copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media

Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006

The videographic persistence
of Terri Schiavo

by  Janet Walker

Before and after the death of Terri Schiavo, the website of the Schindler-Schiavo Foundation – Terrisfight.org – offered up six video clips with a general caption asserting that they “give stunning testimony to Terri's awareness.”[1] In these snippets, Terri Schiavo’s parents and supporters expected viewers to find evidence of her sentience – the warmth in her face at the approach of her mother, a husky laugh in response to an upbeat tune, a grimace at a distasteful swabbing-out procedure. The videos were widely disseminated by the Foundation through news outlets including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, as well as online under the assumption that they make it self-evident that Terri could “react purposefully with her environment,” that she was not in a persistent vegetative state as neurologists had diagnosed.[2]

Others have reached a different conclusion about what these videos show, turning to contemporary insights about the reality effect of cinema verité and the need to apply sense-making reading practices to apparently transparent video sequences. The conflicting interpretations of the George Holliday video of Rodney King being beaten by the LAPD have been invoked by more than one commentator. As Frank Tomasulo explained previously regarding the judicial use of the King tape,

“the lawyers for the accused police officers wanted to narrativize the incident from the perspective of beleaguered law enforcement authorities attempting to bring into custody an unruly and belligerent black scofflaw.”[3]

In the motions of King’s body, they found volitional attempts to stand up and fight against the police officers’ attempts to subdue him. In contradistinction to this reading by the defense, attorneys for the prosecution saw in these same videotaped movements a body’s neurological response, the involuntary reaction to pain: King was not resisting arrest. In the case of the Schindler-Schiavo videos, as with that of Rodney King, Tomasulo’s inversion of the old adage applies. A given viewer’s reading of the tape conforms to his or her preexisting opinion and “I’ll believe it when I see it” becomes “I’ll see it when I believe it.”[4]

Hendrick Hertzberg, writing brilliantly in the New Yorker makes the further point that the video series itself, apart from the interpretation of it, is already a fictive construction, in fact a rhetorical project: “The snippets are profoundly misleading,” asserts Hertzberg.

“A few seconds of maximum suggestiveness culled from many hours of tape, they are more in the nature of special effects than of a documentary record. Without them, there would have been no show – and, most likely, no televised vigils outside [Terri’s] hospice, no cries of ‘murder’ fromTom DeLay.”[5]

These alternate approaches, therefore, belie the “myth of reality” advanced as unadulterated truth by the Schindler family. The videos cannot by themselves support the family’s contention that this is, to borrow Dziga Vertov’s evocative concept, “life caught unawares.”[6] The videos are certainly a creative endeavor, a strategic work of propaganda even.

The few seconds of motion against fifteen years of repose are both repellent and yet utterly compelling. Their fascination has many aspects, including on the most basic level, the riveted attention we feel for the cat that crosses an empty room after hours and hours of stillness filmed by video surveillance cameras.[7] To use Roland Barthes’ terms from his touchingly personal discussion of photography in Camera Lucida, Terri Schiavo’s little actions carry the shock of the “punctum” that interrupts the “studium” or scene of the photograph. Barthes sees the photographs he analyzes as “punctuated” with “sensitive points”: the punctum is “the accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).”[8]

A photograph or video is generally thought of as being less than the live person it portrays. But in this case, the video compilation becomes more than Terri Schiavo. The tapes constitute a frame-by-frame animation of Terri-ness, a flickering production of identity.

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It might seem to follow that the tapes should be cast aside as deceptive commentary; illegitimate as evidence in the battle for understanding. I would suggest, however that our critical project must take care to comprehend the sheer affective power of the material. Even for those of us who believe the PVS diagnosis, the tapes may be emotionally disturbing in the extreme. They shock us with the trace of humanity even while we know intellectually that the woman is in a persistent vegetative state, capable only of following, phototropically, the figures in motion around her bed.

And what is at stake for the family in making this eminently creative mechanical reproduction, apart from the direct goal to maintain their daughter’s care and feeding tube and the equally overt “right to life” political agenda? I believe there is something more to the story. The tapes must be the fulfillment of the family’s pitiable wish to animate this revenant; to disseminate the collective mirage they project in the daily acts of care-giving; the experiential impression that might well be a necessary precondition for carrying out their custodial work.

