That ‘Better off dead' mindset, reconsidered

Bruce Graham's "Outgoing Tide,' by PTC (2nd comment)

3 minute read
Richard Poe, Anthony Lawton in 'Tide': What's so bad about dependence? (Photo: Mark Garvin.)
Richard Poe, Anthony Lawton in 'Tide': What's so bad about dependence? (Photo: Mark Garvin.)
At a recent matinee performance of Bruce Graham's The Outgoing Tide, I was confronted by a predicament common to passionate advocates everywhere: How do you voice an unpopular, critical opinion without resorting to the dogmatism of the soapbox?

In the lobby of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, I returned from the concession stand during intermission to find that my theater buddy had run into an acquaintance— they had both recently been guests at a mutual friend's wedding. I joined them in front of the sunny windows facing Broad Street, where they were already engaged in conversation about the show's depiction of the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

To my dismay, the two seemed to agree with the play's argument: When our health or ability deteriorates past a certain point, the logical recourse is to seek an end to life. This plot device pops up repeatedly in films and plays. (Think of Whose Life Is It Anyway? and The Elephant Man.) It's so familiar, in fact, that disability activists have given it a name: "Better Off Dead."

Begging for release

In his seminal 1987 essay, "Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People in Television and Motion Pictures," the historian Paul K. Longmore summed up "Better Off Dead" narratives this way: "The disabled characters chose death themselves, beg for it as a release from their insupportable existence. The non-disabled characters resist this decision but then reluctantly bow to it as necessary and merciful."

In the lobby at intermission, I tried hard to listen to my friends' opinions about the play's premise, but it was difficult to hear them over the mantra I was repeating to myself: I will not act like an intellectual snob. I will not go off on a rant about master narratives and disability politics. But finally, I cracked.

"Why do we assume that dependence on others makes life not worth living?" I asked. "If a friend was depressed and considering suicide, you would probably counsel him to seek help. Why do we judge the suicide impulse as irrational in that case, but then judge it as rational when someone is faced with an illness that is debilitating in other ways?"

"Is it possible," I continued, "that some of the suffering associated with early Alzheimer's is caused by a loss of self-worth that has a social, rather than biological, cause? Could this suffering be assuaged by decreasing the stigma and increasing patients' access to support? This story is part of a whole set of narratives about how to deal with disability. Consider Million Dollar Baby, The English Patient, The Hours…"

Soapbox in the lobby?

Thinking back on that interlude, I'm not sure if I feel proud that I have the courage to voice my dissent or embarrassed that I can't just nod politely every once in a while when the social situation might call for it. The problem is that silence implies assent.

As a college instructor, I know I haven't yet mastered the calmly critical position I so often admire in my mentors— professors whose years of experience have made them masters at asking the right questions in the right ways. But my question persists: When you encounter disturbing ideas at a play, should you turn the lobby into a soapbox? Or is silence the only polite option?

To read another review by Marshall A. Ledger, click here.
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.

What, When, Where

The Outgoing Tide. By Bruce Graham; James J. Christy directed. Philadelphia Theatre Company production closed April 22, 2012 at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. (at Lombard). (215) 985-0420 or

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