Look around you — the room you are sitting in as you read this. Perhaps you live in a cave, mysteriously equipped with wifi. A meditation room in a Tibetan monastery in the remote Himalaya, perhaps? No? Well! Then you know about the white-hot debate about health insurance that is raging in this country today.
What you are probably not aware of is how many creatives — writers, musicians, actors, dancers, artists — are going bare. By and large the arts do not pay enough for personal health insurance coverage. And in our little corner of the world the poster girl for this cruel situation is Jo Clayton.
Jo was a prolific and beloved fantasy and science fiction author. But like nearly all of us she never earned enough dinero from her writing for health insurance. Like most people in that situation she flew through life on a wing and a prayer, hoping she would never get sick. Most of her friends never knew this. She was a shy writer who came into her own with the advent of the Internet. She lived in Oregon, so I never met her except on GEnie, the proto-Facebook of the ’90s, where she had a galaxy of friends and held court almost every waking moment. How she found time to write 35 novels is a mystery!
However, a day came in 1996 when there were no posts from Jo on GEnie. Here’s one account. And our own Deborah Ross tells me:
Marty [Grabien] was one of the people who noticed Jo’s absence, but I was the one who called Mary [Rosenblum], who was local in Portland. Mary went to Jo’s apartment, knocked on the door, asked how Jo was and if she needed anything. Jo called out, “Food!” and if I’m remembering right, Mary had to get the apartment manager to unlock the door because Jo had fallen and couldn’t get up.
Phyllis Irene Radford recalls,
I remember the weeks on GEnie when she complained about a backache. But without insurance you don’t go to the doctor for a backache. Except this time it was stage 4 multiple myeloma — a form of bone cancer… The fact that I can spew out all these memories is an indication how much impact Jo and her rescue had on all of us.
Jo Clayton died in February 1998. She was 57 — exactly my age. With minimal medical care, how many more stories could she have delighted us all with? Nor is she the only creative person who died this way, not by a long shot. George Alec Effinger had a congenital condition that kept him in pain for years. He struggled with overwhelming hospital bills until he died, too young. And Katharine Eliska Kimbriel tells me:
Melissa Mia Hall died of a heart attack because she would not call an ambulance. She was afraid that she would lose her house from the bill.
And, if you are present at all in the social media, there’s always a Facebook fundraiser or a Twitter campaign, a Kickstarter, or a begging bowl out, to pay the medical bills of another author or artist. There are entire websites devoted to this in case you need to start your own campaign. SFWA runs an Emergency Medical Fund. This was not created casually, but out of appalling, heartbreaking need. The fans in Oregon are still running a Jo Clayton Memorial Medical Fund, to help writers in the Pacific Northwest with their medical bills. If you attend SF conventions you will frequently find an auction or an event being held to benefit these various funds.
Is this the way we want it to be? We are living in the most powerful and wealthy nation in the history of the human race. C’mon, folks. Yes, buy our books, enjoy our art, see our performances, because we can’t produce without that support. But help us to live. Nobody can write novels if they’re dead. Nobody should have to go without health insurance.
The next time you read a book or see a performance that thrills you to the core, that makes your heart sit up and sing, that makes you glad to be a human being, think about it: whether the author, the artist, gets basic medical care.
My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out exclusively from Book View Café.