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Monday, March 28, 2005

The real moral to the story
Posted by Jill | 5:51 PM

As the Terri Schiavo case draws towards its sad and inevitable close, there's something that's been nagging at the back of my mind for quite some time. I first noticed this with friends who married young and still allowed their parents to make decisions for them and still looked to their parents for guidance and direction far more than anyone who had entered the so-called "adult" institution of marriage ought to.

The problem in a marriage where the parties are still too closely tied to one or both sets of parents is that there's inevitably a tug-of-war as to whose parents are going to control things. Young marrieds will buy a house they can't afford because their parents expect them to (and often provide the down payment). They will start a family because their parents want grandchildren, not because they're ready. Too many people marry and still allow their parents to guide their lives. If you have to ask for Mom 'n' Dad's approval before doing something, you're not an adult, and don't get married.

I knew one couple where her parents and his parents never agreed on what this couple should do. So they were in a constant state of divided loyalties -- do they side with their parents or their spouse? (Hint: once you marry, your spouse becomes your first priority, NOT your parents.)

I know at least three instances in which a wife wanted a baby, the husband wasn't ready yet, and the wife's mother urged her to go ahead and get pregnant anyway, because "once he sees the baby, he'll love it." This happens also when a young marriage is in trouble...a well-meaning but misguided parent will urge the couple to have a baby "to bring them closer together." In each of those cases, the wife became pregnant, the husband didn't love the baby, and the couple ended up divorcing. I somehow get a sense that something like this is what happened in the Scott/Laci Peterson marriage. This in no way excuses murder, but it certainly can make someone feel besieged.

Some information has trickled out over the last few days about Terri Schiavo that nags at me as well. Of course I don't know this family, but both the Schindler and Schiavo families are often described as "close-knit." This can be a positive, but it can also be a negative, pulling a couple in separate directions. Terri Schindler was barely 21 when she married. I get a sense that she comes from a controlling family. One report, to which unfortunately I cannot find the link, indicated that when she lost 50 pounds on Nutri-System in her senior year of high school, it was with her mother's help. We all know now about teenage girls and their weight. Do we know for sure that Michael Schiavo was the only person concerned about Terri's weight? What did her mother think about her 200-pound teenaged daughter? It's a fine line between "closeness" and controlling...and I wonder...if Terri Schindler married a controlling man (which it appears she did), was it because being controlled was what she was accustomed to?

Think about what bulimia is. The National Women's Health Information Center says:

Purging and other behaviors to prevent weight gain are ways for people with bulimia to feel more in control of their lives and ease stress and anxiety.

We know that the Schindlers had a large role in this couple's early married life:

They met in the Philadelphia suburbs where Terri Schiavo and her husband, Michael, spent their childhoods and married in 1984, barely past adolescence. The young couple relied on the generosity of her parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, first living in their basement in Pennsylvania, then moving to a condominium here that Robert Schindler had bought around the time he sold his heavy-equipment business.

The Schindlers followed their daughter and son in-law to this sunny coastal city, and though they did not see Michael Schiavo often -- he was working long hours at beachside restaurants -- they had no problem with him. He called them Mom and Dad. They paid their daughter and son in-law's rent.

Now, I'll grant you -- I'm not exactly the poster child for the product of a functional family. But I wonder how a young couple is supposed to make their own way in the world when the parents are paying the bills and following them around the country.

I have to wonder: Was Terri Schiavo feeling torn by conflicting loyalties, between controlling parents and a controlling husband? Rather than simply wanting to be thin, was her bulimia about something more? Was she the chubby kid in the skinny family; the throwback to someone's peasant ancestors, and in this thinness-obsessed society, an embarrassment?

We just don't know, and we never will. I just wonder.

But in the two biggest media circuses of the last year, the unrelated and vastly different Schaivo and Peterson cases, there is one common thread: a perhaps too tight bond with the parents, often at the expense of the marriage.

Marriage is hard enough when you're young without feeling as if you're being torn in a million directions. A word advise from someone hitting the half-century mark this year: If you're not ready to break up with your parents, don't get married. You can still be friends with them, and if you're lucky, they'll always be there for you. But when you marry, you make your OWN way with your spouse. Sometimes you'll do things right, sometimes you'll make mistakes. But you'll do it on your own, together, as a unit.

UPDATE: Great minds think alike. No less a venerable personage in blogdom than Digby has been thinking about this very thing:

...I think that Krauthamer may be expressing the views of plenty of "conservative" people who want to control their children's lives long past the time they are legally and morally allowed to do so. That particular kind of control is often the default temperamental style of right wingers. They wish to control everything, particularly the people around them.

Essentially, he's saying that parents should have a veto over the spouse in these issues. (If it were the spouse who wanted to use extraordinary measure to keep the patient alive, current law would already suffice.) Therefore, he's promoting the idea that there are cases in which your "first degree relatives" have the power of life and death over you in circumstances where your spouse disagrees. What a concept.

I had a colleague years ago who was in a terrible car accident and severely brain damaged at the age of 33. He had been estranged for years from his abusive family and had been more or less raised by others to whom he was very close. He was quite wealthy and had left his surrogate family all of his money in his will. He was also unmarried and did not have a living will, although those who knew him said that he had expressed many times that he would not want to be kept alive by extraordinary measures. His estranged family were extremely religious and insisted that he be kept alive at all costs. Being "first degree" relatives they had the right to make that decision. I lost track of the situation after five years or so, but at that time he was still living in a persistent vegetative state. The money ran out and he was put on medicaid. I heard that his family rarely visited.

I realize that in some cases, one might not want one's spouse making that kind of decision, especially if the marriage is in trouble. But if that's the case, then make a living will! That should be just another way of protecting oneself when a marriage is on the rocks. But there are enough dysfunctional families out there that assuming that blood relatives know what you want, and will always act in your interest rather than their own, isn't an answer either.

Emma at the American Street (hat tip to Shakespeare's Sister for this one) draws a big red line under the extent to which the Schindler's stated they'd go at one point to keep Terri alive:

One of the most enlightening documents is the Guardian Ad Litem report that had to be filed under Florida’s Terri’s law(which was later found unconstitutional). Several sections spoke to the Schindler’s motivations. Here’s the most horrifying:

Testimony provided by members of the Schindler family included very personal statements about their desire and intention to ensure that Theresa remain alive. Throughout the course of the litigation, deposition, and trail testimony by members of the Schindler family voiced the disturbing belief that they would keep Theresa alive at any and all costs. Nearly gruesome examples were given, eliciting agreement by family members that in the event Theresa should contract diabetes and subsequent gangrene in each of her limbs, they would agree to amputate each limb, and would then, were she to be diagnosed with heart disease, perform open heart surgery. There was additional, difficult testimony that appeared to establish that despite the sad and undesirable condition of Theresa, the parents still derived joy from having her alive, even if Theresa might not be at all aware of her environment given the persistent vegetative state. Within the testimony, as part of the hypotheticals presented, Schindler family members stated that even if Theresa had told them of her intention to have artificial nutrition withdrawn, they would not do it. Throughout this painful and difficult trial, the family acknowledged that Theresa was in a diagnosed persistent vegetative state.

My sympathies for the Schindlers dried up right about here, out of fear, I think. Or horror. They would keep a mindless, limbless husk in a bed, because it would make them feel joy?

One other thing I'd point out here is that until the wackos like Randall Terry got hold of this family, they at least had a grip on the reality that Terri was in a persistent vegetative state, not ready to give a valedictorian speech followed by dancing the lead in Giselle.
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