College Quarterly
Summer 2005 - Volume 8 Number 3
Reviews Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life
Harriet McBryde Johnson
New York: Henry Holt, 2005

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Not many people read books about philosophy these days. Or, at least, about serious philosophy. The times when college students (and their parents) delved into existentialism, or logical positivism, or even Teilhard de Chardin and Carlos Castenada seem long since forgotten.

There are, of course, plenty of self-help texts at your local big box book store; but, for all their popularity, they do not merit other than sociological discussion.

An example is Rick Warren's book, The Purpose-Driven Life. The last time I looked, it had been on the New York Times best-seller list for well over two years. It came to special prominence when a young woman named Ashley Smith read it to an escaped murderer in a successful attempt to free herself as his hostage and return him to jail. Good for her!

Warren's book is an example of a faith-based, inspirational volume of the sort prized by Wal-mart and Oprah Winfrey. It all started with How to Win Friends and Influence People. I do not like it much. I do not like the genre.

For this reason, I was reluctant to open, much less to read, the book here under review. The cover depicts a smiling woman in a wheelchair, evidently suffering the ravages of muscular dystrophy. I was unsure whether it would be a valiant tale of spiritual triumph, a sappy tear-jerker or some combination of the two. It is a combination but one of wit, intelligence, pain and struggle; it is not written in the maudlin fashion we have come to know but not to love.

I had not gotten to the bottom of the second page when I realized that this book was different. She calls people like herself "crips"—certainly not politically correct. She mentions that total strangers will say to her: "If I had to live like you, I think I'd kill myself." Harriet McBryde Johnson doesn't think like that. She is having a great time. As she declares: "I have no more reason to kill myself than most people." She then starts to tell us stories.

She has a splendid sense of humor. This is, perhaps, not unusual for people who are confined to a power chair. But Harriet Johnson is also a lawyer and a committed leftist, neither being an immediate sign that a person is funny. She is good at filing papers and researching cases and even appearing before a judge. She has also had a picture of Karl Marx over her bed.

Ms. Johnson has a history of participation in protests. When President Reagan appeared at her law school in Columbia, North Carolina, she not only supplied her fellow "crips" with protest signs, but had quite a tussle with the authorities, including the Secret Service, who wanted to search her room for explosives the day of the president's arrival. She, in the alternative, relied on the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution (the one that protects citizens against unnecessary search and seizure). The authorities, of course, disagreed. She lost.

She also despises telethons that seek to raise money for the disabled by making television viewers feel pity for people like Harriet Johnson. She isn't one of "Jerry's kids," she says, and she never was. In cleverly written, fast-paced prose, she takes us on a number of adventures. Her campaign for political office on the County Council of Charlottetown (she lost), the US Democratic Party convention in Chicago in 1996, and a critical trial of the strength of the the Americans with Disabilities Act (she won).

We experience her passion at a National Lawyers Guild conference workshop on disability institutions in Tucson, Arizona. She is wholly opposed to involuntary institutionalization. She is incensed that "for over one hundred years, a powerful medical-industrial complex has trained us to think that people judged unable to care for themselves must, for their own good and the good of society, be consigned to a government-funded lock-up. Even forward-looking thinkers," she continues, "don't recognize the incarceration of some two millions Americans in nursing homes, psychiatric facilities, and other institutions as a human rights violation." This is, however, merely a lead-up to our experience of her helplessness when, while sight-seeing the next day, a fall from a wheelchair lands her in hospital. She does not want to call 911, be handled by paramedics or see doctors in an Emergency Room. She fears being put under the control of people who think they know what they are doing, but that is precisely what happens and, without her lawyerly skill, the help of colleagues and the fact that she could afford to put a $10,000 fee for an air ambulance on her credit card, one is left to imagine what other calamities might have befallen her.

I will refer to only one more episode. Peter Singer first became internationally known as the philosopher mainly responsible for putting animal rights on the political agenda. His book, Animal Liberation became the classic text from which animal rights groups have derived their views about the human mistreatment of animals. Singer is now famous for promoting a second cause, the right to kill severely disabled children in infancy. His argument applies a fairly bloodless version of utilitarianism to the fate of people like Harriet Johnson. "He insists he doesn't want to kill me," she explains, "he simply thinks it would have been better, all things considered, to have given my parents the option of killing the baby I once was ... [to] avoid the suffering that comes with lives like mine." Harriet Johnson debates Professor Singer at Princeton University. The results were subsequently published in the New York Times Magazine. They are not quite as funny as many other parts of the book; they are, however, very instructive.

One of the most annoying phrases that can be applied to a book is, I think, "a must read." Were I to have read all the books thus described, I would have no time for anything else. So, I will refrain from saying that his book is essential for people in the "helping professions"—nurses, social workers and the like. Still, it certainly wouldn't hurt for such people to be introduced to Harriet Johnson. Come to think of it, it wouldn't hurt almost anybody, especially those with no very good reason to kill themselves.

Howard A. Doughty teaches philosophy and evolutionary biology at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2005 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology