Is it ever rational to choose death? Is it ever good? For 77-year-old Bob Stern there is little doubt. A successful businessman, husband, and father, an exemplar of the “greatest generation” that built post-war America, Bob Stern believes that taking his own life in the face of serious — possibly terminal — illness is what an all-American hero should do. So he sits down on Independence Day, 2001, and videotapes his shocking proposal — for both his wife and son who sit just off-camera, and for his two absent daughters. Bob Stern’s family tries to stop him from taking his life. The intense family drama that ensues raises issues many families must face.
The Self-Made Man resonates with the country’s intensifying debate over the “right to die.” At a time when state legislatures are debating “right to die” bills, the Supreme Court is scheduled to rule on Oregon’s assisted suicide law, and individual cases and Hollywood films have pushed the issue to the forefront, Bob Stern’s voice will be inspiring to some and troubling to others.
Bob Stern always wanted his filmmaker daughter to make a film about someone like him: the prototypical self-made American. In The Self-Made Man, in a way unanticipated by either of them, Susan Stern has crafted that film. Digging through family memories and archives, she shows that the elder Stern was certainly self-made… and then some. During World War II, like many young men, he joined the army right after high school graduation. Once out of the service, he passed up college to get a job in order to support his mother, who was dying of cancer. By the early 1960s Bob Stern had married, had children, and made his fortune, first in steel, and then in real estate on Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile.”
Later in the 1960s, seeking new outlets for his energies, Bob moved the family to California and became a pioneer in solar energy. He groomed his son, Michael, from the age of 12, to join him in the solar business. In 1982, Bob Stern was the first to put solar power into the grid of Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Northern California’s utility. By the early ’90s, Mike Stern’s Utility Power Group was one of the country’s major installers of large-scale solar power systems. Stern Ranch, where Bob lived with his wife, Adele, in central California, was itself surrounded by solar panels that served father and son as a research lab. That they did not achieve all their solar dreams — for technological, economic and political reasons — hardly dampened Bob Stern’s spirits. A businessman’s businessman, he tinkered with other products and inventions, from the Mench Mustache Company to the Art Robot.
Bob dominated the lives of his wife, son and daughters. In fact, according to Adele, Michael, and daughters Susan and Laura, there never was much difference between businessman and family man. Bob ran the family with the same creative zest for living, tempered by an unsentimental balance-sheet mindset, as he ran his businesses. “You had to produce something to gain Dad’s respect,” says Susan in the film, “and whether or not he respected us was always an open question, an account yet to be reconciled.”
By the time Bob sits before the video camera at the Stern Ranch on the evening of July 4, 2001, he knows exactly what he should do: calculate the cost-benefit ratio of his future prospects as a heart disease and cancer patient against the alternative of suicide. Untroubled, and even jocular, Bob at first leaves Adele and Michael — and the viewer — unsure of how seriously to take this unscripted video suicide note. But it soon becomes clear that Bob is completely serious.
But is Bob depressed? Mentally ill? Or is he, in fact, the proof that suicide can be a rational choice? He doesn’t appear to be sad, overly emotional, or afraid. At 77, he expresses a great deal of satisfaction at the fullness of his life; it becomes clear that control — or rather the prospect of losing it — is the crux of Bob’s cost-benefit analysis. Citing statistics, he figures that his chances of coming back from heart surgery and cancer treatments to resume a robust, independent life are slim.
What troubles Bob most is not that he might die on the operating table, but that he might become an invalid, like Michael’s father-in-law, who, in a stranger-than-fiction coincidence, has had a stroke and is struggling on life support. Medical science’s astonishing advances, the doctor’s very assurances that there remain treatment options for Bob, paradoxically heighten his fears of an extended and unavailing struggle with death. Against this prospect, he must weight the cost to his family of taking his life. Can that cost be eased by a suicide note on video?
One wonders if Bob Stern really already had his mind made up when he began taping. Or did he make it up when his doctor calls — the tape is paused while he goes to the phone — to reassure him about the next day’s heart operation, but also suggest that Bob’s prostate cancer might have spread? “‘Bye kids; I love you,” Bob says on the video, “and maybe you won’t even see this tape.”
The idea of a “right to die,” gaining force from medicine’s ability to prolong life, regardless of its “quality,” is a hot-button issue now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court and several state legislatures. The Bush administration has challenged to Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, passed in 1994, allowing terminally ill patients to receive prescriptions for lethal drugs if doctors certify the patients are rational and within six months of death. Meanwhile, some terminally ill people continue to hasten their own deaths, or be helped by their loved ones, who sometimes face criminal penalties. Among those most likely to respond to debilitating illness with suicide are elderly white men — men like Bob Stern — who most expect to be in control of their lives.
The Self-Made Man is reality footage of a sane, successful man contemplating suicide, inter-cut with his family’s memories of a life lived large right through the end. Bob Stern made up his own mind about the right to die, leaving his family and others to make up theirs. Is suicide, despite cultural and religious taboos, ever right? How do we weigh the benefits and costs, above all to the patient, of ever-more elaborate systems of medical life support? And even if the patient wants to kill himself, does he owe it to his loved ones to continue to live?
“What I found out when making The Self-Made Man was that, far from being alone, my father was part of a trend,” says Susan Stern. “It turns out that white males over the age of 85 have a suicide rate five times the national average, and as the Baby Boomers age, the suicide rate is expected to rise. I think this is something we as a society need to talk about.”
“Dad would have loved the debate,” Susan says at the end of the film. “A debate rages within me. Sometimes I think Dad wasn’t strong enough to be weak, to get old. Other times I think he had the courage to be himself. I accept my father’s choice. It was inseparable from who he was, inevitable as another day.”