Ruth Francisco e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson (September 2003)
Confessions of a Deathmaiden is an unusual mystery. Its heroine, Frances Oliver, is a deathmaiden. Her role is not to expedite death, but rather to act as a kind of spiritual midwife to those who are ready to pass on. In addition to this innovative concept, Ruth Francisco throws in to her debut mystery an obscure Mayan culture, biogenetics and the high-tech harvesting of organs. Here are some questions that this thought-provoking novel brought to my mind, and its author's answers ...
Q: Your heroine, Frances Oliver, in Confessions of a Deathmaiden, is passionate about her vocation, and against extreme medical intervention in the process of dying. She recalls the indignity of her mother's death. Is this point of view based on any direct experience of your own?
A: In the late 1990's, I helped care for a 102-year old woman named Helen. Her health was failing. She couldn't see or hear. She was in constant pain. Helen told me she wanted to pass on. She needed someone to help her die with dignity. I realized that many people help you come into this world-doctors, nurses, mothers, natural birth instructors, lactation specialists, but when you die, you get little or no help. So I imagined a group of women who were midwives to the dying.
Both of my parents also had extremely protracted and painful illnesses at the end of their lives. They spent a lot of time in hospitals receiving the latest treatments, but it made their final years miserable. I wish they could've left this life surrounded by family, love, and good memories rather than by beeping machines, sick strangers, and harried medical staff.
Q: In general, the physicians in your novel are not a very compassionate breed. Do you think that high tech involvement in medicine is sometimes at the expense of the human relationship?
A: Technology is neither good nor bad. I think most doctors want the best for their patients. But in our country, we've made the practice of medicine a business first, and an art of compassionate healing second. Most patients don't realize they have the right to say 'no' to medical technology. Many, I believe, are led into desperate procedures by their doctors who for legal reasons feel they must offer the latest in medical technology. Yet this is not always in the patient's best interest. There should be a more harmonious end to our lives. Death is part of life. It can be meaningful, even beautiful. It shouldn't be stripped of its spirituality. It shouldn't be a time of desperation. It should be a time of love and sharing. A time of gratitude and release.
Q: It's a fascinating premise, the development of death midwifery. Do you see any trends towards this around the world, for example in countries that are more supportive of assisted death than we are in North America?
A: The hospice movement is growing rapidly throughout the world. Ironically, it is the huge cost of healthcare which has encouraged the medical community to embrace hospice. There is also a very interesting movement that started in Northern California of having funerals and burials at home-a movement to integrate death back into our lives, to make death less frightening.
Several readers have suggested that my book might even start a movement. A nurse who read the galley to Confessions asked me where she might find out more information about the Society of Deathmaidens. She was looking for a career change.
Q: There is a strong spiritual aspect to your novel, in particular the deathmaiden's ability to share a dying patient's experiences. Do you believe that people have had such experiences with the dying?
A: There is a great deal of documentation about reported afterlife experiences. If there is any truth to these stories, it is not hard to imagine that someone trained in a spiritual discipline could participate in their afterlife journey.
My good friend Helen passed on at 102. I was called to her house on the morning she died. The feeling in her room was remarkable-a stillness, a peacefulness-like a meadow deep in the woods on a hot summer afternoon. It was if there was a golden glow in the room, but it was a glow without color or warmth. Even the police woman who came to the house remarked on it. Were we sharing in my friend's afterlife experience? I don't know. But it did make me feel very safe. Rather than feeling sad for losing my friend, I a felt a sense of joy. It made me feel that there was nothing to be afraid of in dying.
Q: The potential for misuse of organ donation seems a valid concern, given the huge discrepancy in material wealth between different parts of the world. Are you aware of any evidence that such misuse occurs today?
A: Every few months there's something in the newspaper about it, usually in a third world country where poor people are lured into selling a kidney. I fear the situation will only get worse as developing countries obtain the technology for organ transplants.
Q: A key to the mystery in your book is a scientific development that would prevent organ transplant rejection. Are you aware of work currently going on in this field?
A: In order for the body to not reject a transplanted organ, a patient has to take massive amounts of steroids and immunosuppressants for the rest of his life. The drugs have dreadful side effects, and are the single greatest obstacle to organ transplantation. From what I've read, more than 70,000 Americans are on waiting lists for human organs. So there is a mad rush for scientists to figure out how to prevent organ rejection.
The most amazing research is the cloning of pigs whose organs lack a genetic trait that prompts the human body to reject them. The developers see a potential for a $6 billion industry providing pig hearts, livers, and kidneys to humans. It seems like fiction, but it's going on.
Q: Do you have a personal interest in the Mayan culture, aside from as research material for this book? Has anyone actually postulated cannibalism as a factor in the fall of Mayan civilization?
A: I haven't read anything about cannibalism in Mayan culture, but the very interesting, very controversial anthropologist Christy Turner II claims to have found evidence that the Anasazi culture in the American Southwest included cannibalism. He speculates that the practice of cannibalism attributed to the abrupt collapse of the Anasazi civilization in Chaco Canyon around 1150 A.D. Apparently Anasazi culture migrated from Aztec and Toltec cultures in Mexico, both of which performed ritualized human sacrifice and cannibalism. So it isn't difficult to speculate that ritualized eating of human flesh was part of Mayan culture as well.
Q: Do you have plans for a sequel involving deathmaidens, and in particular Frances Oliver?
A: Not yet. My next book is called Venus in Venice, a murder mystery that takes place in Venice, California. It is told from a number of perspectives all concerning a beautiful woman over whom a number of men become obsessed: an African American cop, a surfer dude, a Mexican fisherman among others. Two severed arms show up on Venice beach, then she disappears. It reads like a fast paced murder mystery, but, like Confessions it deals with greater themes-of sexuality and spirituality, people trying to find love in a city without love. Ruth Francisco studied in New York City and currently lives and works in Los Angeles.
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