The end, the very end of the Mary Northern story, came May 1 when the 72-year-old woman died in General Hospital, Nashville, Tenn.
The autopsy says that she died of an blood clot. The doctors' report intimates that if she had not resisted treatment, including amputation, she might be alive today.
But her epitaph says something else. It was written over 100 years ago by Charles Dickens, who ruefully observed, "It's a remarkable Christian improvement to have made a pursuing Fury out of the Good Samaritan, but it was so in this case and it is a type of many."
Miss Northern spent the last 3 1/2 months of her life pursued by this Fury, harassed by Benevolence, a victim of Goodwill.
It was caring people, our public Good Samaritans, who chased her, all the while bewildered, because she didn't want their "help."
It was social workers who came into her ramshackle, unheated home in January, genuinely worried about her health. It was policw who carried her forcibly out of her home to the hospital for treatment. It was doctors who tried to persuade her to amputate her gangrenous feet. Finally, when the all failed, it was the state - the Department of Human Resources - that sued to have her declared "incompetent," in an attempt to save her life, even against her will.
Perhaps James Blumstein, the Vanderbilt professor of law, exaggerated when he said: "These people were killing her with kindness." But they did bludgeon her autonomy, her privacy, her independence and her legal control over her own body.
Now, the leady - labeled a "spinster" even in the wire-service obituary - leaves us a legacy beyond the ramshackle old house she shared with her cats and her family memories. She leaves a reminder of how often individuals, especially the weak, the sick, the elderly and the dependent, need protection from the powerful establishments. Even the establishment of Kindness.
Her story is a fitting one for times like these when we are becoming more sensitive to the problems of dooing good.
Once, protective statutes like the one that loosed the Furies on Mary Northern seemed to be entirely benevolent. We had an almost naive confidence in professional need-fillers who had, in turn, navie self-confidence. As David Rothamn wrote in a small, intriguing book called "Doing Good: The Limits of Benevolence," "In their eageerness to play parent to the child, they did not pause to ask whether the dependent had to protected against their own well-meaning intervention."
Today, while we don't question the mostives behind the social programs, we are concerned about the results. We are increasingly aware of the way a vast social-services bureaucracy can violate the rights of an individual, and increasingly attuned to the new social problems that arise from solutions to old problems.
In the past week, for example, while Miss Northern lay in General Hospital, the Senate Finance Committee heard a research report that showed a rise in the divorce rate following the government's offer of a minimum guaranteed family income. At the same time, several lawyers expressed concern to me about the zeal with which social workers, following up reports of child neglect, could violate the rights of parents, quite legally, under statutes writeen without proper procedural safeguards.
In our political life, the conservatives are attuned to these vibrations of anxiety. They offer these examples as proof of the inherent intrusiveness and coerciveness of government. And they broadcast a desire to halt many new attempts to help people.
But it as cruel to ignore suffering as to force "cures."
The trick of shaping and reshaping social policy is a formula that fills needs while protecting rights, a formula that abides by what Ira Glasser calls the "principle of least harm." We have to distinguish continuously between the times when neglect is benign and when neglect is immoral; when caring is helpful and when caring is coercive.
As Williar Gaylin writes in "Doing Good," "We can degrade people by caring for them and we can degrade people by not caring for them, and in matters such as these there are neither simple answers nor simple solutions."
There is only the need for constant monitoring, tuning, to create the sort of social planning that neither ignores a neighbor's plea for help, nor looses the Furies on an unwilling victim like the late Mary Northern, of Nashville, Tenn.