Jewish Law Logo Jewish Law - Commentary/Opinion

The Diary Of George Delury
Chaim Dovid Zwiebel

The Diary Of George Delury

by Chaim Dovid Zwiebel

On December 14, 1995, a Manhattan grand jury indicted George Delury on charges of second-degree manslaughter for his alleged role in helping his wife, Myrna Lebov, commit suicide.

Ms. Lebov suffered from multiple sclerosis. Her condition eventually deteriorated to the point where she was unable even to brush her teeth herself and had difficulty holding a thought. She took her life on July 4, 1995 -- "independence day," as she called it -- by ingesting a lethal dose of poison solution that Mr. Delury had prepared and presented to her, presumably at her request.

In announcing Mr. Delury's indictment, the Manhattan District Attorney's office released a remarkable document: Mr. Delury's detailed diary-like chronicle of the agonizing months leading up to Ms. Lebov's suicide. A former editor of The World Almanac, Mr. Delury was meticulous in transcribing his tortured emotions on the screen of his home computer, even giving the diary a title: "Countdown: A Daily Log of Myrna's Mental State and View Toward Death".

Dear Diary

What emerges from the diary is a picture that is in equal measures heartbreaking and horrifying. Following are excerpts:

MARCH 2: In the afternoon, she tried to write a suicide note but ended up with little more than "I'm going to kill myself. Good-bye."

MARCH 5: Yesterday, Sabbath, Myrna indicated she was not ready to call it quits. She insisted she can do something. Help her find out what! I have no idea. I told her so.

MARCH 14: Last night, Myrna said she was emerging from the depression she's been in. Today, she's in full-blown euphoria...Reread about amitriptyline in the Physician's Desk Reference again today. It definitely looks like it could do the job...So I have set aside 39 of the 50 mg pills. AS of about April 6, there will be enough 50 mg pills on hand to do the job.

MARCH 27: Query: Would I be justified in accepting Myrna's request for help in dying when I know that a turn in the cycle will lead to a change of mind? Would I have the courage to act if the request came when she was at a low point?

MARCH 28: How will I say all this to Myrna. I will say: I have fallen prey to the tyranny of a victim. You are sucking my life out of me like a vampire and nobody cares.

MAY 19: My problem: If she asks for the poison now but seems very depressed, should I comply? Is she still autonomous? If I comply, I may be serving my own interests more than hers. If I don't, she may be losing her last chance to make the decision... I believe I will comply - on the rationale (rationalization?) that I will be saving her from a fate worse than death. (What an ironic cliche in this context!)

JULY 3: This morning, she said: "George, I want tomorrow to be my last day. Life is like a drag. Nothing seems to be interesting or worthwhile. It's all too much trouble."


12:30 A.M. Myrna has just consumed about 3000 - 4000 mg of the amitriptyline. Her courage was remarkable...

2:15 A.M. Myrna is sleeping very soundly, breathing heavily. I'm going to grab an hour's sleep.

5:30 A.M. Slept through the alarm. It's over. Myrna is dead. Desolation.

Assuming the Delury diary's accuracy, it shows that the overwhelming burden of caring for Myrna Lebov and seeing her deterioration had made her husband not merely a sympathetic sounding board for her thoughts but an active accomplice in her suicide; not merely one who helped her take her life but anxiously hoped she would do so -- perhaps even encouraged her to do so.

Faced with this evidence, Mr. Delury's attorney stated that his client's involvement in the suicide was motivated by "a deep and very strong love for his wife." That may well be so; love can sometimes be a dangerous thing.

A Tragedy in the Family

This is a sad story, but what has it to do with us?

Well, for one thing, the couple belonged to an Orthodox shul in Manhattan. This tragedy occurred in our own family.

Mr. Delury was even quoted in the press as claiming that a rabbi in the shul had counseled them over the course of Ms. Lebov's deteriorating condition. Mr. Delury was vague in describing the nature of such counseling, and the rabbi has reportedly denied that the subject of suicide came up in their discussion.

Be that as it undoubtedly is, the fact that this highly publicized case involves an Orthodox Jewish woman's suicide and her husband's role in helping her, makes it incumbent upon us as a community to proclaim as unambiguously as possible the general rule that suicide and its facilitation are strictly prohibited under halacha, no matter how unbearable life may have become.

While our hearts surely go out to Myrna Lebov and the many severely disabled or sick persons whose frail bodies are wracked by pain and whose shattered spirits are dulled by depression, and while our sympathies are surely aroused by the tremendous physical burdens and emotional strains borne by George Delury and all like him whose days and nights are dominated by the difficult demands of caring for their incapacitated loved ones, ingesting poison or preparing the poison is entirely off Jewish limits.

Admittedly, this message may be totally unnecessary for readers of Coalition. Whatever Kevorkian-like direction society around us may be headed, Torah Jews understand that our imperatives and values are different. Still, even we have much to learn from George Delury's "Countdown".

The Dangers of Subjectivity

For what the Torah demands of us is not simply to refrain from taking affirmative steps to end life, but also to take affirmative steps to preserve life. This is admittedly an area of considerable complexity that does not lend itself to vague generalities and requires careful case-by-case consultation with a competent halachic authority -- which is why Agudath Israel of America developed its "Halachic Living Will" -- but I think it fair to say that halacha's emphasis is on the sanctity of human life as opposed to the quality of human life; and that halacha will often insist on medical intervention to keep a person alive even in situations where a patient's family or doctor -- or even the patient himself -- may feel otherwise.

The Delury diary reminds us that life and death decisions are often made in the stifling claustrophobic atmosphere of personal desperation and inter-personal frustration. The danger that one's subjective considerations will consciously or subconsciously influence such decisions -- "I don't want to be a burden on my family"; "I no longer have the strength to care for this person"; " We won't be able to afford the new car if we pay for 24-hour nursing care"; "We won't be able to support our children in kollel if we pay for 24-hour nursing care"; etc., etc. -- is palpable.

"Aseh lecha Rav", advise Chazal -- to teach objective principles of halachic right and wrong, obviously, but also to save us from the dangers of our own subjectively feverish countdowns.

Jewish Law Home Page

Copyright © 1997-2008 by Ira Kasdan. All rights reserved.