Patterico's Pontifications


Joan Didion on Terri Schiavo

Filed under: Schiavo — Patterico @ 11:52 pm

Joan Didion has a long article about Terri Schiavo in the New York Review of Books. Anyone unfamiliar with the case should read this lengthy and detailed article. It is a great place to learn the facts the media has largely hidden from you.

It is hard to excerpt — you really should read it all. I’ll quote only a couple of passages that shatter myths you have heard about the case, including many repeated by commenters to this and similar sites:

[Schiavo’s] potassium deficiency, it was widely suggested, had been caused by what was sometimes described as “bulimia” and sometimes, more generally, as an “eating disorder.”

This suggestion persisted, carrying with it a hint of the disapproval often expressed toward people in unfortunate circumstances who can be suspected to have had bad habits. The “bad habits” serve in such cases to isolate these unfortunate circumstances from our own. Patricia J. Williams, in The Nation, striking this not uncommon note, spoke of

the bizarre events played out in the name of force-feeding Terri Schiavo, a woman whose bulimic aversion to food was extreme enough to induce a massive systemic crisis that left her in what doctors describe as a “persistent vegetative state.”

Theresa Schiavo, in this construct, had for whatever reason played a role in her own demise, meaning that what happened to her need not happen to us.

However comforting it may have been to believe this, the suggestion (no diagnosis exists) of an “eating disorder” appears to have been entirely assumptive, based on no evidence beyond the unexceptional facts that she had some years before gained weight, gone on a diet, and lost the weight. . .

“What was finally diagnosed as the reason for what happened to her?” Larry King asked Michael Schiavo on CNN on March 21.

“They’re speculating that she had bulimia,” Michael Schiavo said. (Who “they” might be was left unexplored.)

“Did you have any knowledge of that?” Larry King asked.

“No, I did not,” Michael Schiavo said.

Didion busts other myths later in the article:

Theresa Schiavo was repeatedly described as “brain dead.” This was inaccurate: those whose brains are dead are unable even to breathe, and can be kept alive only on ventilators. She was repeatedly described as “terminal.” This too was inaccurate. She was “terminal” only in the sense that her husband had obtained a court order authorizing the removal of her feeding tube; her actual physical health was such that she managed to stay alive in a hospice, in which only palliative treatment is given and patients without antibiotics often die of the pneumonia that accompanies immobility or the bacteremia that accompanies urinary catheterization, for five years.

Even after the removal of the feeding tube, she lived thirteen days. The removal of this feeding tube was repeatedly described as “honoring her directive.” This, again, was inaccurate: there was no directive.

I’ll stop excerpting now. You really should go read the whole thing.

What a sad, sad case.

8 Responses to “Joan Didion on Terri Schiavo”

  1. With all due respect to Ms. Didion, there is a reason why this case was so divisive along religious lines.

    Rationality is not the same as secularism. Secularism is a religion. Rationality exists within religion.

    Human life biologically begins at conception. Legally, however, that fact is either accepted as relevant or not; depending on the wording of the law. Abortion is homicide, that is the early termination of a human life by active intervention. The legal questions surrounding abortion deal with the circumstances where it is justified. To many, logically and morally, abortion is only justified where the life of the mother is at risk and there is no time to allow delivery to take place before the mother’s life is lost. Michael Schiavo’s life was not at risk. He had the right to turn over guardianship to Terri’s parents. The death penalty normally applies to someone convicted of a crime of a nature that the perpetrator forfeited his right to life. Justice, in my opinion, requires that continuation of life be the default assumption; and can only be taken with full legal dilligence. To me, this is where the legal system of Florida, the Federal District Court, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the US Supreme Court fell down; despite the proper (Article III) act of Congress to extend to Terri, and hopefully anyone disabled to her extent, the full Federal review, determination of fact where appropriate, and supply the proper protection of life, liberty, and property to all while the deliberations take place.

    A side issue is the meaning of equality under the law and due process of law. It is clear that equality under the law didn’t mean what justice would have it mean, and that Terri Schiavo did not get the full due process of law.



    Charles D. Quarles (593219)

  2. Shattering Schiavo Myths

    Patterico suggests Joan Didion’s New York Review of Books piece helps to calibrate many who repeat Terri Schiavo myths.

    No time to excerpt now, but take a peek if you still think Terri received full protection under our system of justice.

    Sierra Faith (84540f)

  3. In agreement with Charles, Joan’s review is not much more/less than that which we have been reviewing all along (in that horrible internet).

    Her preconceptions of religion are particularly superficial.

    Note to Joan: Religion is not a myth or fable that one accepts writ large; it is a philosophy that one arrives at on the path of examination and discovery. Many say they have religion, all of which are essentially liars. Religion is not a possession, it cannot be owned as truth cannot be owned. Those that ask questions that lead to deep and thorough discovery–questioning meaning and appearances are led to religious ideas.

    Life is too short to live willfully ignorant into adulthood.

    Paul Deignan (7cc786)

  4. I did not read the long article because of time constraint. I am however responding to posters’ comments here, whose views, I think bothers of absolutism.

