copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006
Schiavo videos—context and reception
by Diane Waldman
When Janet asked us to come up with titles for our presentations, way in advance of our choice of an image for analysis, I came up with “timely triage.” Playing off her choice of the title “emergency analysis,” I wanted to invoke ideas of sorting, priorities, much as those in the E.R. must decide who is in most need of urgent care. Little did I anticipate we’d be talking about moving images which have a medical (as well as legal, political, and social) context.
In approaching these or any moving images, I favor a method which attempts to include contextual, textual, and reception analysis. I found myself moving back and forth between them. For example, first I must point out the context of these images, where we got them, how they are framed, how they are meant to be seen. They were released to the media and posted to websites in the fall of 2003, after Terri Schiavo’s parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, had exhausted their legal remedies within the state of Florida, after the Florida Supreme court declined to review the lower court decisions which ordered Schiavo’s feeding tube to be removed.
One clip, from August 2001, may have been filmed surreptitiously by Schiavo’s father. Others were taken from four hours of videotapes produced in the summer of 2002 and used as one sort of evidence (along with medical records, CT scans, and examination of Schiavo by doctors) in the 2002 trial on the question of whether new medical treatments were available which could restore Schiavo’s cognitive functioning, such that she would decide that she would continue life-prolonging procedures. These excerpts' release was clearly designed to take the Schindlers’ case beyond the courts, where these moments from the videow had failed to trump other sorts of evidence, to the court of public opinion, where it was hoped they would hold sway.
Indeed Robert Schindler is quoted as saying, “I went in with the camera because I expected Terri to be dying very shortly, and I wanted to bring the truth out.” The same article argues that “the family distributed copies of the tape to the media in hopes that Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush will see it and order the state Department of Children and Family Services to intervene on Terri’s behalf,” and “with the hope that seeing Terri in what appears to be a non-vegetative state will prompt Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to become involved in the matter.” The Schindlers thus put their faith in the notion that the camera would provide direct access to a truth otherwise kept hidden – by Michael Schiavo (“the Video Michael Schiavo Doesn’t Want You To See: Terri Schiavo is responsive to stimuli” was the headline on one website), by the courts, and by the mainstream media (“I am glad I saw this, because Terri seems more ‘alive’ than what the media will tell you…” argued one supporter). And the mainstream media took the bait, endlessly replaying these clips, making these the images which would accompany discussion of the case.
We found these six video clips at www.terrisfight.org, the website of the Terri Schindler-Schiavo Foundation, a site which demands its own textual analysis, especially for its attempts to infantilize Schiavo, to reclaim her for her family of origin, and to erase that part of her life where, as a young adult, she met and married Michael Schiavo, and according to him and several others, conveyed her wishes about what she would want in the kind of tragic situation that actually came to pass. So for example, she was referred to throughout as Terri Schindler-Schiavo, a name, as far as I know, she never used in practice, or even Theresa Marie Schindler, in a caption to a photograph which literally attempts to cut Michael Schiavo out of the picture.
1. (Photo which appears elsewhere on the web)
2. (Photo which appeared on www.terrisfight.org)
Similarly we were told that one of the foundation’s “immediate needs” is “pressure on government officials on two major issues:” (1) “Terri’s current situation,” and (2) reform of the state’s and nation’s guardian laws, “which can exclude a child’s parents from a decision which can mean life or death.” But Terri Schiavo was not a child, which is only too painfully evident when we turn to the video excerpts themselves.
“We believe the following videos clips [sic] give stunning testimony to Terri’s awareness,” is the way these were introduced on the site. But what struck me upon viewing them, the first time and subsequently, is stunning testimony of something else: parental denial and desire. As William Saletan remarked in the online Slate,
“The videos are agonizing not because they show a woman regaining awareness, but because they show the people around her laboring to interpret every twitch that way.”
Trained as I am to notice formal features of film and video, I am struck by the relation between sound and image, and the incessant amount of talk over the images of Schiavo: “Is that OK?” “How do you feel?” “She doesn’t like that, does she?” “You like it?” “Look over here…you follow that, don’t you?” “Good job! Good job! Good job, young lady…” The latter, from the clip labeled Asked to Open Her Eyes, is interesting in that the last thing we hear is the same male voice saying “Now I want you to close…,” presumably a request to Schiavo to close her eyes rather than open them. But it is the video clip itself that abruptly closes, inducing in me speculation about what in fact does happen next, and skepticism about whether Schiavo does indeed respond as requested.
