The Case of Theresa Schiavo


Theresa Marie Schindler was born on December 3, 1963, to prosperous and devoutly Catholic parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, in a Philadelphia suburb, Huntingdon Valley. Robert Schindler was a dealer in industrial supplies. Mary Schindler was a full-time wife and mother. They named their first child for Saint Teresa of Avila, the Spanish mystic who believed the Carmelites insufficiently reclusive and so founded a more restrictive order. We have only snapshots of Theresa Marie Schindler’s life before the series of events that interrupted and eventually ended it. According to newspaper accounts published in the wake of those events, there had been the four-bedroom colonial on the leafy street called Red Wing Lane. There had been the day the yellow Labrador retriever, Bucky, collapsed of old age in the driveway and Theresa Marie tried in vain to resuscitate him. There had been the many occasions on which her two gerbils, named after the television characters Starsky and Hutch, got loose and into the air-conditioning unit in the basement.

She gained more weight than she wanted to. The summer she graduated from high school she went on a NutriSystem diet and began to lose the weight. Until then she hung out at the mall. She did not date. She bought her little brother Bobby his first Bruce Springsteen album. She pasted birthday cards into a scrapbook. She read Danielle Steel novels. She saw An Officer and a Gentleman with Richard Gere and Debra Winger four times in one day. She went to a Catholic grade school and a Catholic high school, where the single activity listed in her yearbook entry was “Library Aide,” an extracurricular effort on which she and a friend had settled for the express purpose of having something besides their names in the yearbook. The college application process, in the sense of the crucial competition that it was for many in her generation, an exercise in the marshaling and burnishing of deployable accomplishments, seems not to have entered the picture.

She enrolled in the two-year program at Bucks County Community College, where, in a psychology class during her second semester, she met Michael Schiavo. He was from Levittown. He is said to have been the first person she had ever kissed. At the time they married two years later, in 1984, she was just under twenty-one; he was eight months older. After a honeymoon at Disney World, they moved in with her parents in Huntingdon Valley, then, when the Schindlers decided two years later to move to Florida, preceded them there. They lived first in a condominium the Schindlers had in St. Petersburg. Theresa Schindler Schiavo clerked at the Prudential Insurance Company. She dyed her hair blonde. She lay out by the pool and drank several quarts of iced tea a day. Michael Schiavo, who after his wife’s cardiac arrest would begin and eventually complete studies in nursing and respiratory therapy at St. Petersburg Junior College, took restaurant jobs.

For all the media coverage of Theresa and…

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