Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2006, Volume 26, No. 3
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


The Self-Made Man. 2005. ITVS, POV and Bernal Beach films. Written and directed by Susan Stern.

Reviewed by Jason Lee, University of Hertfordshire

"Is it ever rational to choose death? Is it ever good?" asks The Self-Made Man. The film will be of interest to those dealing with terminal suffering and disturbing to those who see suicide as anathema, those who believe life must always prevail. After finding out that he has an aneurysm and prostate cancer, Bob rationally debates taking his own life and opts for shooting himself before he becomes possibly disabled by disease. Doctor Kali, ironically the Hindu god of destruction and death, rings and informs him that the aneurysm is not life threatening but the prostate cancer is a real danger. We cut to Bob's son Michael's father-in-law in Illinois in a hospital bed. He is recovering from a serious illness but then a catheter and a feeding tube are put in wrong. Bob believes everything that happens to the father-in-law will happen to him. The father-in-law dies five days after Bob shoots himself.

Bob sets up a video camera to record his thoughts just prior to his death, something of a habit of his, having in the past run his own spoof gourmet show, and a home made comedy show. The director-daughter, Susan Stern, argues that this is all about control. American culture is concerned with control, about the freedom of independence. If we can celebrate the self-made man, can we celebrate the self-made death? The director wants people to have compassion for each other and hear each other's viewpoint. This is why she has spent three years making this film. Old 8-millimeter film footage is spliced together with contemporary footage. Being a self-made businessman, he looks at his life like a balance sheet. His son Michael points out that Bob saw himself as a bad investment, that this was time to sell. While his family are at times emotional, Bob's rationalism is extreme. To treat the human as a commodity with a "sell by" date is particularly crass, but the film is, overall, on Bob's side.

During his lifetime he is continually ahead of the game, investing in solar panels in the 1960s. In many ways his taking his life seems to be something similar, as it is about being ahead of fate. The film is in many ways about family dynamics and how the father here is always fully in control, the rest of the family always bowing to his wishes. The children were taught to be useful and productive and only then were they to be respected by their father, who respected few people. On camera he admits to not telling his children he loved them much, of not telling his son Michael ever. He also mentions about not wanting to have a finger stuck up his arse to massage his prostate. At 58 he had a stroke and he has always had high cholesterol. It seems that he has had health problems for a long time and at 77 this is game over. He cannot face any more health problems.

We are offered the perspective of the two daughters, the son, the wife and finally the grandchildren. Grandson Nick states that he did it for them, while Nora states that her grandfather Bob Stern was always stern but he made the right decision. Much of the film is devoted to how successful Bob was in his various businesses and we have the history from the point of view of his friends, as well as from his family, of how he moved from being a salesman of fur into steel then real estate in Chicago, then headed to the California desert. But the film briefly moves beyond the personal to look at the question of suicide in general. Footage is given of an "End of Life Choice" convention, with protestors outside waving banners such as "Hitler Loved Euthanasia." Sheriff Lieutenant Larry Davis, who went to this suicide scene, points out that this is not uncommon amongst men who perhaps do not want to be seen as a burden. While Susan narrates that her dad was not strong enough to be weak, she also comments that she accepts her father's choice as being just as inevitable as another day. It is presented that this was so part of his character that no other way was available.

With the emphasis on Bob's career in solar energy, and beautiful shots of the setting sun, despite Bob's wife speaking of the hole in her life, there is the idea that people move on. Michael finds himself to be the same person, even after his father's death, when he was expecting to be so different given how his father dominated him. There is no nonchalance here, only a respect for this decision. It does seem ironic that a man so strong should be unable to face the final test, but it is logical. As Susan Stern points out, they were not a religious family. The icons on the wall of their ranch house are celebrating machinery, science and rationality. Despite the tears and emotions, in this light, his decision seems to be a purely rational one. Bob's grandchildren feel they have a duty to respect his decision but some feel cheated. Overall, the film is fatalistic, emphasizing that this would have happened regardless of what people did. With regards to disability this ignores the fact that, despite existentialist debates, nobody exists in isolation.

Copyright (c) 2006 Jason Lee

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