessness of life into an arbitrary and ultimately inaccurate illusion. But all stories need some form of narrative structure to give shape to a complex series of events and connect them together coherently. The way the book is structured helps the reader understand and come to terms with this fraught dialectic. Storytelling and documentary sections are interspersed with a series of philosophical digressions and framing explanations which provide a consistent guiding voice and perspective.
Secondly, the book is a vital and necessary argument for freedom of choice, the freedom to control one’s experience and destiny for people with terminal illness. Although the Seales v Attorney-General case resulted in a disappointing judgement, the facts and findings established that it is possible to make a rational decision to die and that palliative care is limited and not all-encompassing in the relief of suffering. The arguments are powerful, and from what I could tell, every direct challenge to Lecretia’s position has at its core a fundamental problem with denying autonomy, denying lived experience, denying the possibility that a person with self-awareness and strong sense of personal freedom might actually choose to end their life as the most pragmatic and sensible option.
This clash of values is reflected directly in their cruel and abject use of the phrase ‘assisted suicide’. Conflating suicide with assisted dying makes it a lot more difficult to support people at risk and contributes to the erasure of choice and stigmatisation.
At the centre of all this is a significant philosophical question about what suicide really is, cutting to the core of the fear and confusion in Western culture about knowledge and acceptance of death. Our society—obsessed as it is with limitless growth, linear accumulation and consumerism—consistently represses and fails to acknowledge the cyclic nature of death. Suicide short-circuits this entire social fabrication, and raises huge, difficult questions about alienation, isolation, individual vs group perceptions of reality and mental illness. Reading this book really prompted me to start thinking more deeply about the boundaries and borders of suicide. I’m starting to see many other connections that I hadn’t noticed before—for example, the rise of terrorism since the 1980s and the widespread use of the phrase ‘suicide bombing’ by the Western media describing acts motivated by an ideology of Istishhad. Redefining the meaning of suicide has profound implications.
One of the most memorable passages in the book is where Lecretia comes to terms with the finality of her situation and commits to her case. She is described as bearing mana. To experience something so disappointing. so sad, and yet turn this experience into something greater and catalysing a movement which will improve so many people’s lives is an incredible selfless gift that we should all remember her for.
New Zealand popular culture can be a frustrating and infuriating mess to deal with, but this book is proof positive that anti-intellectualism does not permeate everything. The extent to which this situation has been an ongoing conversation in the media is illustrative of a lively, strong, creative, intellectual community with a strong sense of justice and a desire for development and reform. My hope is that Lecretia’s Choice is the leading edge of a humanist social and cultural transformation that acknowledges the inevitability of entropy and death, whilst reinforcing that individual bodily autonomy and choice is a fundamental human right.