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Fighting Words A year after Terri Schiavo was laid to rest, the public battle between her family members rages on

During the extended legal fight between her parents and her husband over whether to continue tube-feeding Terri Schiavo, it became clear that the most primal emotions were involved.

There was love, a mother's and father's love for their oldest child, pitted against the love of a husband for his wife and his commitment to what he believed were her wishes. But the polarization and bitterness of their positions hinted at something darker. By the time she died a year ago this week, two weeks after the removal of her feeding tube, the people who claimed to love her the most were openly warring.

Now, with the publication this week of books by each side, the depth of the ugly emotions is revealed. The two sides accuse each other of everything from physical and emotional abuse to racism, neglect, greed and adultery, and each charges that the other's decisions were driven by spite.

After a marathon reading session of "Terri: The Truth," by Michael Schiavo and "A Life That Matters: The Legacy of Terri Schiavo -- A Lesson for Us All," which is credited to Mary and Robert Schindler and Terri's siblings, Suzanne Schindler Vitadamo and Bobby Schindler, the overwhelming thought is: Poor Terri.

At the end, there were no winners, even though Michael Schiavo's legal petitions to have the tube-feeding and hydration halted were the ones to consistently succeed.

Oddly, the books begin similarly: Both sides say that they have been misunderstood and misinterpreted. The first words in the Schindlers' book are: "We are not the people you think we are. . . . [We are] an intensely private family who loathe the spotlight and would have given anything not to have it shine on us."

Schiavo starts, "This is a story I never wanted to tell. I'm a very private person."

Those protests out of the way, each book then proceeds to reveal the most intimate, personal details of Terri Schiavo's life.

*Her parents' book claims that after their daughter married Schiavo, she was so unhappy that she had several "harmless flirtations," including several secret lunches with a UPS delivery man.

*Both books agree that Terri had been overweight as a teenager, but while her parents' book says she simply decided one day to lose weight and shed 100 pounds on a diet, Schiavo suggests emotional abuse. He writes, "I always felt that Robert Schindler's ridicule of Terri because of her weight had to be one of the clues to why she developed bulimia, which is what led to her collapse, and ultimately, to her death."

*The Schindlers depict themselves -- and their daughter -- as devout, church-going Catholics. Schiavo says they were not, that Terri seldom went to church, and that they had agreed that if she became pregnant "and the fetus suffered from a serious abnormality, she would have an abortion." He calls the Schindlers "EC Catholics -- they attended Mass on Easter and Christmas; that's it."

*Two weeks after his wife fell into a coma, Schiavo claims her father crudely suggested that he needed to have a physical relationship with another woman -- a claim that would be almost unbelievable, were it not for testimony from both sides that his wife's parents met and accepted a later girlfriend. Apparently, the Schindlers hoped that Schiavo would get involved with a new woman, divorce Terri and leave her in their custody.

That was not to be. Although Schiavo became "engaged" to Jodi Centonze and they had two children together before Terri's death, he remained married to Terri, making decisions for her care, until she died.

Why he would insist on retaining control of Terri's life while he had so obviously gotten on with his own is, for many people, a huge question in the case. For the Schindlers, it's clear. They cite a deposition, in which Schiavo is asked why he won't just turn over his wife's guardianship to her parents. He replies, "Basically, I don't want to do it . . . Because they put me through pretty much hell the last few years." Later in the deposition, under prompting from his attorney, he adds, "Another reason would be that her parents wouldn't carry out her wishes."

In his book, Schiavo says he loved Terri and felt obligated to free her from an agonizing physical existence. He also accuses his in-laws, particularly Terri's father, of seeking control for financial gain. When Robert Schindler learned he had no standing to sue Terri's doctors, Schiavo writes, "I could never be certain whether he was more interested in punishing the doctors, or in getting money to bail him out of the desperate financial condition they were in as a result of his futon business going bust and their subsequent bankruptcy in 1989."

The books were selling at about the same pace late this week, with Schiavo's 360-page tome (lengthened by three legal appendices) at number 198 on Amazon.com's best-seller list. The Schindlers' 251-page book, which also ends with appendices of physicians' statements, was at number 230.

The facts in these books are so in dispute that reading them both feels like entering a mirror world, where up is down and dark is light. As Schiavo writes in his preface, "Both sides can't be right." But these two deeply-felt, utterly contradictory books leave the reader wondering whether even the principals themselves might know the complete truth.

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com

"Terri: The Truth,"

by Michael Schiavo

Dutton, 360 pages, $24.95

Web site: www.TerriPac.com

Except from the book: "Over the course of my legal battle to do what I believed was right and what Terri would have wanted, I was asked why I wouldn't publicly confront the Schindlers. Why not debate them on television? . . . The reason I wouldn't even consider it is: You can't debate people who have no qualms about distorting the facts: It's not a fair fight, and the truth will surely be lost."

***

"A Life That Matters: The Legacy of Terri Schiavo -- A Lesson for Us All,"

By Mary and Robert Schindler, Suzanne Schindler Vitadamo and Bobby Schindler

Warner Books, 251 pages, $23.95

Web site: www.Terrisfight.org

Except from the book: "On Jan. 24, 2001, the Second District Court of Appeals ruled in favor of removing Terri's feeding tube. It felt as though the judges had taken up my battered heart and squeezed the life out of it. The thing that galled me the most was that the judges described Michael [Schiavo] as a loving, caring person who was trying to provide the best care for his wife. 'It was like trying to make sense out of something that doesn't make sense,' Bob [Schindler, Terri's father] said. 'And your brain feels like it's going to explode.'"

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