But my skepticism is not the main issue: it only shows how these clips might be alternatively read or interpreted. It is here that we must turn to some type of reception analysis. In the admittedly non-exhaustive analysis which follows, I discerned several themes in the responses which appeared in print, broadcast and cable, and internet sources. The first is evidence of the preferred reading, the reading proffered by the Schindlers, and taken even further, as some of the following examples will show. Here I noticed a recurrent rhetorical strategy in the websites which posted these videos in support of the Schindlers’ argument. This strategy urges viewers to “see for yourself” but simultaneously argues for a kind of textual determinism in which only one reading is possible.
For example, on the website “BlogsforTerri,” we’re asked, “Is Terri Schiavo in a persistent vegetative state? Is she brain dead? You decide,” and directed to one of the videos. But then we’re told, “If you remain unconvinced here are video clips clearly showing Terri Schiavo is responsive and not in a ‘permanent vegetative state’ [sic] as claimed by her husband, Michael and his attorney.” And we're told, “Seeing is believing…now that you have seen do you believe that this woman deserves to be starved and dehydrated to death?” Similarly, Hyscience Profile urges bloggers to pass the videos around the Internet, because “Terri’s life depends on the blogosphere.” This site tells the reader, “Look at these and determine for yourself.” But the next sentence is,
“Here are video clips slowing clearly that JUDICIALLY APPROVED TORTURE victim Terri Schindler Schiavo, held captive by her 'husband” Michael Schiavo with full approval and backing of 'Judge' George Greer, is NOT in a ‘permanent vegetative state’ as claimed by Michael and his Death-by-Execution attorney.”
As I argued above, there is some evidence that readers made this preferred reading: the previously quoted:
“I am glad I saw this, because Terri seems more ‘alive’ than what the media will tell you…”
“I don’t know anyone in their right mind who wouldn’t watch those videos and not love Terri immediately…Look at HER!!!”
“If you can’t see the live [sic] in this woman, something is seriously wrong with you…I have seen all the videos…”
Some took the process of interpretation which occurs in the videos even further. For example, in a posting called “Terri Schiavo: Cognitively Able,” Gary and Lisa Ruby first cite a “transcript” previously posted which includes six stills from the Asked to Open Her Eyes video, called here Terri Big Eyes, with a running commentary, which is presented as if it were a screenplay, with dialogue and stage directions: for example,
“ Terri: (either to show off (?) or wanting to perform well, she leans further forward toward the doctor, looks straight at him and opens her eyes as WIDE AS SHE CAN. Note the WRINKLES ACROSS HER FOREHEAD caused by her also RAISING HER EYEBROWS as high as possible).”
This gesture is then further interpreted by the Rubys:
"Terri Schindler Schiavo’s responses to the doctor’s instructions reveal that she is conscious and cognitive…She does perceive and reason. She is intuitive and she has memory. Terri made a monumental effort to demonstrate her cognitive ability in response to the doctor’s directions. She did this by purposely exaggerating her responses to make it clear to the doctor that she definitely understood his directions! "
"This action required perception, reasoning and intuition. At the time this video was taken, Terri was keenly aware that Michael and his accomplices were saying that she was practically dead already and working to achieve that end. [Earlier the Rubys argue that Michael Schiavo had attempted to strangle Terri and wanted her feeding tube removed in order to cover up his crime.]Terri knew she needed to demonstrate that she was capable of processing information and carrying out instructions. And she achieved her goal!"
This reading takes the video as evidence of far more than Schiavo’s medical condition. It makes the video proof of her awareness of a Gothic narrative involving her husband’s attempts to murder her and cover it up, but one example of the demonizing of Michael Schiavo which occurred among some of the Schindlers’ supporters.
But the preferred reading was only one type of response to the video clips. Almost from the date of their release, there were essays such as Stephen Nohlgren’s “Schiavo tapes: snippets, then not much,” which appeared in the St. Petersburg Times in November of 2003. Nohlgren argued,
“A review of four hours of tape on public record shows a few powerful images suggesting Terri Schiavo can respond, but also hours where she has no signs of consciousness.”
Some respondents to the Hyscience “The Video Michael Schiavo Doesn’t Want You To See” blog referred to this selectivity of images. For example,
“They took HOURS of footage, and they only let the public see a few minutes. The courts got to see it all and they all said … she showed nothing more than basic function.”
“My understanding is these videos were edited from over four hours of tape. What you don’t see is the complete lack of response for the other three hours and 55 minutes.”
“Have you seen her CAT scans, people? SHE HAD NO BRAIN…Ignore the tearful histrionics and look at ‘all’ of the evidence, not just carefully selected and edited videos that add up to a few minutes out of 15 years of overwhelming evidence that there was nobody in there.”
