This review was written by Kelly Oberle and Jennifer Rigal, both students on the End of Life Studies MSc programme at the University of Glasgow.
In the fall of 2021, as students on the Assisted Dying: Rhetorics and Reality module in the End of Life Studies MSc program at the University of Glasgow, we were introduced to the 2019 American film Paddleton by our course convenor, Dr. Naomi Richards.
Following on from the success of our Death over Dinner, we watched Paddelton and hosted two Zoom gatherings to discuss the film. The first was November 3rd, 2021, approximately 6 weeks into the Assisted Dying: Rhetorics and Reality course, and the second was September 26th, 2022, almost a year later. One of the reasons we wanted to repeat the discussion was to see how and if our perspectives had changed.
Paddleton is a 2019 American film telling the story of two friends, Michael and Andy, as they navigate Michael’s terminal illness and his choice of self-administered assisted dying. The film chronicles the events from diagnosis through illness: navigating the assisted dying process in California; a road trip to procure the medication; Michael’s eventual death; and the immediate period thereafter.
In preparation for our discussions, we distributed questions, based on the learning outcomes of the course, to be considered in advance of the gatherings and to guide our discussions. The questions covered such topics as: the reasons for choosing assisted dying; ethics and morality; the role of the medical professionals; access to assisted dying and the effects on the loved ones. It is important to note that our second discussion included students who had completed the module in 2021 and students who had recently started the 2022 iteration of the module. Some had viewed the film one or more times, and others had not seen the film at all. For some, assisted dying is legal in their countries, and for others it is not.
We used thematic analysis on the data obtained from the two gatherings. While many topics were discussed, the main themes for us were: the friendship between the two men; issues with accessibility and logistics; why Michael chose assisted dying; and finally the topic of bereavement and challenges for family and friends.
Interesting to note was that the most talked about theme was the friendship between Michael and Andy. We came to understand their friendship and found it both believable and relatable, making this a story more about friendship than about assisted dying.
We were all surprised by the magnitude of the practicalities and logistics that must be navigated to access assisted dying in California. As represented in the film, these challenges included finding a pharmacy willing to dispense the prescription, a six-hour car journey to the pharmacy, and a $3500 cost for the medications. The most distressing obstacle noted by the cohort was the need for 100 capsules to be opened one at a time in preparation for Michael to consume so that he could end his own life.
There was much discussion within the group on why Michael chose assisted dying. Some expressed the opinion that Michael wanted to gain control of his situation, in that he did not want to die in pain, in a hospital, hooked up to tubes. Others felt he chose assisted dying because he was isolated without enough social connections. Interesting to note this latter opinion was expressed by participants in jurisdictions where assisted dying is not legal. The differing opinions resulted in a robust and animated dialogue.
For many of us, the most profound moment in the film was the emotion-filled scene where Michael expresses his frustration over Andy’s protestations by saying “I’m the dying guy”. Andy responds with “but I’m the other guy!”, confirming to us the significant impact of assisted dying on loved ones and the necessity to consider family and friends along with the dying person, in the discussion.
In our initial viewing and discussion of the film Paddleton, we found ourselves grappling with this, our first representation of assisted dying, with its many associated emotions including discomfort, shock, sadness and uncertainty. For many of us, assisted dying was an unexplored topic and we were still considering our own views, opinions and beliefs. By our subsequent second viewing a year later, most of us had completed the Assisted Dying module and were familiar with the unique issues and challenges resulting in a more meaningful, informed and lively discussion.
You can find out more about the End of Life Studies MSc/PGCert/PGDip here
Kelly Oberle, is a Chartered Professional Accountant, an End of Life Doula, a certified Grief Yoga instructor, a hospice volunteer and a student in the End of Life Studies MSc program at the University of Glasgow. Kelly lives in Vancouver, Canada.
Jennifer Rigal is a technical recruiter, an End of Life Doula, a hospice volunteer and a student in the End of Life Studies MSc program at the University of Glasgow. Jennifer lives in Vancouver, Canada.
Paddleton. 2019. [film]. Directed by Alex Lehman. Los Angeles: Duplass Brothers Production.