Katy Butler: Reality Is Your Friend

Posted by: yetheart, January 17, 2019 7:58 pm
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Katy Butler (photo by Cristina Taccone)

Katy Butler lives in California, but she feels a connection to Queens. In 2014, she spoke at Jamaica Hospital about death and dying. Butler’s first book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, was a hybrid of memoir and investigative reporting, about taking care of her aging parents in their final years and investigating how medicine lost its way in its encounters with death. Butler argues that we can live too long within a medical system and a culture that cannot accept death.

She came to the subject of death through her parents’ experiences; she decided to write about how to die well because, as she explains, “I wanted to make a contribution to our culture before I face my own death and to save others from unnecessary suffering...I wanted to prepare for my own decline and death, and avoid some of the overtreatment and disempowerment my parents experienced.” Her new book, The Art of Dying Well: A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life, seeks to present solutions.

The book proved to take more than a year longer than Butler had anticipated and grew in length by a third. She talked with many experts in palliative care, oncology, and other major medical specialties, and listened to many stories of good and difficult deaths, including many from the “Slow Medicine” group she found on Facebook. “None of us want to be reduced to a bundle of diagnoses. We are full human beings, and we deserve to live and die that way,” she says.

The book that was most influential to her was the Ars moriendi, also known as The Art of Dying, which she describes as “a series of woodcuts published in Latin in 1450, describing the emotional and spiritual trials of the deathbed, and how people might endure them and die in a state of grace. (It was a bestseller, and one of the world’s first self-help books!).”

Butler says her book is different from others about death and dying because it “clarifies the landscape of aging and decline by describing seven distinct stages of later life, from healthy, resilient, ‘young’ old age to final breath. Each of the seven stages requires a pivot in one’s relationship to medicine, in order to continue to thrive. It also demystifies the foreign subculture of medicine, so you can understand its unspoken rules and empower yourself to get the best of what that system has to offer, and avoid the worst.”

The Art of Dying Well by Katy ButlerButler hopes her book offers readers more practical tools than they would get elsewhere: “My book toggles between the practical and the spiritual, because I believe the palace of the spiritual is built on a foundation of the mundane. I include a home death checklist, for example, including getting a bag of charcoal briquettes to put under the bed to absorb smells.”

She suggests four takeaways about how to die well: get in the habit of doing what requires the most of you and the least of medicine; know the trajectory of your illness; imagine how you’d like to die and work from there; and don’t be afraid to improvise your own rites of passage.

Butler immigrated to the United States at the age of eight from England and got her first library card at a small, chapel-like public library in a Boston suburb. She had to get special permission from the librarians to read “grown-up books” and to wander the adult section. “I was a compulsive reader and libraries were my resource and a haven of calm and quiet,” she recalls, “I loved wandering through the stacks.”

Today, she still likes to wander the stacks and find books neighboring the books she’s looking for; “I love the serendipity,” she says. She likes to consult reference librarians and get interlibrary loans of hard-to-find material for her work. But she also enjoys flipping through magazines, taking out videos, and often taking out novels—during her writing process for her latest book, she read every Jane Austen book the library had.

For those who are reluctant readers, she advises, “It’s a wonderful way to escape from your current troubles into other worlds, to explore how others have handled life’s inevitable problems, and to learn. Nobody can stop you from learning. And it’s cheap! If you’re having trouble reading, get help. Once you get over the hump, you have a passport to numerous worlds, cultures, and classes. It’s like an invisible cloak.”

One of her favorite authors is Virginia Woolf, “for the beauty of her style as a novelist, her ability to articulate the dilemmas of women in the world as an essayist, and her ability to look at a single moment, as a mystic.”

Butler says she is drawn to dark subjects and that her next book will be about the “Me Too” movement or how women recover from sexual trauma.

Her life lesson for readers? “Reality is your friend. Face it and you’ll do better than if you try to hide. Suffering results from not accepting things as they are, and responding out of denial rather than deep acceptance. It’s a spiritual task, and we work at it our entire lives.”

The Art of Dying Well: A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life is out February 19, 2019 and will be available at Queens Library.

Photo of Katy Butler by Cristina Taccone.

This is just one of the great stories you can read in the January/February 2019 issue of Queens Library Magazine. Other articles you may find interesting: