Americas Schiavo Obsession

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David R. Beisel and Students in Psychohistory II, SUNY-Rockland, Spring 2005

Sparked by a Clio’s Psyche  Call for Papers, I gave my Psychohistory II class the brief assignment in early April 2005 to write a sentence or brief paragraph on the conscious and unconscious emotions and fantasies found in public discussion and the media on the Terri Schiavo story.

There was a wide range of experience and perspective in the class. Most students were in their late teens or early twenties, but the group also consisted of several retired people, including five senior citizen audits.  Although a few students declined to participate in the voluntary assignment, all had learned the central themes, findings, and theories of psychohistory by taking Psychohistory I as a prerequisite.  They had read deMause’s “Evolution of Childhood,” much of my own study on the psychological origins of the Second World War, and virtually all of The Best of Clio’s Psyche – 1994-2004.  They were generally familiar with Freud’s work on groups, had mastered traditional and psychological theories of why peoples and leaders go to war, knew several important studies and theories of small group behavior (Bion, Hartman, and others), knew the major theories of large group behavior (deMause—including critical analyses of his group fantasy theory—Dan Dervin, Jay Gonen, and others), knew of Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, Lifton’s ideas on nuclearism, Binion’s on traumatic reliving, and so on.

During the course of the semester, we studied several in-depth psychohistorical analyses of Hitler, Nazism, World War II, and the Holocaust.  Required readings for the course were Rudolph Binion’s Hitler Among the Germans and Peter Loewenberg’s Decoding the Past.  Students were completely familiar with notions of symbolic immortality, collective regressions, splitting, projection, denial, rationalization, displacement, and other ego defenses, and understood and could apply notions of real and symbolic scapegoating, sacrifice, collective suicide, apocalyptic thinking, and the leader-as-delegate.

The class, in addition, was on a current “group-fantasy watch,” remaining alert to the possible emotions and fantasies sweeping through the U.S. during the months of the course.  Students kept a group-fantasy log in which they wrote down ideas, thoughts, and emotional statements overheard anywhere in public, collected and noted media images and stories they’d observed on the newsstands, in newspapers, or on television, commented on public commentaries, the outcomes of polls, political cartoons, the popularity of particular films as a possible symbolic clue to America’s emotional and fantasy life, and the like.  We approached these logs in the tradition of Erikson’s “disciplined subjectivity,” and more in the spirit of suggestions and impressions rather than as absolute truths.  I said nothing about the nation’s Schiavo obsession either before or after assigning the exercise.

Rachel Green: “The Terri Schiavo case has monopolized the media lately.  Everyone seems so passionate about the case because it represents two polar opposite ideologies.  The media seems to be slanted on the side of the parents.  Keeping her alive is a form of passive sadism.  Americans are allowed to maintain their sense of piety while still inflicting, or allowing, pain to be inflicted.  It is also another example of America’s purity crusade.  We are punishing the husband (even though he is not the party that matters) for the fact that he lives with his girlfriend
and their son.”

Patrick Jones:  “Have you noticed?  Iraq hasn’t been in the news for three weeks.”

Elizabeth Marchionni: “Much of my speculation is based on my personal outlook and feelings about my surroundings, and of course I am part of the group-fantasy.  My use of the word ‘them’ may sound derogatory and projective, but it is not intended that way.  Like many things, the story is covered in the media as a battle.  It also relates, in part, to the direction of our government in terms of people’s rights.  Even before 9/11, our culture taught us it was important to avoid pain, and important issues are constantly being avoided and denied.  The American people are scared; we have been for a long time.  I believe they/we are regressing.  They/we identify with Terri as a helpless child, perhaps, one being abandoned and hurt.”

Shaun Quinn:  “The war between secularists and the religiously-minded has truly become a product of splitting.  This case is something both sides can latch on to and have something to fight about.  If we have truly regressed collectively because of repeated traumas and the intense emotion of fear, then in matters like this, it is easier to focus on one thing by displacement, defensively ‘putting all your eggs in one basket,’ so to speak.”