There may be an even more troubling twist to this collective fantasy of vivification. Terri Schiavo suffered heart failure due to a potassium deficiency that is correlated to the condition of bulimia, binge eating often followed by purging. By her senior year in high school, Terri weighed over 200 pounds. On a NutriSystem diet she lost 55 pounds. By the time of her marriage, she had slimmed down considerably, so that when the Schiavos began fertility consultations with an obstetrician in hopes of conceiving a child, Terri had stopped menstruating and her weight had dropped to 120 pounds. But any eating disorder went undetected. Later, in her apartment she experienced cardiac arrest and her brain was deprived of oxygen.[9]

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, bulimia affects mainly females and “usually begins in late adolescence or early adult life” “during or after an episode of dieting.”[10] Etiological studies show that this disorder may be correlated to family dysfunction and even, as a subcategory, to childhood sexual abuse. It represents a girl’s or woman’s attempt to assert control over her own body under conditions where she feels a lack of automony.[11]

In light of this, the construction of a video-assisted Terri character may represent the family’s achievement, finally – though not for all time — of a desired control of a daughter’s bodily presence. In this sense the videos may replicate a prior family struggle, transposing it to loving performance: Solicitously, “How’s your cold?” Warmly, “Hi baby, hi. How are you?”

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Theorists of photography and film have recognized the photograph and/or documentary film or video as evidence of the simultaneous presence of life and death. Of course, photographs of Terri Schiavo would not have the same capacity as video to offer evidence of sentience; photography and the moving image must not be conflated. But the point I want to make here is one that applies to both still and moving images. Consider Susan Sontag’s words:

“Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction and this link between photography and death haunts all photos of people.”[12]

Barthes’ ideas relate. He celebrates the photograph’s indexical connection to its subject, conveyed through the “carnal medium” of light (81). But he also recognizes the temporal separation that a photograph incarnates, a “this-has-been” (76-80) of the now absent subject. He goes even further to invoke “the rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead (9).” Consider also Marguerite Duras’s bold statement, “photographs promote forgetting…It’s a confirmation of death.”[13]

Theorists of Holocaust representation have appreciated this quality of the photograph simultaneously to assert presence and absence, and several have applied it in discussions of the murdered victims of the Shoah. Photographs and sparse home movies of the 12 million dead may be all that remain – simultaneous evidence of existence and genocide, of past presence and present absence. Of this, Marianne Hirsch writes about a photo of her husband’s aunt Frieda that arrived suddenly in 1945 – tangible evidence of Frieda’s miraculous survival of the Riga ghetto and concentration camp — passed from hand to hand. And yet she argues that the Holocaust photo, whether its subject lived or died, depicts a “ghostly revenant, emphasizing at the same time…immutable pastness and irretrievability.”[14]

In the same vein, the autobiographical filmmaker Abraham Ravett, son of Holocaust survivor parents, questioned them incessantly about their experiences in the Holocaust. They both had previous families who were killed, but neither had much to say about the traumatic past to his or her American adult child. After the death of his father, Ravett found several photographs of his father’s first wife and two young children. Finally! Why couldn’t his father have shown him these relics and talked to him about the harrowing past? Now he has the photographic goods. But he knows, and his film makes the point, that even if his father were alive to narrate the meaning of the photographs, their physical presence would be insufficient to the task of reanimating what was.[15]

The Schindler-Schiavo tapes compel us to recognize a further wrinkle. If video, like photography, captures a simultaneous presence of life and death, then these videos are overdetermined by the vegetative persistence of Terri Schiavo who is herself caught between life and death.

And then she passed away, rendering the tapes something else again. Barthes analyzes an Alexander Gardner photograph of a beautiful young man condemned to be hanged, waiting in his cell for the sentence to be carried out. “He is dead and he is going to die,” writes Barthes.

This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake (96).”

Likewise, in the video images of Terri Schiavo, we see a person who is going to die and who is dead. And, going beyond the situation of the Gardner photo, the Schindler-Schiavo videos project the anterior future at a double remove – Terri in a vegetative state – to some she is already dead — standing in for the sentient Terri; Terri in a vegetative state who has long been, who will soon be, and who is now….dead.

The final, sad irony of a woman whose eating and non-eating practices were once, for better or for worse, hers alone, is that her protracted death was involuntary. She died without the choice to eat or not to eat. Moreover, the decision to feed or not to feed was finally remanded to others above and beyond her circle of intimates. And yet her image affects us, compelling our attention and our empathy.

