Speaking Ill of the Dead – David Brooks on Charles Snelling

April 3, 2012   ·   2 Comments

Source: NYTX

Charles and Adrienne Snelling

By Marie Burns:

David Brooks has an uncanny talent for being wrong. His New York Times column today is no exception, though in this column his clueless moralizing will likely cause undeserved pain to those close to Charles and Adrienne Snelling, among others.

Brooks begins his discourse with Brooks, naturally: “Last fall I asked readers over 70 to send me ‘Life Reports’ – essays evaluating their own lives. Charles Darwin Snelling responded with a remarkable 5,000-word reflection.” As Matt Flegenheimer of the Times reported Friday, “On Thursday, months after contributing a poignant essay to The New York Times about navigating a six-decade marriage upended by his spouse’s Alzheimer’s disease, Mr. Snelling killed his wife [Adrienne] and himself…. They were found Thursday in their home in Lehigh County in eastern Pennsylvania, the police said. Mr. Snelling shot himself, the coroner said. The ruling on Ms. Snelling’s death was pending. Both were 81.” Dana Hedgpeth and Lori Aratani of the Washington Post wrote, “She was an accomplished fine arts photographer; he was prominent in Republican circles and had recently stepped down as chairman of the authority overseeing Reagan and Dulles airports and the construction of Metro’s new $6 billion Silver Line.” Charles’ brother Robert was a governor of Vermont (Robert Snelling died in office; his Democratic lieutenant governor Howard Dean replaced him); their father Walter O. Snelling discovered propane and pioneered the development of liquefied petroleum gas.

Brooks writes, “The comments responding to Matt Flegenheimer’s news article on this event make for fascinating reading.” He acknowledges that

The majority support or sympathize with Snelling’s double-killing. Many of the correspondents have cared for a loved one with Alzheimer’s…. These writers felt nothing but sympathy for the pain and despair Snelling must have endured. Several argued that people in these circumstances should be able to end their spouse’s life legally, so they don’t then feel compelled to end their own.

Most of these writers are not experts, but many do say they have had life experience dealing with loved ones who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. As we’ll see, their life reports did not influence David Brooks, perhaps because “Others, more likely women than men, were upset by Snelling’s decision. A woman from Canada who has spent 25 years nursing Alzheimer’s patients, argued that none of us have the right to decide that another person’s life is worthless.”

This last sentence is typical Brooks – deceptive without lying outright. Brooks does not write that Charles Snelling unilaterally decided that his wife’s “life was worthless.” He lets a commenter do it. Then he leaves his own readers with the impression that the commenter is correct (and soon he builds on the commenter’s supposition). More than likely, the Canadian writer’s views are misguided. It appears that Adrienne Snelling shared in her husband’s decision. Hedgpeth and Aratani report in the Post that Adrienne wrote a Nov. 22, 2009, letter to her children and grandchildren explaining how she and Charles planned to cope with her illness:

As you know I have Alzheimer’s. It is not a nice disease. So far I have held up pretty well. Dad and I are still having a pretty good life. There is no doubt where my sickness will end up for me. All of our lives, Dad and I have talked over our end of life beliefs. We are both in agreement that neither one of us wants to live after all reasonable hope for a good life is over…. We have had such a great life together and with all of you.

According to the Post report,

One of the couple’s children, Marjorie Snelling, 56, of Philadelphia, said Friday that she knew her parents had talked about a plan to end their lives but that she and her siblings were stunned that it actually happened. There had not been ‘any specific signs.’ Still, she said, her family believes the pair ‘were deliberate and thoughtful.’

‘They had a plan, and they were going to execute that plan without people knowing,’ Marjorie said. “They’ve seen their peers and friends languish…. They had really been thinking about this for some time and keeping it a secret.’

Mrs. Snelling’s letter seems clear to me. Neither she nor her husband wanted “to live after all reasonable hope for a good life is over.” Marjorie Snelling confirmed her parents’ views and their end-of-life plans. It would be awfully nice if Brooks could accept the words of Adrienne Snelling and her grieving daughter. But he does not.

Brooks writes, “I can come to only one conclusion: Either Snelling was so overcome that he lost control of his faculties, or he made a lamentable mistake.” (That’s two conclusions, but never mind.) That is, Charles Snelling was either temporarily insane or morally wrong. After vowing not to “rehearse the religious arguments against murder and suicide, many of which are based on the supposition that a life is a gift from God,” Brooks continues his morbid moralizing:

Our job is not to determine who is worthy of life, but how to make the most of the life we have been given. I would just refer you to the essay Snelling himself wrote. Only a few months ago, Snelling wrote that his life as his wife’s caretaker was rich and humanizing. By last week, he apparently no longer believed that.

But who is to say how Snelling would have felt four months from now? The fact is, we are all terrible at imagining how we will feel in the future…. Our capacities for imagining the future are bad in normal times, [and] they are horrible in moments of stress and suffering. Given these weaknesses, it seems wrong to make a decision that will foreclose future thinking. It seems wrong to imagine that you have mastery over everything you will feel and believe. It’s better to respect the future, to remain humbly open to your own unfolding.

Having hidden the fact that the Snellings made their decision about their end-of-life plan years ago – years before Charles wrote his “Life Report” – Brooks now pretends that Charles killed himself and his wife in a spur-of-the-moment decision made under stress. In fact, the Snellings knew how they – or how Charles – would feel “in the future” because Alzheimer’s allows its victims and their loved ones terrible clues and experiences about just what the future will be. In 2009, Adrienne was able to tell her children that she had no doubt how her sickness “would end up.” She and Charles already had lived it together for several years.

