March 22, 2005

Terri's Mom


Some pictures are so strong, they almost refuse to come apart.

As soon as I saw it, I wanted to do something with it.  At the same time, I felt it was too loaded to deal with head on.  So, thank goodness for the right wing radicals, who blew up the Terri-Mom photo to street corner size, then managed to get themselves into the latest edition of

If you’ve been following the Schiavo drama, Mom and Pop Schindler offer the inset photo as the primary evidence Terri is not in a vegetative state.  Why the media has done so little to challenge the flimsiness of this, I can’t say.  (Provocative Snapshots of a Many-Layered Issuelink.)  When you look at the image, pull your eyes off Terri for a second, and look at her mother.  To really understanding what the NYT calls the “human interest side” of this story, you might want to consider exactly who in the photo is in the more troubled mental state.

I think a viewer does not look at this image and identify with Terri so much as one catches a glimpse of Mary Schindler, and then identifies with what she needs us to see. (Check out the wonderful NYT’s piece in the most recent “Week In Review” — For Parents, the Unthinkability of Letting Go – link).  Of course, our empathy for Mom is so natural and automatic, it’s almost unconscionable to look at Terri and consider she is not reciprocating.  When you understand this, though, the story is not about a young woman who has managed to confound medical and legislative reality, so much as it’s about a mother who, after years and years, remains in a near-death struggle with fate. 

Combined with the political opportunism, I think that is what turned Washington on it’s head this weekend.

If you buy my analysis of Terri-Mom, the overall photo has other contributing facets.  Consider the “Let Her Live!” poster, for example.  Of course, it refers to reattaching Terri’s feeding tube.  But, doesn’t it also imply that a mother better understands her own child?  And, doesn’t it also caution us against killing off Mrs. Schindler’s fantasy that Terri has consciousness, and can recover?


There are also some functional elements I find interesting.  For example, look how the Terri-Mom photo is being held up from behind.  Notice, there is one person in brown slacks, and another in torn jeans.  Just like the way Terri and her mother basically merge in the photo, you can’t tell if the hands holding the poster belong to one person or two.  If your read is that the top hand belongs to the brown pants and the bottom hand to the jeans, it also mirrors the sense of two as one.  Finally, look how the bottom hand is touching Terri while the top hand is touching Mary Schindler’s head.  In this way, mother and daughter are also bridged.

If you don’t care for the more elemental analysis, I offer you a piece of visual data which seems to carry at least equivalent authority to the one on the poster. 


You might have already seen this fifteen year old photo (call it Terri-Michael), but you probably haven’t seen it juxtaposed with Terri-Mom.  Of course, it has the same sense of loving and the same depth of connection. 

Except, Michael Schiavo isn’t insisting that Terri is awake.

(image 1: William Thomas Cain/Getty in; image 2: file photo — St. Petersburg Times, 1990)


Note: Edited for readability (3/22/05 — 3:45pm PST)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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