When I interviewed Alice Sebold, I didn’t have a copy of her new book, so I asked her what it was about.

It’s about, she said, a woman who kills her mother.

I immediately thought of Electra and Orestes, plotting to kill Clytemnestra to avenge her murder of their father. My thoughts don’t usually go so highbrow so fast, but there you have it. You mention matricide to me and, trying to imagine antecedents (because that’s the kind of literary connection that interests me), I start mentally flipping through the files of Greek drama, Shakespeare, and the opera.

But now that I have the book on my nightstand, I see that it’s about a woman who helps an aging and ill mother die. A very different kind of murder, to me.

Or is it?

One of the great pleasures of the summer was reading Graham Greene’s Ministry of Fear. I totally fell in love with it and am going to be teaching it at the end of the semester. In this book, the thrill of a spy plot maps onto the protagonist’s guilty conscience: he murdered his wife, a crime for which he served time in prison. And for most of the book, that murder hangs heavily over his psyche and the plot. Gradually, however, Greene lets you understand that his “murder” occurred in the context of the main character’s husband watching his wife make a slow, excruciating decline towards death from cancer. This isn’t murder as I usually understand it. But it is murder to the protagonist, a scruple that makes him all the more appealing as a person. However quick I may be (I keep writing “we” and then reminding myself to revert to “I,” to remember that I speak only for myself) to excuse or forgive someone caught in the awful position of watching a beloved die, to forgive their deciding to help that death come more quickly, it must be a painful, agonizing decision. How could one ever know if one were releasing the beloved or simply releasing oneself from caretaking?

This is why, I think, stories about people who insist on labeling euthanasia as “murder” appeal to me even though I am strongly averse to that as a political or legal label.