'Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it."
– Macbeth, Act I, Scene 4
Of John Hofsess's final act, you might say that he exited stage centre. When the right-to-die activist ended his wild ride via an assisted suicide in Basel, Switzerland on Feb. 29, he left in his immediate wake a sensational revelation.
In a posthumous article published in April's Toronto Life magazine, Mr. Hofsess claimed to have aided in the suicides of eight terminally ill people in Canada, among them the celebrated poet Al Purdy.
When Mr. Hofsess ended his life in his 78th year at the clinic of the Eternal Spirit Foundation, he was not only claiming that, owing to a multiplicity of illnesses, his "quality of life has disintegrated," but also making a political, and very public, statement about his own central and often controversial role in the right-to-die movement, just as Canada sets to join the few countries that allow physician-assisted death in the face of debility and despair.
But controversy was hardly novel for Mr. Hofsess, who was a divisive, often polarizing, figure from early in his career.
John Hofsess was born May 27, 1938, to Jack and Gladys Hofsess. He had an early taste of university life at 15, when he started working as a busboy at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ont. At age 23, he became the family breadwinner, supporting his parents, who were both in ill health. He spent his spare time writing essays and in 1963 found an opportunity to start studying English as a mature student at McMaster, juggling his classes during the day and shifts with Canadian National Railway at night.
With Ivan Reitman, who later produced and directed such comedy blockbusters as National Lampoon's Animal House and both Ghostbusters movies, he co-founded the McMaster Film Board in 1966. The student film society was a pioneer in both commercial and avant-garde Canadian film. Among its triumphs were two significant films by Mr. Hofsess. Palace of Pleasure (1967), which critic Jason Anderson has called a "trippy time capsule of Canada's nascent '60s film underground" (with a brief appearance by a young and shirtless David Cronenberg), received both screenings and praise in the United States. It was thought lost until reconstructed and shown in 2008 by Toronto filmmaker Stephen Broomer, whose new book, Hamilton Babylon, makes a strong case for Mr. Hofsess's significance in avant-garde cinema.
Mr. Hofsess's other McMaster film, Columbus of Sex (1969), was a flesh-saturated mockumentary based loosely on the 19th-century underground erotic classic My Secret Life. At its initial screening, the film was confiscated by Hamilton police, and both Mr. Hofsess and Mr. Reitman were charged with obscenity. The film was found not to have violated community standards, but Mr. Hofsess's film career at McMaster was finished, and the film destroyed.
Mr. Hoffsess's ambitions, however, extended far beyond McMaster. In an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, Mr. Broomer noted that Mr. Hofsess founded, with Peter Rowe, the Film-makers Co-operative of Canada, which led to the founding of the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre. He also brought the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol's travelling multimedia show to Hamilton in 1966.
In 1969, Mr. Hofsess became, for several years, a film critic for Maclean's magazine. Roy MacGregor, his colleague at the time and now a Globe and Mail columnist, recalls a man whose passionate championing of Canadian cinema helped vault such filmmakers as Quebec's Claude Jutra (Mon Oncle Antoine, Kamouraska) to unprecedented national attention.
Mr. MacGregor also remembered Mr. Hofsess as a bit of a dandy in the Tom Wolfe style, affecting matching hats and suits.
In 1975 he published Inner Views, a collection of interviews with Canadian filmmakers. According to Mr. Broomer, "they are actually less interviews than philosophical essays on aspects of Canadian film, each focused on a different filmmaker. [His] work as a critic made a huge impact on the evolution of the Canadian feature film, and he was in his time one of the first to offer a consistent vision for Canadian cinema and its possibilities."
Mr. Hofsess always credited his compulsive drive to alter Canada's right-to-die laws to the plight of the now-disgraced Mr. Jutra (although Mr. MacGregor believes it also had much to do with the lingering illness of his mother, Gladys, to whom Mr. Hofsess was said to be very close).
When Mr. Jutra was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease, he came across an article by Mr. Hofsess favouring assisted suicide, and he asked for the writer's help in ending his life. Mr. Hofsess said that, at the time, he was incapable of action. All he could offer was encouragement. On Nov. 5, 1986, a deteriorating Mr. Jutra jumped from Montreal's Jacques Cartier Bridge.
Five years later, Mr. Hofsess established the Right to Die Society of Canada, initially aimed at legal reform of the Criminal Code, which made assisting a suicide a criminal felony. He also launched a magazine, Last Rights, as the voice of the society.
By 1992, he reached both the apex and nadir of his crusade. In one of Canada's most notable and troubling cases, Sue Rodriguez of Victoria, in her early 40s and dying of ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), asked for his help in dying. She and the Right to Die Society mounted a Charter challenge. That ultimately failed at the Supreme Court, but Ms. Rodriguez's plight, and her dignity, moved and galvanized much of the country.
In a videotaped appearance before a House of Commons committee considering changes to the Criminal Code, she argued, "If I cannot give consent to my own death, then whose body is this? Who owns my life?"