Others talked about the footage but offered different interpretations:
“It only takes about 10 seconds to see that this is a body with no functioning wetware.”
“The only thing that these videos show me is a woman in a complete vegetative state.”
“I watched the videos and came to the conclusion that Terri’s family were completely selfish in their desires to keep her alive.”
Still others took the occasion of the posting of the videos to broaden the focus and talk about issues raised by the Schiavo case and the obsession with it:
“I am sickened by this absurd situation, where millions of Americans can’t get the healthcare they need, while so much attention is paid to one person.”
“…perhaps all of you who struggled on her behalf will think about your priorities.”
[or less politely] “You people are crazy. You’d spend millions to fight to keep a feeding tube in a waste while actual children starve to death in the world.”
These responses indicate not only a variety of readings of the Schiavo videos but a certain degree of sophistication about the selectivity of media images and the uses to which they can be put.
But the language used by some of these writers to describe Terri Schiavo is highly problematic if not totally offensive – “nobody in there,” “no functioning wetware,” “a waste.” It is easy to see why the Schindlers and their supporters and the religious right are able to paint those who supported Michael Schiavo’s position as callous and indifferent to human life, eugenicists or worse, to invoke the rhetoric of protection of the disabled, and to forge alliances with disability rights groups such as Not Dead Yet. The Terri Schiavo we see in these video clips may be severely brain-damaged, existing in a state some of us (including me) would not want to survive, but such an existence is a choice, a possibility that should be respected as well. Such is the position of disability activists such as Laura Hershey, who argued that neither the nature of Schiavo’s impairment nor the odds for her recovery should “determine her continued support, at least not in the absence of a clear advance directive.” From this perspective what the videos showed or didn’t show about the nature or extent of Schiavo’s “awareness” was irrelevant.
And furthermore, the ability of some readers to analyze these media representations critically is not a cause for complacency. Although Schiavo is now dead, the struggle over the meaning of her life and death continues, and images may continue to play a part. Most immediately, the Schiavo case is being used in an effort to undermine the legitimacy of an independent judiciary and the separation of powers, as an editorial in The Nation put it, part of “a broader assault on courts as bastions of secular public policy.” The April 2005 version of www.terrisfight.org included in its “multimedia archive,” a video entitled “We the People – Overruled,” an hour-long diatribe against “out of control judges,” in which the Schiavo case is cited as but one example. Other cases of “judicial tyranny” presented here are the Lawrence case in Texas (where anti-sodomy laws were overturned) and the Moore case in Alabama (which banned public display of the Ten Commandments), and viewers are exhorted to “Write for [a] special petition to the Supreme Court to uphold the original intent of the First Amendment” and “to revisit disastrous cases such as Roe v. Wade.” Under these circumstances, emergency analysis is a necessity.
1. Jeff Johnson, “Schindler Family Releases Video of Daughter,”
2. This analysis is based on the website I accessed as late as April 2005, when the videos were still widely in circulation. As Janet Staiger notes in her introduction and Janet Walker notes in her postscript, this version of the site is no longer available on the web.
3. William Saletan, “Terri Schiavo’s persistent legislative state,” Slate, March 21, 2005,
5. [link no longer active 1/6/06] Hyscience: The Video Michael Schiavo Doesn’t Want You To See,
6. [link no longer active 1/6/06] Hyscience: The Video Michael Schiavo Doesn’t Want You To See,
7. “Terri Schiavo: Cognitively Able,”
8. [link no longer active 1/6/06] Stephen Nohlgren, “Schiavo tapes: snippets, then not much,” St. Petersburg Times online, November 10, 2003,
9. Laura Hershey, “Killed by Prejudice,” The Nation, posted online April 14, 2005,
Acknowledging her multiple identities as disabled person, lesbian feminist, and secular thinker, Hershey notes that she and her partner “squirmed” as certain politicians defended Schiavo’s rights: “If either of us were incapacitated, these right-wingers might argue to keep us alive; but they would oppose our right to stay by each other’s bedsides.” Yet she is also critical of those on the left who “have trouble embracing the rights of people with severe disabilities” and “seem to lose sight of the core value of human equality.”
10. Editorial, “Schiavo as Prologue,” The Nation, April 18, 2005, p. 3.
11. Neither this video nor the media archive was available on the website as of August 2005, perhaps signaling the Schindler family’s distancing itself from such appropriations, or perhaps merely indicating a new phase in the struggle.