    (1) As you know there are 400,000 embryos for fertility clinics here, with 2/3 of them still preserved for couples’ use of starting and adding new members to the family, or even single women desiring children. 1/3 of these 400,000 are no longer intended for the original parties’ family planning, and the bulk of these 1/3 would be discarded at the request of the couples or neglected so that they lose their viability if stored beyond 5-9 years without being used.

    So while we quarrel about whether any of these 1/3 of 400,000 can be used to have stem cell removed from the frozen and then thawed embryos, we have many throwing away the un unsed embyros.

    Many people feel queasy about their genes their embryos being donated to others , and thus the women unknown to them carry their off springs. They could meet a child who looks like them, one day without knowing whether that child is one of the off springs that came from their embryos. For this reason, of proprietary right to their off spring , they rather discard what they cannot use for them selves.

    (2) IUD prevents implantation of fertilised embryos

    (3) In India cows are sacred and cannot be killed even after long past their use. Thus there are many cows and economy is affected. Are we starting a sacred cow symptom when we keep ALL on life support, on state funds?

    Yi-Ling (848211)

  5. Quote from

    “Terri Schiavo’s estranged husband Michael wasted no time in pursuing what was left of Terri’s estate after she passed away on March 31. The disabled woman died after suffering from a painful 13 day starvation and dehydration. Terri died just after 9:00 a.m. on the morning of the 31st and court papers filed with Circuit Court Judge George Greer show Michael’s attorneys filed the estate request just hours later.

    By 1:35 p.m., Greer had ruled in Michael’s favor to receive Terri’s estate.”

    What is so critical about the estate of a woman declared indigent in order to receive medicaid that it must be ajudicated hours after her death?

    Kadamson (59cb0a)

  6. “However comforting it may have been to believe this, the suggestion (no diagnosis exists) of an “eating disorder” appears to have been entirely assumptive, based on no evidence beyond the unexceptional facts that she had some years before gained weight, gone on a diet, and lost the weight. . .”


    Her weight gain/loss was not considered- the presumption of an eating disorder was medically sound based on her potassium level upon admission to hospital after her collapse.

    Essentially 3 medical possibilities exist to explain the EXTREME ABNORMAL low of 2.0 – vomiting, diahrea or misuse of diuretics causing excessive urine output. Based on the potassium reading and on the history which included information that she was drinking up to 15 glasses of iced tea per day it was reasonable to diagnose an eating disorder no matter how “presumptive” such a diagnosis was.

    Many medical conditions are “presumptively” diagnosed based on test results.

    Bottom line is that MUCH evidence exists in support that Mrs Schiavo suffered from an eating disorder. There is medical evidence as well as biographical information. Experts on the subject have asserted they concur.

    Obviously the so called “dispute” on this issue exists because the Schindler family refuses to acknowlege her eating disorder or even discuss it as the cause of Mrs Schiavos collapse.


    The family of origin seldom wants to confront their culpability. Do some research on the topic of eating disorders. One does not need much coaxing to believe that the Schindlers were controlling parents. They are obviously very controlling people, unwilling to accept any authority and unwilling to accept any evidence or factual information that they are not in agreement with.

    NOT SURPRISING as it certainly wouldn’t have helped them cast suspicions on Michael Schiavo and in so doing inflame the passions of the public and the politicians they were trying to influence.

    They have cast suspicion on Michael Schiavo by asserting that Mrs Schiavo never suffered a “heart attack” on the night of her collapse as he claims. Further, they pointed to a “bone scan” as “evidence” of broken bones and abuse. I won’t go into the bone scan issue. Thats a whole story of Schindler deception unto itself…

    The term “heart attack” was inappropriately used when the reality was that she suffered an arrythmia. One can be as deadly as the other but they are certainly not the same. One results in muscle damage and the other usually does not. In heart attack, sometimes referred to as Myocardial Infarction, muscle damage occurs.

    Non medical personnel usually don’t understand the difference and tend to use terms interchangeably that are really not interchangeable.

    It is in the records that the paramedics used the defibrillator on her SEVEN times in order to stop the fibrillations and in their efforts to restore a normal rythum.

    For the record a potassium level below 3.0 can dramatically affect the heart and lead to arrythmias. Hers was recorded upon admission to hospital as being 2.0 – and this is in a world where tenths count.

    In other words the distance from 3.0 to 2.0 is very great when every tenth counts. The steps from 2.9 to 2.0 were not small or insignificant.

    Many younger people (teenagers) have died from eating disorders. The usual cause is sudden cardiac death- sudden arrythmias arrising from the harm that eating disorders inflict on the body. Hypoalkemia (abnormal low potassium) is one of the most insidious aspects. Its rather like the silent killer in that it can sneak up unannounced and claim its victims most unexpectedly.

    Its one of the reasons that eating disorders are considered so dangerous.

    Amazed (183cd7)

    December 7, 2005 ???? I thought it had f-a-d-e-d a-w-a-y !

    Yi Ling (b62205)

  8. I wish I knew what Didion would write today. Her report came out about three weeks before the autopsy that showed that Schiavo was conclusively brain dead. Knowledge is a dangerous thing.

    jerry (049afa)

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