Freethought NOW!

Remembering the truth-telling Betty Rollin

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Betty Rollin at the 2003 ffrf convention
Pictured: 2003 FFRF convention speaker Betty Rollin (photo by Brent Nicastro)

First you cry.

The world said goodbye to TV correspondent and right-to-die advocate Betty Rollin, 87, on Nov. 7. Betty ended her life as she lived it — on her own terms via voluntary assisted suicide in Basel, Switzerland.

Betty first came to the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s notice as the feisty PBS “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” correspondent who covered one of the “Glorious Fourth” gatherings put on by our plucky Alabama chapter back in the day. The extended family headed by Patricia and Roger Cleveland had generously deeded some of its land to FFRF, where we built what was called an “advance, not retreat!” at Lake Hypatia, Ala., near Talladega.

FFRF first raised funds to help build a meeting room with kitchen and showers. Then, in 1999, to accommodate the crowds, FFRF, with its donors and sweat equity from the chapter, eventually built a true auditorium in this woodsy, rural buckle of the bible belt, adjoining Talladega National Forest and Lake Joan (“Lake Hypatia”). In its heyday, it was an amazing undertaking, attracting many volunteers, activists and freethinkers not just from the South but around the nation.

Betty, a gracious professional, flew down with a crew to do a story about Lake Hypatia, also interviewing Dan Barker, who was speaking at the July Fourth event that year. It was hot and humid, and Dan returned home to report that she had dubbed Alabama “a bad hair state,” a droll observation that has stuck in our family lexicon.

Betty trailblazed a distinguished career as a young female news correspondent on national NBC-TV. She made international headlines when she wrote a book, First You Cry, about having a mastectomy at age 39 in 1976, at a time when breast cancer still wasn’t spoken about much, Betty Ford’s earlier revelation notwithstanding. First You Cry was turned into a CBS movie in 1978, starring Mary Tyler Moore as Betty Rollin. It was a big deal back when cable TV was just beginning and there were still mostly only four main TV networks available.

In her memoir, Betty confided, “”I stopped believing in God at about the same time I stopped believing in Pinocchio, when I was about 8. It upset my mother because her father was an Orthodox rabbi. My mother blamed herself for not emphasizing religion enough and for not keeping a kosher house. (She couldn’t do that, she said, because the housekeeper was a German Catholic and didn’t know how. Even at the time, that struck me as a limp excuse.)”

She was a graduate of Fieldston Ethical Culture School in Riverdale, N.Y., an appropriate spot to matriculate as a freethinker, then Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville.

Betty worked for ABC News’ “Nightline” and wrote another bestseller, Last Wish, in 1985. It’s a moving memoir about the lengths she and her mother’s close friends had to go to honor her mother’s “last wish” — to control her own death before the suffering from ovarian cancer became unendurable. This, too, was turned into a TV movie by ABC in 1992, this time starring Patty Duke as Betty and Maureen Stapleton as her mother.

In 2003, we managed to persuade Betty to come and speak to the Freedom From Religion Foundation at our annual convention in Washington, D.C. She said yes — so long as her beloved husband, mathematician Harold Edwards, could accompany her. She gave an important speech about physician-assisted suicide, an issue that almost all FFRF members strongly support. She noted in that speech, “It’s not good policy to have people so desperate to die that they’re forced to ask their children or their mates to help them out of life. Such people are amateurs, and, to put it crudely, they often muck it up. That can be terrible, and even if the person dies, there can be psychological damage.”

She and Harold attentively attended the entire conference. After the conference’s final entertainment that year, the irreverent and topical “Tunes ’n’ Tunes” show put on by Dan (the tunes) and then-Arizona Republic cartoonist and ex-Mormon Steve Benson (the toons), she came up to me, eyes shining, praising the performance and saying it deserved a much wider audience.

I’m indebted to Betty for helping to first put me in touch with Ron Reagan. After freethinking remarks he made at his father’s funeral in 2004 and later interviews, we wanted to offer him our Emperor Has No Clothes Award. Knowing it takes a celebrity to reach another celebrity, I reached out to Betty. She delivered. She knew a third party who then vetted FFRF and consented to forward my email to Ron, who accepted the award.

In the first year we debuted “Freethought Radio” in 2006, Betty came on the show to talk about physician-assisted suicide. At the time she spoke, only Oregon provided for a terminally ill person to have the possibility of assisted suicide. Progress has been slow but there has been progress, with 10 other states plus the District of Columbia since joining Oregon. Nevertheless, Betty was forced to travel to Switzerland to end her life as she saw fit. I’m sure she realized that her final exit would be reported, would make a statement and help educate our nation on the need to move forward, despite the religious opposition, to adopt this human right.

The New York Times obituary cited a statement she’d made to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1976 about why she was so open about her breast cancer. “I do not enjoy the fact that everyone who’s read my book knows everything intimate about my life. But I think it’s important for people to tell the truth,” she said.

The Times also reported (this is the part that made me cry) that a friend explained Betty “had been dealing with pain from arthritis and a gastrointestinal condition and had been broken-hearted since the death of her husband in 2020.” This close friend, Ellen Marston, said, “True to form, she was resolute in her decision; Betty made it clear she did not want to hear our objections to her plan. She felt she didn’t have much more to contribute.”

Betty Rollin contributed so much to the world — to journalism and to better and more compassionate understanding on many controversial issues, including physician-assisted suicide — because she told the truth.

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