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KATY BUTLER / Knocking on Heaven's Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death
Hillside Club
Berkeley, CA
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Co-sponsored by the Felker Magazine Center.Interviewed by Deirdre English, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism

In the tradition of The Emperor of All Maladies and Far from the Tree, journalist Katy Butler delivers an exquisitely written, expertly reported memoir and exposé of modern medicine that blazes the way to more humane, less invasive end-of-life.

Like millions of baby boomers, award-winning science writer Katy Butler lived thousands of miles away from her aging parents and assumed they would experience healthy and robust retirements before dying peacefully, at home, when the time came. Then, one fall day, her seemingly-healthy and vigorous 79-year-old father suffered a stroke and was left permanently incapable of finishing a sentence. His wife was thrust into the position of full-time caregiver: bathing him, feeding him, helping him fasten his belt. A year later, he visited the cardiologist and was outfitted with a pacemaker in a moment of hurry and hope. The device kept his heart going, but did nothing to prevent his slide, over five years, into dementia, incontinence, near-muteness, and misery. The burden of his care crushed Butler's mother, and Butler herself joined the 24 million Americans who help care for aging parents. Eventually it became clear that his brain and body were trying to diebut the pacemaker kept his heart beating. Butler and her mother faced a series of wrenching moral choices: when does death cease being a curse and become a blessing? Where do you draw the line between saving a life and prolonging a dying? When is the right time to say to a doctor, "let my loved one go"?

When doctors refused her family's request to disable the pacemaker, Butler set out to understand why medicine was prolonging her father's suffering. Her quest had barely begun when her father died and her mother rebelled against doctors, refused open-heart surgery, and insisted on meeting death the old-fashioned way: head-on. KNOCKING ON HEAVEN'S DOOR is the fruit of the Butler family's journey.

The number of Americans over the age of 85 has doubled -- from 3 million to 6 million -- since 1990, and Butler is one of the millions of baby boomers now caring for elderly parents. Three-quarters of the elderly hope to die at home, but in fact 44% die in hospitals, a fifth in intensive care units. Butler investigates a broken and morally adrift medical system that has morphed from saving lives to extending dying. With an investigative reporter's skill, a poet's eye, and a daughter's love, Butler lays bare the complex and grueling moral choices we face when our terror of death collides with the technological imperatives of modern medicine. She also chronicles a hopeful and growing medical counterculture, the "Slow Medicine" movement, which aims to reform our experience of old age and dying much as the Slow Food and natural birth movements helped reform how we eat and how we give birth.

"This is a book so honest, so perceptive and so achingly beautiful that its poetic essence transcends even the anguished story that it tells. Katy Butler's astute intellect has probed deeply, and seen into the many troubling aspects of our nation's inability to deal with the reality of dying in the 21st century: emotional, spiritual, medical, financial, social, historical and even political. And yet, though such valuable insights are presented with a journalist's clear eye, they are so skillfully woven into the narrative of her beloved parents' deaths that every sentence seems to come from the very wellspring of the human spirit that is in her. This elegiac volume is required reading for every American adult; it has about it a sense of the universal." -- Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland, author of How We Die: Reflections of Life's Final Chapter

"Katy Butler's science background and her gift for metaphor make her a wonderfully engaging storyteller, even as she depicts one of our saddest but most common experiences: that of a slow death in an American hospital. Knocking on Heaven's Door is a terrible, beautiful book that offers the information we need to navigate the complicated world of procedure and technology-driven health care. I'm recommending it to all my friends with aging parents or partners, and holding on to a copy for myself." -- Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia and Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in  the World

"Katy Butler's new bookbrave, frank, poignant, and lovingwill encourage the conversation we, as a society, desperately need to have about better ways of dying. From her own closely-examined personal experience, she fearlessly poses the difficult questions that sooner or later will face us all." -- Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost and To End All Wars

"Intimate and wise, heartbreakingly compassionate, and critically helpful, this is a truly important work that I hope will be widely read. We have lost our way and Katy Butler's impeccably researched and powerful tale will help eliminate much suffering on the passage to the mystery of death."  -- Dr. Jack Kornfield, author of A Path with Heart

Katy Butler has written about the Gyuto monks, Jeff Bridges, Brokeback Marriages, the AIDS quilt, the neuroscience of teenage drinking and especially, the Good Death. She is an American Buddhist journalist, essayist, and cultural critic best known for narrative nonfiction combining memoir and investigative reporting.

Deirdre English, the former editor in chief of Mother Jones magazine,  has written and edited work on a wide array of subjects related to investigative reporting, cultural politics, gender studies, and public policy. She has contributed articles, commentaries and reviews to Mother Jones, The Nation, and The New York Times Book Review, among other publications, and to public radio and television. Her most current work includes a revision of For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts' Advice to Women, co-authored with Barbara Ehrenreich, and an essay on the work of photographer Susan Meiselas. She has taught at Cal's J-school since 1988, and directed the Felker Magazine course for several years, during which the her class has won numerous regional and national Mark of Excellence

7:30 PM at the Hillside Club (2286 Cedar Street, Berkeley)
Tickets: $12 general, $7 students; $15 at the door
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Hillside Club (View)
2286 Cedar Street
Berkeley, CA 94709
United States


Arts > Literary

Kid Friendly: No
Dog Friendly: No
Non-Smoking: Yes!
Wheelchair Accessible: Yes!


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