But, as Anne Mullens, a friend of Ms. Rodriguez and author of 1996's forward-looking Timely Death: Considering Our Last Rights, told The Globe, John Hofsess's self-appointed role as the compassionate loyalist who championed Ms. Rodriguez's desire to control her fate was compromised in an act that eventually saw him break with Ms. Rodriguez and her other supporters.
When the first round of the court case was lost, Mr. Hofsess, who was "very good at media relations," Ms. Mullens said, was determined to keep public sympathy churning.
The Vancouver Sun received a letter purportedly from Ms. Rodriguez, spidery signature included, denouncing the ALS Society of B.C. for "compounding her misery" by refusing to back her court case. But she denied writing the letter: "I would not make those comments, and I am sorry they were said."
John Hofsess admitted to writing the letter, and forging her signature. He said that he had prepared statements for her before and that since Ms. Rodriguez could no longer feed herself, "Sue has reached the point where people have to speak for her."
The next day, he admitted that it was "inappropriate and unethical" to forge the letter, but believed that "I acted in what I perceived to be the best interest of Sue Rodriguez," who quickly broke off relations with him. With the aid of an anonymous doctor, she committed suicide in 1994.
Ms. Mullens, then a Vancouver Sun journalist who wrote the original story about Ms. Rodriguez's bitterness toward the ALS Society, says that the Hofsess forgery had been a submission for the Sun's opinion page. She had used it as the base for her first story without contacting Ms. Rodriguez. Ms. Mullens told The Globe that "I was so hurt and upset that he didn't seem to realize how dangerous and damaging this [act of forgery] was. I couldn't trust him after that."
Sandra Martin, whose book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices, will be published in April, told The Globe that Mr. Hofsess "was the first person to listen to Sue Rodriguez. In moulding her campaign for a medically assisted death, he humanized her plight and gave hope to others who were suffering grievously and wanted help in ending lives that had become intolerable." But he was a complicated and troubled man. As much as he had a great capacity for making friends, he had an even larger one for destroying relationships. That proved true with Sue Rodriguez, Al Purdy and many other people in the right-to-die movement.
The Sue Rodriguez affair was part of a disturbing pattern in Mr. Hofsess's life, a tendency to elevate his own needs and views over his obligations to others. For instance, he acknowledged using an $18,000 Canada Council grant intended to help him write a book on dying to finance the Right to Die Society. While honestly demanding individual rights and dignity in general, he could, several people told The Globe, easily ignore them individually.
In 1999, Mr. Hofsess finally jumped from legalism to activism. As he wrote in Toronto Life, "I killed people who wanted to die." From then until 2001, he and his partner, Evelyn Martens, helped eight desperate people end their lives.
When Ms. Martens was arrested for assisting suicide in 2001, Mr. Hofsess stopped abruptly and went underground. Although he was criticized in some circles for having abandoned Ms. Martens, according to Victoria writer Gary Bauslaugh, he did so "because he was so honest, he felt that if he were to testify, he'd have to tell the truth and she'd be found guilty." Ms. Martens, who could have been charged with murder, was acquitted for lack of evidence. She died in 2011.
For every detractor of Mr. Hofsess, there is a supporter. Ruth von Fuchs, president of the Right to Die Society of Canada, told The Globe, "When I first met him, I was struck by how ideas just seem to bubble out of him." Both she and Mr. Bauslaugh regard John Hofsess as a compassionate upholder of individual rights, especially the right to a dignified death.
But even when it comes to his own final decision, there are questions. Some people who knew him are convinced that his various physical complaints – described in the Toronto Life article as pulmonary fibrosis, prostate cancer and an unstable heart – did not warrant ending his life.
Roy MacGregor and Ms. von Fuchs are among those who doubt that Mr. Hofsess was fatally ill. "He diagnosed himself," Mr. MacGregor told The Globe. "I tried to talk him out of it. I was concerned that there was very much a drama-queen side to his decision."
Madeline Weld, an editor at the quarterly journal Humanist Perspectives, told The Globe that Mr. Hofsess was a "hyper-rationalist" who "felt rushed to take his own life," perhaps as a fitting and dramatic coda to the cause he'd so long championed.
But for Mr. Bauslaugh, author of a sympathetic book on the Robert Latimer case and the soon-to-be-released The Right to Die: the Courageous Canadians Who Gave Us the Right to a Dignified Death, Mr. Hofsess's choice to end his life is rather more selfless. He told The Globe that "John … felt very strongly about Canada wasting more money on him; he felt that if he stayed, his medical costs would be in the hundreds of thousands, and if prosecuted [for the assisted suicides detailed in Toronto Life] the legal costs could be in the millions."
John Hofsess died without partner, or children, or any close family. At the time of his death, he had completed a book, The Future of Death: True Stories About Assisted Dying, which will be published this spring. Though in many ways a compromised character, he will leave significant legacies – in Canadian film and, most important, in Canada's new right-to-die legislation.