|April 8, 2005|
Losing Our Heads Over the Brain-Dead: A Psycho-Cultural Post-Mortem on the Terri Schiavo Case
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Brian H. Darling, a former gun industry lobbyist and, until his recent resignation, legal counsel to Republican Senator Mel Martinez of Florida, has just admitted authoring the memo that declared Terri Schiavo’s tragic predicament “a great political issue” for his party. As we have seen, this turned out to be an assessment shared by many of his colleagues, including those in the White House. How can we make sense of the right wing view that the debate over whether to keep a feeding tube tethered to the living ghost of Ms. Schiavo was a situation ripe for political exploitation? There are some obvious explanations that come immediately to mind. As the infamous memo openly stated, Republican lawmakers saw her case as an opportunity to shore up their Christian Right base – fundamentalist “pro-lifers” who viewed the dispute between Ms. Schiavo’s parents and her husband as a surrogate for the debate over whether the state should intervene in other private medical decisions, namely abortion. For one GOP Representative, Tom Delay, the family’s anguished and bitter conflict was a coveted chance to play a brazen ethical shell game – directing the public eye away from ongoing investigations into his own sociopathic conduct. For Bush there was the prospect of reversing his sliding approval ratings – the worst of any second term president in seventy years – by striking his most heroic pose since the infamous aircraft carrier “victory” strut.
Then there is the obvious hypocrisy of the claim by Ms Schiavo’s would-be Republican rescuers that they were driven by a “reverence for life.” It may be instructive to recall that George W. Bush, when he was Governor of Texas, signed legislation allowing hospitals to discontinue a patient’s life support against the wishes of the family, and permitting them to cite inability to pay as an acceptable rationale. This was the same state politician whose administration made the death penalty a virtual sacrament. He couldn’t kill people fast enough – whether the condemned were mentally retarded, schizophrenic, juveniles, or represented by ineffectual, drunken attorneys widely observed to have slept through trials. Now, as CEO of a neo-conservative federal regime, he has presided over the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians, and an ever mounting toll of American soldiers – all in a quixotic and manic pursuit of global domination spurned on by a grudge match with his daddy’s nemesis, Saddam. This is the same White House that has officially sanctioned the torture of prisoners of war, and promoted those whose policy memos gave the green light to the actual perpetrators. Last but not least in this curriculum vitae of hypocrisy is the Republican’s slavering enthusiasm for developing a new generation of exterminationist nuclear weaponry.
While all of the above are clearly true, it still leaves one puzzling question unanswered: why was a woman in a persistent vegetative state cast as the main character in this histrionic morality play? Can we really imagine a man in the same condition playing such a role? A moment’s reflection would tell us that, except in the case of slavery, a male’s value is rarely reduced to his limbs and torso. Without a functioning brain, the physiological locus of selfhood, a man would be seen as already dead – just as Tom Delay’s father was viewed when the life-revering Congressman elected to pull the plug on his brain-dead progenitor.
A woman’s value, on the other hand, seems to be assessed by other criteria. More specifically, conservative and misogynist men, especially of the fundamentalist variety, have always had a special affection for women without minds. The history of patriarchal cultures is saturated with ambivalence about the talking, thinking, and self-authorizing female head – women who can speak and act for themselves. We can trace this back to one of the earliest feminine images of cephalic malevolence, Medusa. According to ancient Greek myth, she was a warrior queen and unwed mother, traits which by themselves already rendered her a gender outlaw. She had a hideous face, with giant boar’s teeth in her gaping mouth and writhing fanged snakes for hair, and all men who beheld her repulsive visage were turned to stone – immobilized and thus impotent. Not even after she was decapitated by the invading Perseus could her danger to men be eliminated – the severed head still had the power to frighten and paralyze males who had designs on the virginity of the goddess Athena.
Men’s fear of women who have a head on their shoulders has not been confined to mythic worlds. Fundamentalist versions of most patriarchal religious traditions mandate that women cover there heads, with special concern directed at exposed hair, which in many cultures signifies wild female sexuality (i.e., out of male control). The bible itself is replete with warnings against the unfettered expression of woman’s voice. The apostle Paul insisted “Let a woman learn in all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men; she is to keep silent.” One reading of Islam asserts that female speech is “awra [pudenda] and should not be heard.” A passage in the Talmud warns, “Do not engage too much in conversation with a woman, for this will lead you to illicit intercourse.” The notion of a woman’s voice as a dangerous beguilement brings us back to the mythological and calls to mind the ancient sirens, creatures with the bodies of birds and the heads of women, who by virtue of their seductive song lured sailors to their rocky doom on invisible reefs, and then ate them.
Terri Schiavo was the paradigmatic case of woman who “knew” her proper place – in bed, without agency or any sense of self. She had no will to interfere with the desire and plans the men in her life, and especially her would-be saviors in Washington, had for her. Forever voiceless, she could put up no resistance to those who sought to hitch their ideological and political wagons to her pale star, one in which the light of personhood had faded into oblivion fifteen years ago.
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Stephen J. Ducat is a professor of psychology at New College of California and the author of The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity (Beacon).
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