Derek Humphry's ''Final Exit'' -- The author's manual on suicide is now a best-seller

By David Streitfeld
Updated August 30, 1991 at 04:00 AM EDT

In Wichita, Kan., where the right to life has shredded a community and set kin against kin this summer, the right to die is not causing any stir at all. In Kansas as in most other parts of this country, Derek Humphry’s remarkable instructional manual on suicide, Final Exit, has just become the hot new best-seller, and the most startling part of its rise is the lack of fuss about it. ”We’re amazed at how many people are ordering the book,” says Sarah Bagby, managing partner of Wichita’s Watermark Books; and Carol Publishing, distributor of the manual published by the Hemlock Society, reports complaints at no more than a handful of stores across the entire country. What can explain this unequivocal appetite, even in heartland America, for a book that shows people how to kill themselves?

Final Exit‘s author thinks he knows. Sitting in the Eugene, Ore., headquarters of the Hemlock Society, the 42,000-member organization that promotes the right of the terminally ill to die, Derek Humphry says, ”Even our opponents, in the bottom of their hearts, might wonder, ‘I’m opposed to it, but who knows? I might want some relief from suffering later on.’ Only a tiny percentage of us are going to have abortions. But death is a universal issue. Society is ready for such a book.”

He seems to be right. To be sure, Final Exit is not being marketed routinely: Waldenbooks is asking its stores to consider Humphry’s manual as ”adult material,” like The Joy of Sex or Penthouse, which means, says Jeff Rogart, vice president of merchandising for the 1,125-store chain, ”they monitor who it is sold to, and to some extent where they display it.” Rogart and other booksellers say they’re not sure whether the enthusiasm for Final Exit will last. But even if sales level off, the book that was rejected by several New York publishers has come a long way since its unpromising launch in April.

Despite the best efforts of Carol Publishing owner Steven Schragis, Final Exit sold only 2,000 copies during its first 3 1/2 months (the Hemlock Society sold another 11,000 or so through the mail). Some publishers would have concluded that the public wasn’t ready for a book bearing chapter titles like ”Self-Deliverance Via the Plastic Bag” and ”How Do You Get the Magic Pills?” But Schragis had a personal stake in the project. In 1988, he and his seven-months-pregnant wife went for a sonogram. They learned that the fetus had severe brain damage and would never come out of a coma. Schragis is unwilling to talk much about what happened next, but he makes it clear that the medical community was no help in securing an abortion for a near-full-term pregnancy. ”Basically,” he says, he and his wife were told, ”this is out of your hands.”

The episode prompted dramatic changes in Schragis’ life. He had already used $1.5 million to become a partner in Spy magazine. In January 1989, he used another $12 million to create Carol Publishing by purchasing Lyle Stuart Inc. and Citadel Press, which had always taken an interest in maverick books. The tragic pregnancy helped convince Schragis to join the Hemlock Society — and then prompted him to distribute Final Exit.

From April to June, Schragis sent letters about Final Exit to members of the media — the morning news shows, the major papers (The New York Times received three missives), Forbes, The New Republic. Most didn’t even bother to respond. Finally, on July 12, The Wall Street Journal (which had also received Schragis’ letters) ran a story predicting, ironically, that the book would ignite a controversy. The next week, all three morning shows featured Humphry, and 20,000 copies of Final Exit were sold in 14 days. Total orders have now reached 250,000 copies, and on Aug. 18 Final Exit appeared at the top of the New York Times hardcover advice best-seller list.

Humphry is one of the few who don’t seem surprised by his book’s success. He thinks the public has been shocked by cases like that of Nancy Cruzan, the car-accident victim whose parents fought for four years, all the way to the Supreme Court, for the right to disconnect her life-support system. ”People have said, ‘My God, do I have to put my family through that?”’ Humphry says. ”’There must be another way.”’

Jean’s Way, Humphry’s first book on suicide, appeared in 1978. It detailed how Humphry, then an English journalist, assisted in the death of his first wife, Jean, who had been suffering from bone cancer, by supplying her with a cup of coffee laced with secobarbital and codeine. (Humphry created something of a stir in 1989 when he left his second wife after she, too, was stricken with cancer.) Since the publication of Jean’s Way, Humphry and the members of the Hemlock Society, which he founded, have become the leading proponents for the right of the terminally ill to die.

”Over time, Derek has come even further out of the closet on this issue, just as America has,” says George Howe Colt, author of the comprehensive recent study The Enigma of Suicide. ”So now, in Final Exit, the list of the lethal dosages is right in the book, as plain as can be. It’s a little as if he’s judging what the traffic will bear.” A key to Humphry’s success, Colt thinks, is his training as a journalist for London’s Sunday Times and the Los Angeles Times. ”He’s not afraid to get out there and push people’s buttons, to say what others are afraid to say. And he’s good at working with the media.”

Even so, Colt is surprised by the public’s ”lack of touchiness” about the book. ”Maybe,” he says, echoing the sentiments of many others, ”this is something people feel ready for.”

They’re certainly going to get more of it. Final Exit has recently been bought by Dell in a paperback auction that reportedly reached the high six figures. Publishers in nearly a dozen countries have been asking about reprint rights.

It is unclear, of course, whether a significant number of readers will act on the book’s advice. Humphry says that so far he has received one letter from a couple who planned a double suicide. For the vast majority, however, buying the book is probably a gesture. ”People feel that, in general, there isn’t much they can do to change the way things are,” says a Wichita bookseller who wouldn’t give her name, citing store policy. ”So as a consumer or voter, you do what little thing you can to show how you feel. A lot of people bought Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses as a way of protesting the Ayatollah. They want to buy Final Exit for the same sort of reason — to show where they stand.”