A Great American and A Great Armenian

Vicken Attarian
Viken L. Attarian, Mount Royal, 4 June 2011
 
In Memoriam

Yesterday, one of the all-time great Americans, and equally great Armenian, Dr. Jack Kevorkian passed away quietly in a Michigan hospital, from complications of his long time disease, very unlike the turbulent life that he led fighting for a fundamental human right. 
 

Viken L. Attarian, Mount Royal, 4 June 2011
 
In Memoriam

Yesterday, one of the all-time great Americans, and equally great Armenian, Dr. Jack Kevorkian passed away quietly in a Michigan hospital, from complications of his long time disease, very unlike the turbulent life that he led fighting for a fundamental human right. 
 

On March 8, 2008, I gave a lecture at Columbia University on the topic of The Vanishing Breed of the Armenian Intellectual. That lecture turned into a series of ideas which I have elaborated since in numerous other ones as well as in essays. In it, I defined the intellectual as follows:
 
“An intellectual is one, whose output in the field of human intellect (which includes any creative output) and whose derived actions from such thought will shape and reshape the society or collective that is paying attention to him/her. This output allows such a collective to see themselves in hereto unknown frames of reference, to push the boundaries of how they think of themselves and to imagine a new reality of existence.
….
The operative word here is boundary. All systems, structures, societies, countries, even living organisms and subatomic particles are defined by their boundaries (or illusions thereof), by their edges, by what frames them. Why? Because not only do those limits define the whole, but also because edges and limits are the ones that are pushed and redefined. Interesting things happen not in the middle of the Bell curve but at its tail ends.”
 
I then went on to use this definition to name a few intellectuals. For my American audience, I added:
 
“…On the US side of our common border I would mention Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Certainly a taboo name in most Armenian circles, but who fits the definition I gave of the intellectual. Because of his convictions and actions, he has not only forced a societal debate on euthanasia in the US, but literally all over the world. Needless to say he has pushed the boundary of the system.”
 
For almost all of my adult life, since I heard of him and his work, I have harbored a disappointment and occasionally even anger directed against all our Diasporan organizations and media for ignoring him. Regardless of one’s position for or against assisted suicide for those who wanted to die with dignity, I was incensed by the total official and unofficial indifference towards this man who behaved true to his conscience, and wanted the betterment of the society he lived in, by continuously pushing all the boundaries and challenging the status quo. I found the attitude of the Armenian organizations backward and abhorrent, but also mostly symptomatic of the state of dysfunction we have collectively sunk into. There was no public space to discuss the issues advocated by Dr. Kevorkian within our communities. I am sure our so-called “leader”s would rather that he not even called himself an Armenian.
 
I am grateful that that injustice done to him by his Armenian countrymen was partially redressed by the UCLA Armenian Students’ Association and the Armenian American Medical Society of California earlier this year when they invited him to speak. They deserve credit for their honourable gesture. And yet, like most things we do collectively, it seems like that it really was a case of “too little and too late”.
 
The man and his work have now passed into history and both have turned into legend. Kevorkian arguably stands as a giant of the human rights movement in the US for sure and perhaps even the world. It is the Armenians, by their attitude, who had everything to gain by debating his ideas and actions and who have now lost that opportunity.
 
In a uniquely masterful film, You Don’t Know Jack, released auspiciously on April 24, 2010 on HBO, the great Kevorkian is portrayed by the equally great Al Pacino, along with a stellar cast. Pacino went on to earn an Emmy and two Golden Globe awards for his amazing portrayal of the amazing Armenian.
 
I think that as a lasting tribute, every single Armenian institution and organization in the world should schedule a screening and debate of that film.
 
They don’t come like that anymore. There are not many new Al Pacinos these days. 
 
There certainly is not and will not be another Dr. Jack Kevorkian.
 
My world is now diminished by another hero.

 

10 comments
  1. Dr. Jack Kevorkian

    Viken,

    I never came across an Armenian that dismissed Dr. Jack Kevorkian as one because of what he stood for. Consequently I do not endorse your assertions that Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s name was “taboo in most Armenian circles” and that some Armenian leaders “would rather that he not even called himself an Armenian”.

    He was incarcerated in April 1999 and was released in June 2007. On October 2008, the Armenian Library and Museum of America-ALMA- in Watertown, MA hosted “The Doctor is Out” exhibit of his paintings. I did not attend the exhibit, but read about it in Armenian media as the Armenian press amply reported his news. I believe some of his paintings remain exhibited in the museum’s gallery.

    ALMA can only tell us if they organized the exhibit in response to your allegations on March 2008 that the Armenian organizations ignored him. 

    1. For Fairness’ Sake

      Dear Vahe,

      1. You ascribe too much power to my words. I do not think that I have any influence on any organization that was moved by my lecture to organize a Dr. Kevorkian exhibit. If they did, then kudos to them. It is of little relevance, though. Read on.

      2. For anyone familiar with the paintings in question, it is clear that while slightly macabre and rather grotesque, the only thing in common with the issue at hand (i.e. euthanasia, human rights and doctor-assisted suicide) is the fact that they have been painted by Dr. Kevorkian. What I am referring to is, of course, debating the ideas and actions of Dr. Kevorkian, not his art. Any reporting or organization of an art exhibit is, by its very nature, condemned to stay at the level of that art exhibit. Yes, you cannot separate the man from his art, but the real issue would have, and likely had, stayed at the margins.

      3. Dr. Kevorkian’s struggle spans over two decades of work. Where were the Armenians anywhere during that time? Where is the debate going on about this man and his deeds (for or against, it does not matter). The silence is “deafening”. To organize an art exhibit only after he came out of prison in late 2008 illustrates my point.

      4. The UCLA invitation, which I referred to in my piece, did contain discussions about medical ethics. Therefore, that is relevant. Again, as I say, too little and too late, but meritorious none the less.

      5. In my conversations with at least two community leaders in Canada, one secular and one religious, I was told that they’d wish Kevorkian never even mentioned that he was Armenian (as if that were possible or like he could use a pseudonym or something). I shall not name them so as not to betray their trust; you will have to believe me on this one. But you certainly do not have to take my word for it. Please ask around among people in leadership positions as to what they thought at the time and why they did not speak up (i.e. when Kevorkian was alive and in action, so to speak).

      No one would be happier than I to have been proved wrong. If there is any evidence to the contrary, reportings, articles, essays, publications, please refer them to me.

      Paregamoren,

      VLA

      1. “Kevorkian Hook”

        Viken,
         
        I also have not come across any Armenian-American organization debating abortion, the hotly contested issue that has significant impact on the political fortunes of candidates aspiring to elected office. However, I cannot ascribe the lack of such discussion to Armenian-Americans being indifferent to the issue or distancing themselves from those who advocate that right.
         
        The fact that Armenian-Americans did not and do not discuss the boundaries, using your own words, of the 9th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, is not a measure of them being indifferent to the right to terminally end suffering or being indifferent to the boundaries of the medical professionals to aid the termination of life. The lack of discussion is not also a measure of Armenians distancing themselves from Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the person. The same goes to any Armenian of course, American or not. Both of these issues were, are and will continue to be debated nationally and any Armenian organization debating these issues will not add any more value, as far as I am concerned. We have pressing issues that only us can help to resolve and we can devote so much time and energy. We should not unfairly criticize ourselves but command, if you will, of the choice we made. I found that lacking in your presentation as it pertained to your March 2008 discussion.
         

        I will end my discussion on a lighter note. A decade or so ago we went salmon fishing in upstate MI. We were not catching any. To our surprise the captain of the boat and his mate made reference to using a “Kevorkian hook”. Now, I am not sure if we caught the three salmons we did using that hook. However the fact that his name had even made into the fisherman’s tackle box has made that fishing expedition all too memorable to the four of us on the boat, my two sons and their Armenian friend and I. 

        1. You are Right and Yet

          Dear Vahe,

          You are right about the issue of abortion, and your fishing story is memorable, adding to the Kevorkian "Cyber Monument" on Keghart. You are also right that many Armenians care about the issues advocated by Dr. Kevorkian. And yet, please consider the following facts:

          1. To my knowledge, there were no Armenians leading the debate about the abortion issue in the US or elsewhere. Therefore, the fact that the Armenian "debate" on the issue was part of the larger US landscape is valid, although I do not recall anything siginficant being discussed on that topic within our organizational frameworks.
          2. Dr. Kevorkian IS the person who challenged the whole of the American and societal norms. He continuously declared himself to be an American and an Armenian. He was THE figure on the issue. Therefore, Armenians who take pride that celebrities, such as Kim Kardashian, are Armenian and provide her antics with space and bandwidth on our media should, by the same token, have covered Dr. Kevorkian. Armenian organizations and institutions take pride in every single Armenian celebrity, no matter how "meritorious" their achievements, and I don’t think you need proof of that. Why not Dr. Kevorkian?

          Thank you for your valuable insights.

          Paregamoren,

          VLA

  2. Did you know that Dr.Jack Kevorkian

    Did  you know  that Dr.Jack Kevorkian was an orphan?

    Yes, he was, and upon request  by the armenoidteam.com, in which my son-in-law is a member, interviewed  him in his hometown Detroit only a few months ago. The theme of a feature film is the orphans  of the Genocide.

    If you enter above  website you will be acquainted with a find  that  took place  in Lebanon, where some 1500 Armenian orphans were being turkified  by Halideh Edib, Jemal Pasha´s lover. In this feature also another personality appears.  Namely, Mr. Robert Fisk, the famous British journalist -writer activist  of ¨The Independent¨.

    Át present though, it is good to know  that  Dr. kevorkian very  kindly agreed to be interviewed and he will appear  in said feature film -posthumously- making it  even more important, as he reached the zenith  of his career, having  started off as a poor  Armenian orphan. By the by, I also appear for a few minutes in the film, since my mother was  also an orphan.

  3. A great human rights activist

    I’ll re-iterate the brief note (in quotations below) that I left on Asbarez.com following his passing away on June 3, 2011.

    "Compatriot Dr. Kevorkian in essence was a human rights activist, and a pioneer in theory and practice of euthanasia. His name will remain etched in every single progressive scientist’s mind.

    May he rest in peace."

    As a physician I feel embarrassed, to say the least, that the Armenian Medical Community in north America did not appropriately honour the great humanist while he was alive and active. On the contrary, there were some who were "ashamed" of his work, and their shame was not based on religious principles which I would have appreciated. One particular physician’s view was that Dr. Kevorkian had "dishonoured" the Armenians.

    1. Honoring Dr. Jack Kevorkian

      Dikran,
       
      I hope you do not mind me addressing you by your name. I am not a medical doctor, so I may not be the right person to comment regarding the Armenian-American medical community failing to honor Dr. Jack Kevorkian when he was alive. Non-the-less, here is my two-cents worth of thoughts.
       
      From my readings and the two TV interviews I watched Dr. Kevorkian inject Thomas Youk a deadly concoction of drugs that ended Youk’s suffering by killing him (aired on national TV during his interview with Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes" and his interview with Dr. Sanjay Gupta), Dr. Kevorkian came across as someone who would have cared less about receiving accolades from colleagues. Neither did he come across as someone who would have performed the expected routine from an honoree–rise to the podium and thank the organizers of the event for honoring him. He came across as a socially difficult person, more of a loner with a preference to be so. He was a lone crusader, I believe, by choice. As far as I know, he never attempted to establish a base of supporters, even when he ran for Congress in 2008, after his release from prison.
       
      The best support anyone could have lent him was not to oppose him publically and let him carry on his mission. Thus, I do not blame the Armenian medical community for not extending the traditional honoring ceremony to Dr. Jack Kevorkian. After all, it is difficult for someone to get to the podium and give credit to a person, who on the record, aided in the termination of the lives of at least 130 people, albeit for good reason. I do not think that as a society we are at that stage yet, whether Armenian or not. We grudgingly accept the termination of a family member’s life to end his or her suffering for lack of other choices, but we do not embrace it. Like many, I also went through it, when I authorized the nursing home personnel not to resort to intubating my father, to continue on hanging on to his dear life. Obviously, I do not cherish my decision but find solace.
       
      Dr. Kevorkian coined a word for what he did–patholysis, i.e. killing (lysis) the disease (patho). I wonder if that term will eventually catch on in the medical community. 
  4. Dr. Kevorkian

    As one of the people Viken Attarian rightly criticizes for not having done enough for the late Dr. Jack Kevorkian, I am coming forward to publicly admit my guilt and pronounce my shame. In admitting my guilt, I have a feeble excuse: we share a common family name, though we are not related.

    As one who believed, as he did, many times I have toyed with the idea of writing something. Also whenever anyone noted the similarity of our names, he would also add, “of course, I agree with him,” but I used the sad self-deluding excuse that people would expect me to defend the good doctor because of the similarity of our names. I also would have cited the many times at passport control when entering this country (while living in London) and the official would ask, “Any relation?” and I would say, “No.” I would be waived in and welcomed back to this country, with comments similar to “he is right.”

    More than anything else, what Dr. Kevorkian did was to expose the hypocrisy of society: “Animals must not suffer, but people must.” What he should have campaigned for was that families go to court and request that their suffering family member be declared a dog. Then society would have demanded that the family “dog” be put out of its misery. I wrote a letter to that effect to a London newspaper, and it was printed
    There is nothing noble about human suffering, and Dr. Kevorkian–using his pathology experience–recognized that. I first learned of the doctor in 1960 when I bought his book, “The History of Dissection,” and learned that he was a noted pathologist. When he undertook his humanitarian efforts, many years later, I realized that it was the same man.

    Ave atque vale, Dr. Kevorkian.

    Avedis Kevorkian
    Philadelphia 

  5. Dr. Jack Kevorkian

    Your article about Jack Kevorkian was a kind tribute to the man I grew up knowing in his and my hometown as "Joe." He came from a fine Armenian family who supported our agoump located across the street from the Kevorkian family home on Ferry Avenue in Pontiac, MI. They were social friends of my parents.

    Perthaps Armenian organizations did not invite Dr. Kevorkian to speak but as for myself as a columnist for The Armenian Weekly and contributor to the Mirror Spectator, they were more than fair in printing articles I wrote asking for his early release from prison.

    There were local concerned Armenians like Sally and Zorob Kabodian who came to my house with a great deal of literature pertaining to Kevorkian including his book as a gift to me in the hope I would get involved in petitioning  Gov. Jennifer Granholm to take mercy on him for an early release. I was glad to help. The Kabodians tried to enlist the support of the Armenian community.

    In truth, the Kabodians revealed to me that Armenians they approached in a certain segment of the community were not enthusiastic about jumping on the "free Jack bandwagon." This caused them great concern.

    I got in touch with many non-Hyes as well as local Armenians  and some in Canada to participate in this letter writing campaign to the then governor which they did, but to no avail. She wouldn’t budge.

    When he was finally released, many of his Pontiac, MI. Armenian friends invited him to a luncheon where he was welcomed like the brother we considered him to be. He was happy to see all of us. He addressed our group of forty including his close supporter Mrs. Ruth Holmes, and stressed that everyone should learn to read and write Armenian. He discussed his future plans and much more. He was genuinely touched that we welcomed him back to break bread with those he grew up with.

    Now, all of us who knew Jack acknowledged him to be a highly intelligent person, a genius, but he always remained the down to earth, approachable individual, still the Armenian-American from down the street, Levon and Satenig’s son who was probably the first from our community to graduate from the prestigious University of Michigan.

    During his incarceration I had written letters to the editor of area American newspapers asking for his freedom. Please do not think all Armenians had turned their back on Dr. Kevorkian. We rallied

    around him but did not smother him. All we wanted was for him to regain his freedom and enjoy a few more years of quality life outside of prison.

    Very few Armenians attended his funeral. One of them was a close friend of mine and Dr. Kevorkian. In her 80’s and ailing, she flew from Rochester, MN. to attend his final services at White Chapel. He was her daughter’s Godfather.That is loyalty.

    Looking back, I agree Armenians could have done more. Could it be that we still have that slave mentality created by hundreds of years under Ottoman rule and abuse?

    The message I got that day at lunch with Dr. Kevorkian was that he was a staunch Armenian. Little is written about the trauma of the genocide which his Sepastzi parents experienced in the national media but the morning of his funeral by accident I turned on the Bio TV channel and there it was . .  the life of Dr. Jack Kevorkian beginning with a map of Turkey and Armenia explaining the genocide of the Armenians and how 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered while some escaped to other countries.

    His father was a subscriber to The Hairenik Daily and I know his sister Margaret was a member of the Armenian Youth Federation. I am positive the family taught their children about the Armenian Genocide. We can only imagine what effect this had on Dr. Kevorkian.

    Thank you for honoring Dr. Kevorkian. He was worthy.

    Serpouhie Apigian Kessel

    1. Thank you for a wonderful piece of history

      Dear Serpouhie-Betty

      Your stories are heartwarming, the memories and names that you evoke are important for the future historians.

      Thank you for bringing them back to life.  Your personal relationship with Dr. Kevorkian is now part of this cybermemorial.

      In the end we live forever in memories.

      Paregamoren

      Viken L. Attarian

       

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