Postscript

August 10, 2005 The Terri Schiavo videos are no longer posted on the Schindler-Schiavo website. I cannot claim to know the reason they were removed. But I wonder if perhaps the findings by Dr. Jon R. Thogmartin, chief medical examiner for Pinellas and Pasco counties, helped render impossible the Schindlers’ interpretation of the videos as “stunning testimony to Terri’s awareness.” Thogmartin reported that at the time of her death Schiavo’s brain “weighed about 615 grams [about 1.36 pounds], roughly half the expected weight of a human brain.” He asserted that “this damage was irreversible, and no amount of therapy or treatment would have regenerated the massive loss of neurons.” Thogmartin also pointed out that, contrary to the Schindlers’ claims that Terri could follow people with her eyes or track the movements of a balloon, Schiavo could not see “because the vision centers of her brain were dead.”[16]

In her essay in this dossier, Janet Staiger draws on recent media reception theory to explain that people construct their own “understandings of the real…by filtering overarching discourse and narratives through multiple public spheres and communities.”[17] The Schindlers certainly had developed their preferred reading of Terri’s facial and bodily movements in the context of the right to life movement, and they furthered this reading through the videotape series. But the postmortem evidence, especially in light of proliferating commentaries (including ours) criticizing the purported transparency of the tapes, must have made the Schindler perspective untenable. What one thinks one sees is not necessarily what is. The tapes did not and do not reflect a sentient Schiavo.

Staiger also points out that cultural critics can “provide citizens with possible discourses and stories through which they can find progressive narratives.” The removal of the tapes from the Schindler-Schiavo website would seem to suggest that, in this case, a progressive interpretation – both of the proclivities of videotape representation and of a woman’s right to die — has indeed held sway. But it’s still sad.

Notes

1. www.terrisfight.org. Accessed April 5-24, 2005.

2. The website text contends as follows: “Terri's behavior does not meet the medical or statutory definition of persistent vegetative state. Terri responds to stimuli, tries to communicate verbally, follows limited commands, laughs or cries in interaction with loved ones, physically distances herself from irritating or painful stimulation and watches loved ones as they move around her. None of these behaviors are simple reflexes and are, instead, voluntary and cognitive. Though Terri has limitations, she does interact purposefully with her environment.” The Terri Schindler-Schiavo Foundation website also includes the following definition of Persistent vegetative state (PVS): According to Florida Statue 765.101:

“Persistent vegetative state means a permanent and irreversible condition of unconsciousness in which there is: (a) The absence of voluntary action or cognitive behavior of ANY kind. (b) An inability to communicate or interact purposefully with the environment.”

See Diane Waldman’s description in this dossier of the origin and nature of the videos as a group.

3. Frank Tomasulo, “’I’ll See It When I Believe It’: Rodney King and the Prison-House of Video,” in The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television, and the Modern Event, ed. Vivian Sobchack (New York: Routledge, 1996), 76.

4. See also Janet Staiger’s nuanced discussion in this dossier of “interpretative solutions” arrived at by viewers based on a combination of preexisting attitudes and the nature of the media text.

5. Hendrik Hertzberg, New Yorker, April 4, 2005, 36.

6. Kino-Eye : The Writings of Dziga Vertov, by Dziga Vertov, ed. Annette Michelson, trans. Kevin O'Brien (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). For Vertov “Life caught unawares” is a principle of filmmaking. It is also the translation of the title of the film Kinoglaz.

7. Stephen Mamber made the point about watching surveillance footage while presenting his “Center for Hidden Camera Research” website and paper at the conference Interactive Frictions: At the Pressure Point Between Theory and Practice, University of Southern California, June 4-6, 1999. See www.cinema.ucla.edu/Mamber2/

8. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 26-27.

9. See entry for Terri Schiavo at Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terri_Schiavo.

10. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Fourth Edition (DSM-IV-TR), Task force chairperson, Allen Frances, M.D. (American Psychiatric Association, 2000); entry on “Bulimia Nervosa,” 593.

11. Dawn Myers, “The Relationship between Sexual Abuse and Eating Disorders,” www.vanderbilt.edu/AnS/psychology/healthpsychology/PSY297.html

12. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1989), 70.

13. Marguerite Duras Speaks to Michel Beaujour, trans. Barbara Bray (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990), 89. Quoted in Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 20.

14. Hirsch, 20.

15. I discuss Ravett’s autobiographical films at length in chapters 5 and 6 of Trauma Cinema: Documenting Incest and the Holocaust (Berkeley: University of California, 2005).

16. “Schiavo Was Beyond Saving, Autopsy Finds,” John-Thor Dahlburg and Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times, June 16, 2005, A.1

17. Staiger quotes “Jeffrey C. Alexander and Ronald N. Jacobs, “Mass Communication, Ritual and Civil Society” in Media, Ritual, Identity, ed. Tamar Liebes and James Curren (New York: Routledge, 1998), 29.


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