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Interview with Zoe Fitzgerald Carter, author of Imperfect Endings

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Emotions run high when people discuss Zoe Fitzgerald Carter’s recently released memoir Imperfect Endings. The book chronicles her mother’s choice to end her life when faced with the prospect of dying slowly from Parkinson’s disease (as well as other serious health issues) and her desire to have all three of her daughters at her side when the end came. Of course this choice deeply affected Zoe and her family and this is portrayed eloquently and often humorously in this courageous story. In a recent interview on NPR’s “On Point,” callers were desperate to get through to tell the author their own stories of struggle with a loved one’s — or their own — battle with terminal illness and to discuss the moral Zoe Carter headshotimplications of assisted suicide. The host of the show, Tom Ashbrook, relayed his own memories of how his mother died of Parkinson’s. It seems almost everyone who tuned in could relate to the honesty and emotional struggles of Ms. Carter.

Though the book deals with a controversial and important subject which makes it, at times, a difficult read, relief comes in the form of the writing: it is just gorgeous. The language with which Carter weaves this difficult story of life, death and family bonds is as complex as the tale itself: elegant but accessible, somewhat reserved but still open-hearted. The relationships among the sisters and the different ways they each deal with the situation are honestly rendered in a manner which any reader who has experienced family conflict (and let’s face it, who hasn’t?) will totally relate.

I have to admit, after reading this incredible memoir I struggled with my own feelings towards Zoe’s mother. Halfway though, I felt infuriated with her, certain she was pushing this event just to manipulate her daughters and grasp their attention. This reaction was probably based on my relationship with my own mother, but that’s the power of this book: I dare you not to personally relate on some level or another. By the end though, I was blown away by the strength of her conviction and began to understand her desire to avoid imprisonment in her own disease-ridden body.

To give you some background on the author before we talk with her, Zoe FitzGerald Carter is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and has written for numerous publications including New York magazine, The New York Observer, Premiere, and other national magazines. Imperfect Endings won first place in the 2008 Pacific Northwest Writer's Association literary contest and was a finalist at The San Francisco Writer's Conference. The memoir was also picked by Barnes & Noble as one of its 2010 Discover Great New Writers series. An excerpt of the book appeared in the March issue of O Magazine.

Zoe talks to us from Northern California, where she lives with her husband and two daughters.

What inspired you to write this story?

I really struggled with what it meant to be a good daughter during the year leading up to my mother's death. I wasn't sure if it meant talking my mother out of killing herself or helping her do it. Part of writing the book was to revisit that dilemma.

I also think this is a universal story. I realize most parents don't kill themselves, but most of us will face our parents getting older, getting sick and — one day — dying. My hope was that by sharing my own experience, "imperfect" as it was, I could offer solace for people making these same difficult end-of-life decisions.

Did you keep a journal during that time or did you rely on memory to write the book?

I did not keep a journal although I often wrote about what was happening at my weekly writing group. I also had a lengthy "paper trail" of emails between my sisters and me, friends, doctors, social workers, hospice workers, etc. These were really invaluable in terms of piecing together what happened and when and  —  most importantly — how I felt about it. I also went over certain key events with my sister, Hannah, who remembered certain things that I had forgotten.

Given the controversial subject of the book, were you worried about the response you might get?

I am still worried about the response I am going to get! I did a radio piece for KQED, the local public radio station in the Bay Area, about putting my beloved old dog to sleep and how much quicker and more compassionate it was than any of the options my mother had when she was considering ending her life. (These included swallowing enormous amounts of Seconal or morphine, stopping eating and drinking, and having a member of the Hemlock Society help her kill herself using helium and a plastic bag.) I heard from some listeners who felt that God was the only one who had the right to decide when someone died. I also heard from people, including hospice nurses, who thanked me for saying what I did. So I fully expect there are going to be strong reactions on either side. My hope is that it will generate useful discussion and not just polemics.

About Ann Hagman Cardinal