Steven Snyder: “It is clearly an emotional case which deals with life and death, which would not be as large if the Scott Peterson and Robert Blake murder trials were still going on.  It relates to the group-fantasy in two words: dehydration and starvation.  Not only is this young woman dying because of dehydration and starvation, but the American people are also symbolically ‘starving’ and ‘dehydrating’.  That is why we are waiting for the government to step in.  We are sending a fantasy message to the government, telling it we are feeling ‘starved’ and ‘dehydrated’ because the government is not doing anything to help us domestically.”

Ann Newman:  “We must all feel ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.’  Terri has become a pawn among warring factions.  Having seen dear ones depart from this world, I would say most would not want to continue in a vegetative state.  Perhaps Terri’s parents are nurturing the idle fantasy that she will come back to them with all her faculties intact, but it doesn’t give the federal government license to intervene.”

Yana Kuchirko:  “Why must this issue surface now and create such a humongous impact?  Perhaps this echoes the nation’s collective unconscious battle between what is right and what is wrong, the right to live and the right to die, the battle between liberals and conservatives, all part of our own unconscious internal struggles.  Maybe the court’s decision is a reflection of the nation’s wish to punish, to execute, to end a life in order to end whatever unwanted emotions (guilt or otherwise) we are feeling.”

Allene Turer: “The country’s fervor is partly because it is moving so quickly toward the religious right.  Especially now, during the Easter season, perhaps Terri is being seen as a divine, saint-like figure.  You hear the phrases, ‘fighting for her life’, and about ‘her bravery and courage’, while her husband is depicted as the evil one, driven to end her life because of a selfish personal agenda.”

Gerry Turer: “This sudden determination to end Terri’s life is a conflict between the ideologies of the ‘blue states’ and the ‘red states,’ those who believe the Rule of Law takes precedence over those who think a Divine Will preserves life.  Opponents of the president have achieved a small victory by thwarting Bush and brother Jeb’s efforts to keep Terri alive.  His leaving his ranch to sign an order to save one life gives an ironic twist to his lack of effort to save thousands of healthy lives in Iraq.”

Kerriann Byrnes: “How can the evangelicals be against Science when they demand a feeding tube?”

George Ganssle:  “I’m aware that what I’m about to say may be an example of ‘wild analysis,’ but a few facts are clear.  Europe’s papers did not have Schiavo as a front-page issue, whereas it made the front page every day in America.  Correlating it with the Pope, the media seems to focus on the death of innocence.  The occupation of Iraq has drifted completely out of the media.  Our sympathy for victims (Terri, the Pope) may be a displacement from our repressed guilt over the ‘forgotten’ victims of the Iraqi war.  Severe resistance to assisted suicide may be a cover for an unconscious wish to die. And the ‘pro-life’ Schiavo activists may possess a wish to suffer with her, which she would do if she were allowed to ‘live.’”

Megan Magnatta:  “Terri has been dependent on her feeding tube for 15 years, so despite her parents’ rescue attempts to get a judge’s order to re-insert it, we must ask ourselves why should the plug be pulled now?   Despite her vegetative state, her parents are arguing that she ‘wants’ to live.  It must be unbearable to know that your daughter may die if her feeding tube is not re-inserted, but the pain grows deeper watching and waiting for her final breath.”

Meaghan Stedge-Stroud: “At first my boyfriend didn’t want to see a movie about a woman boxer, but a tiny, gray-haired woman at the Loews Theatre convinced him to see it.  I didn’t know anything about it, but the movie caught my attention from the beginning.  It is one of many that have been released just at the right time, and, because it reflects [emotional] reality, millions see it.  Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was released just before the elections [and again, slightly edited, at Easter, 2005].  Now Million Dollar Baby, with its depiction of assisted suicide, hits theatres a couple of months before the Schiavo fight came to be headlined across the country.”

