Reading Terri Schiavo

We read into what is left of Terri Schiavo our own hopes and fears. Like the iconic Cuban child, Elián Gonzalez, she has become more than a person. She is now a sacred text, the incarnation of our totems and taboos. How we read her — now that she has shuffled off her mortal coil — reveals more about us than it does about her.

To some, especially during Holy Week, Terri became a Christ figure, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. In the language of this story, judges and politicians became her betrayers, “Judas Iscariots,” in the words of Operation Rescue’s Randall Terry. All life is sacred, so the argument goes, but this one is transcendent. For Terri is the scapegoat sacrificed upon the altar of secular narcissism, a sensibility that could not see the soul abiding within her fragile shell.

To some in the right to life movement, Terri embodied a larger genocide. She is the expression of a new holocaust, a genetic cleansing of the weak, disabled, and infantile that includes the millions of babies aborted since 1972. Members of the family who visited her testified that her body looked like someone in a “concentration camp.” Many dying people look cadaverous at the end, but Terri was said to look like a victim of “Auschwitz.”

To others, Terri was the “woman scorned,” the faithful wife of a faithless husband, a man who had forgotten his wedding vows and had taken up with another woman. In this narrative, husbands who fail to remain long-suffering, saintly celibates become demons.  They have mistresses. They abuse their wives. As the wife grows into martyrdom, the husband descends into debauchery and murder.

To her parents and their advocates, Terri was not a 41-year-old woman, but a slaughtered innocent. As parents of toddlers interpret every gesture and gurgle in a search for meaning, so the Schindlers found significance in what others interpreted as empty sounds and reflexes. Last week, a woman testified that Terri shouted “Ah waaa,” which she interpreted as meaning “I want to live.”

Before my father-in-law died in 2003, he expressed in writing and gestures his desire to end his long illness and to pass away. His wife of more than 50 years argued with him until the end, interpreting every tiny improvement as a sign that Russell was getting better. So it is with our loved ones, especially children. We hold on and hold on and will not let go. We do it not just for our children, but for ourselves.

There is a pathology in which parents gain attention by the illnesses of their children, in some cases poisoning their young so they can bask in the reflected sympathy. Much more common is the opposite sensibility, where parents show themselves to the world as heroic figures, who – against science, logic, and theology – go to extraordinary means to preserve any scintilla of a child’s life.

Each of us brings our autobiography to the reading of Terri Schiavo. For some, she is the feared conclusion of our own lives. She is the unthinkable burden. She is the political football. She is wife, daughter, sister, friend, girlfriend, patient, martyr, victim, witness, a hallowed vessel or a hollow dream.

If only Terri could have read herself. If only she had the wit to examine the evidence of her own body and express her true feelings and beliefs. But why should we expect in death what so rarely happens in life? One version of her story is that Terri was a woman who in the fullness of her being suffered from an eating disorder. The literature of such illnesses often refers to distorted body images and feelings of inferiority. “I’m so fat and worthless,” so the figure in the circus mirror reflects, “that I don’t even deserve food.”

One theory is that Terri willfully deprived herself of nourishment as a young woman and, in doing so, created the tragic circumstances that were visited upon her in death. If true, how ironic that those who could not feed her body and soul 15 years ago, struggled against each other over the insertion of a feeding tube.

I do not argue here that one reading of Terri is more authentic than the next. Only that her story is our story. And that journalists have done well by giving air and space to these multiple and conflicting renditions of a life that passed years ago from the realm of reason and science to the territories of narrative and myth.

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