It May Take a Poet to Explain Baffling Murder-Suicide

It's impossible to know, now, what it was that gave Douglas and Dana Ridenour the final impetus to take their own lives.

On April 19, they made a videotape explaining that they wanted to die on their own terms. They had been married to each other for 22 years. They said they were happy, that they loved each other, that their lives--he was 48 and she, 45--had been full.

They were, the couple suggested to those who knew them, at the top of their game. And they wanted to stay there. They feared growing old, they said, and losing control.

Polls suggest that most Americans feel the same way. This is nothing new.

Yet the Ridenours' particular death pact stuns. Even those who believe in the right to die find themselves groping for some sort of missing link.

Were they ill? Mentally disturbed? Was coercion, in any form, involved? A conclusive answer to any of these questions would make this a puzzle easier to solve.

But as this mystery now stands, we can only speculate as to whether the Ridenours could, or should, have been stopped from carrying out their plan. We don't know how much more of the story will emerge.

Ronald Ridenour says that he and his brother had often engaged in "philosophical arguments" about life and death, with Douglas always insisting that as he had planned his life, so he wished to plan his death.

So perhaps these deaths really were aesthetic, in that very rare poetic sense--that of two people who wanted to leave life at its apogee rather than its nadir. This, to some, is a hero's way out.

Or maybe during those four months between articulation and execution, Douglas and Dana Ridenour were waiting for a sign of hope that simply never came.

For those Americans who wish to control their own death--as the Ridenours clearly did--recent news has not been good.

On June 25, the Supreme Court ruled that while there is a constitutional right to stop life-sustaining treatment, states may require that a patient's wishes on the matter be established by "clear and convincing evidence."

Because 32-year-old Nancy Cruzan, irreversibly comatose for more than seven years, had apparently only informally indicated that she would not like to languish in such a state, the court ruled that her family could not remove her feeding tube.

Earlier that same month, another right-to-die case made headlines as well.

Alzheimer's patient Janet Adkins, a 54-year-old Oregon mother of three, pushed a button on Dr. Jack Kevorkian's so-called suicide machine, taking her own life with an injection of potassium chloride in the back of the doctor's 1968 Volkswagen van.

Adkins was beginning to experience symptoms of her disease--pockets of memory had faded and she could no longer play the music that she loved--and these she feared more than death itself.

Kevorkian--maverick or ghoul?--has since been legally prevented from aiding in a suicide again.

I have written on the right to die before, and among those who read that January column, it apparently hit a chord. More than a hundred people--most of them elderly--got in touch with me, asking for information about how to take their own lives.

Laguna Hill's Caroline Youngquist, the volunteer representative of the National Hemlock Society who was the focus of that column, says that since then "well beyond 400 people" have come to her asking for help in engineering their own deaths.

"A short while ago," Youngquist told me Thursday, "a darling little lady--86-year-old, lived in Lido, very well-to-do, in good health except her eyesight was failing--had her driver bring her here.

"She couldn't read the instructions (in a Hemlock Society suicide manual), so she asked me if I would. . . . So I did read her just part of them, to give her an idea. Well, she had the whole thing planned. Friday night was when her housekeeper got off for the weekend. . . . I said, 'How will I know if you've died?' She said she would put me on the list for the trustee to notify. . . . Two weeks later, I got a notice."

But Youngquist, like most of the other people whom I talked to about Douglas and Dana Ridenour, was baffled and saddened by the prospect of two comparatively young, apparently healthy people taking their own lives.

"I can't fathom it," said Derek Humphry), the Hemlock Society executive director, from Portland, Ore. "It is just suicide, apparently. A very strange and unhappy event."

Doron Weber, a spokesman for the Society for the Right to Die, said from New York that the Ridenours' deaths reminded him of the opening of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel, "Love in the Time of Cholera," in which a 60-year-old man, believing that he has accomplished all that he had set out to do, kills himself.

"There's got to be something more to it," Weber said of the Ridenour deaths. "It just isn't making sense. I can't get a handle on it. I don't know what the logic is here."

But Edwin Shneidman, professor emeritus of thanatology at UCLA Medical School and widely regarded as the county's leading expert on suicide, says that in a case such as the Ridenours', logic as most people know it might not apply.

While stressing that any direct judgments about the psychological roots of the Ridenours' deaths would be premature, Shneidman says he has known of other "aesthetic suicides," in which people have killed themselves at the pinnacle of a successful life.

"It is a romantic notion," he said. "Poets and others have thought that the way to beat death is to meet it when you don't need to. . . . These people have thought that the time to die is at the height of orgasm, so to speak. . . . What the French call la petit mort . Something along the lines of, 'Boy, if you have to go, this is the way to do it.' . . .

"This is not a psychotic idea at all," he went on. "In this case, it seems to be a misappropriation of aesthetics to the practicality of life. . . . We like to pretend that we live by moral rules. . . . No one likes to think that we live by aesthetic rules too."

ORDERED LIVES: The Ridenours lived--and died--meticulously.A1

Dianne Klein's column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Klein by writing to her at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7406.

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