VITAL SIGNS: The Way We Die in America by John Langone
Kirkus Star

VITAL SIGNS: The Way We Die in America

Email this review


Langone, a new journalist, wrote Death is a Noun for a younger audience; here he has written about dying as a verb -- dying as a process -- dying as something beyond what the new breed of professional thanatologists (cf. the Troup and Green study to follow) are arguing at various levels -- dying as it overtakes certain people and overwhelms others, a few of them lucky enough to move beyond Kubler-Ross' steps of anger and alienation and denial to some sort of acceptance, be it only that life is ""a ten minute trip to the store."" If you get past that gut-tightening first chapter on the definition of death and its clinical criteria, to the still more shattering anatomy classes and dissections (""Slice open a penis that looks like a cold, blackened frankfurt and who'd want to screw after all this"") you will perhaps have some understanding of the doctors' ""Problem of Detachment"" (""I have become inured to death"" or ""I've seen too much of it, and that's not good, baby.""). Langone's informal collage presentation includes all kinds of reports: from the American Hospital Association -- your bill of last rights; news clips of Harry Truman's insultingly prolonged death in life; interviews -- the reporter talking to a recently bereft family with an embarrassed mumble; chaplains, psychiatrists; nurses and other professional caretakers who seem to have learned most about the possibility of an easeful death. They have also learned not to err on the side of information. ""So you don't tell them outright, you play a little game with them, you give them a little bit of hope. . . ."" Langone qualifies his experience . . . after all ""you know death is happening to somebody else."" In the next room, or the one you've been asked to leave -- there's that ritual, like closing the eyes, before we close the casket. But this time you won't be able to avert your glance -- Langone's book has a stinging immediacy and an intensive concern which connects -- a little like Sharon Curtin's Nobody Ever Died of Old Age, that other frightful, frightening blindspot.

Pub Date: June 12th, 1974
Publisher: Little, Brown