With his usual self-righteous pomp, Brooks tells us – and the Snellings’ family and friends – that it is not “our job to determine who is worthy of life.” But the Snellings did not decide who was worthy; they decided their own worthy lives had slipped away from them, stolen bit-by-bit by a mind-robbing disease. Perhaps Brooks can’t abide the fact that he feels Charles Snelling snookered him: Snelling meant one thing when he wrote his “Life Report,” and Brooks published it thinking Snelling meant something entirely different. When I first read Snelling’s report back in December, I thought he sounded like a self-involved, snobbish twit. And so he may have been for a long time. But when I re-read Snelling’s essay knowing how he ultimately would honor his wife’s wish, I found it much more compelling. Charles did not consider his end-of-life labors a sacrifice but as payment due: “It’s not noble, it’s not sacrificial and it’s not painful. It’s just right in the scheme of things. After all, this lady rescued me from a fate worse than death, and for a long, long time.” In the next-to-last paragraph of his essay, Charles let his prep school seal speak to his plans:

Nearly 250 years ago, Paul Revere designed and engraved, at Phillips Academy, Andover’s Great Seal. It shows a beehive with a swarm of busy bees. On the sun is written ‘Non Sibi,’ in Latin ‘Not for self alone.’ The motto, also in Latin, is ‘Finis Origine Pendet,’ ‘The Beginning Foretells the End.’

Brooks claims that Snelling could not have known how he would feel four months from now. Of course he could. It was the same way he felt four months ago when he wrote his life report: He begins his essay by promising the reader a love story; he ends by announcing the story is nearly over, and it will end in an act that is not for self alone. “There are fates worse than death.” Adrienne had descended into a fate worse than death, a fate worse for Charles even than his own death. Brooks cannot bring himself to even acknowledge the clues in Charles Snelling’s report.

We live in a country so averse to end-of-life plans that a leading presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, felt compelled to frighten his fans by making up a four-Pinnocchio tale about forced euthanasia in the Netherlands. Santorum claimed the Dutch had killed off ten percent of their population for “budget purposes.” Deficit reduction on a grand scale! So I suppose it is not surprising that Brooks cannot handle it when one of his fans – a prominent Republican! – chooses euthanasia.

I should mention that Brooks leads his readers to believe another falsehood. Brooks writes that “Snelling killed his wife and then himself,” without describing how they died. But later, in reporting reader comments, he writes, “Some argued that the nurturing process at the end of life, like the nurturing process at the beginning, requires patience and that those who are desperate should seek help, not a firearm.” This suggests that Charles Snelling shot his wife and himself. He used “a firearm.” That is not what happened. Snelling, who had considerable knowledge of chemistry, more likely ended Adrienne’s life with as painless a means as he could find. As Dana Hedgpeth wrote in yesterday’s Washington Post,

Authorities in Pennsylvania said they are awaiting the results of toxicology reports to determine the cause of death for Adrienne Snelling…. Paul Hoffman, a coroner in Leigh County, Pa., said Monday his office was awaiting the results of additional testing and toxicology reports. Those results could take a couple of weeks to receive, he said. The investigation is pending.

I am certainly not recommending the Snellings’ course for others. In a more enlightened country – like say, the Netherlands – Charles and Adrienne Snelling might have had better options. I have known three men who had to deal with their wives’ terminal Alzheimer’s. One killed his wife, but did not kill himself. He is now serving a long jail term. The second, a prominent public figure, shot himself and his wife. One day I saw a large picture of them in the New York Times. It was a moment before I realized I was reading the obituary page. Unwittingly, my husband and I had helped the couple prepare for their deaths. The third is my husband. His first wife, a magnificent woman and a great hero who helped save thousands of Jewish children during the Nazi occupation of Belgium and later resettled many of the orphaned children in Israel, died the slow and painful death of Alzheimer’s. By the time I met my husband, his wife had been in a nursing home for some time. I lived through those last agonizing years with him – years when he visited his wife nearly every day even though she never knew he was there. There was, of course, never any hope. Each day was just a little worse. That is not a good “solution,” either. But in this country, it is still the only acceptable and legal one available to victims of Alzheimer’s.

David Brooks might have devoted his column to advocating for better end-of-life outcomes for Alzheimer’s patients, just as many readers of the Snellings’ story did. Instead, Brooks devoted his valuable space to a sanctimonious lecture about “respecting the future” and to criticizing Charles Snelling for not doing so. To try to justify his patently disrespectful postmortem, Brooks had to twist the known facts and divine what future happiness a victim of Alzheimer’s and her husband might have enjoyed. In a saccharine coda, Brooks writes, “if you look at a life as one element within a mysterious flow, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Charles and Adrienne Snelling still had a few ripples to create.” Usually Brooks’ little editorial travesties irritate me. This one disgusts me.

Marie Burns blogs at


Readers Comments (2)

  1. alphonsegaston says:

    I share your disgust. Actually, I can hardly believe he was in his own right mind when he published it.

  2. Ben says:

    I’m an avid new york times reader, and typically a fan, but in this instance I could not agree more. I don’t think I’ve ever lost more respect for one writer – or for so many supposedly esteemed readers who left like-minded comments, than I did after reading Brooks’s article. Thank you for setting the account right.



Reload Image

More in REALITYCHEX (120 of 230 articles)
Hate Crime