Lauren Psaros:  “I did some research on the internet where I found comparisons of Michael Schiavo to Pontius Pilate and Scott Peterson, and some questionable opinions about ‘what Terri would have wanted.’ says that 59% of the people polled would remove her feeding tube. says, ‘Terri Schiavo is dying for our sins.’  Putting the Jesus image in people’s heads, especially so close to Easter, is like the release of Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion.  There is also talk of impeaching the judge.  Is a feeding tube a form of life support?  In some states only a respirator is considered life support.  Church and state are feuding over the life and death of an innocent woman who hasn’t been heard from in 15 years.  Like Terri, the Pope is coming to his end in a hospital, and the world continued its death watch while he returned to his bed in the Vatican.  Is all this somehow related to soldiers dying in Iraq?  Does Terri hit closer to home because Florida is home?  Is it some kind of [symbolic] delayed infanticide happening ironically in the state where youth go to party and the elderly go to retire?”

Professor’s Comments:

As I looked over these statements, I wondered if they wouldn’t strike some scholars as indeed examples of wild analysis.  But even if they are, is that necessarily all bad?  I encourage students to approach any historical problem—including contemporary subjects such as the possible emotional and fantasy themes currently abroad in individuals and groups—by spending some time brain-storming, writing down any and all of their thoughts and feelings, no matter how seemingly irrational or bizarre, and free associate to the material.  This principle is Freud’s, which, as he said, allows us to see possible casual  connections between hitherto unrelated phenomena.    Time for critical reflection, rational reordering, and discarding what doesn’t work can come a day or two later.  Of course, the students’ thoughts weren’t automatically (or only) projections coming entirely from their own heads since all were in some ways rooted in the findings and theories which form the core of critical psychological history.

The students were given only one day to turn in the assignment since I wanted their responses, after brief reflection, to be as spontaneous, or as semi-spontaneous, as possible.  The whole point of the exercise was to let the student’s words speak for themselves.  Now, though, I want to offer just a few words of my own.

Everyone, including the students—if they would’ve had a chance to look over all their own comments—will note that missing from their observations are the possible meanings of the single Terri-image—virtually one picture—shown over and over again in the media.  What was the emotional message of that picture?   Since, as one student noted (but all students know), we all share fantasies with the group called America, our personal responses may clue us to the group’s emotions, so it’s appropriate to ask, “what emotions and fantasies does that single picture of Terri stir up in me?”   In addition, what was the media saying to us and asking us to feel?

Other question relate to the issue of what allowed so many to become so familiar, to identify so easily, with Terri.  What made almost all of us automatically refer to her by her first name?   Was it only by media command?  Even “identification” needs exploring, and is “identification” all there is to it?

Although several students mentioned it (and because several students mentioned it), it seems to me that the “feeding-tube” image is particularly important and goes beyond its rather obvious symbolic connection with parental nurturing and the umbilicus.

As several students mentioned, I too wondered about timing—“Why this, why now?”  I also wondered about what unconscious material was being enacted by the “Save Terri Faction.”  Why, for example, did they identify with the victim the way they did?  Had they been targets of parental infanticidal wishes in their own childhoods?  How could we tell? Is it methodologically appropriate to even speculate about this possibility?  Were they covering over and hiding some measure of their own aggression?  How can we find out?  What theoretical models might help here?   Although some student statements hint at some answers, it seems profitable to seek deeper understanding of what reasons drove the “Save Terri” partisans to embrace this savior fantasy.   What delegated group fantasy roles were these sub-groups enacting for us, if they were?

I feel that I’ve already said too much and am beginning to “tell” readers what the students’ words “actually meant” in the guise of delineating what they didn’t say, thus sabotaging the main idea behind the exercise in the first place, which was to let you have the pleasure of following up and tracking down for yourself the possible connections suggested by the students’ explicit and implicit observations.

David Beisel, PhD, teaches Honors History and psychohistory courses at SUNY Rockland, where, in the past three decades, he has taught psychohistory to more than 6,000 students.  He is the recipient of several teaching awards, including the State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.  His recent book, The Suicidal Embrace, exploring the psychological origins of the Second World War, is now going into its second printing.  He has written many articles on a wide range of subjects, including several on teaching psychohistory, and as one of our Contributing Editors, is writing on the psychohistory of groups for the Clio’s Psyche upcoming Special Issue on Teaching Psychohistory.