I don’t believe I have some kind of extraordinary spiritual sense, but something alerted me the very first time I saw George Felos, the lawyer responsible for killing Terri Schiavo: Something is deeply wrong with this man. Very deep, and very wrong.
I had no such spiritual warning on the radar in viewing Michael Schiavo. He looked like the kind of man who could kill his wife. And he did. On March 31, 2005, he successfully starved and dehydrated Terri Schindler Schiavo to death. Cold-blooded murder, but entirely transparent.
Michael was one of those intensely jealous, intensely violent types. In February 1990, Tern collapsed at home when oxygen was cut off to her brain. Michael claimed she had a potassium imbalance. A neurologist later testified that she had suffered a neck injury, the kind you get when someone tries to strangle you. To this day, doctors do not agree on the real cause of her collapse. Nevertheless, Michael was able to win a big medical malpractice court settlement—$1.5 million—vowing he needed the money to care for his beloved and now-damaged wife. As soon as he got the money, he began to try to kill her by depriving her of all medical treatment and rehabilitation. He finally finished her off with the death-camp treatment: no food, no water.
Cold-blooded murder, sanctioned by the state of Florida, watched by millions. Horrible; but again, quite transparent. Michael wanted the money. His wife, Terri, had to die for him to get it. And so he hired a “right-to-die” expert, lawyer George Felos.
Felos exudes a different moral odor than his client, and I wasn’t the only one who noticed. He wasn’t just morally wrong; he was creepy. One has the nagging feeling that he represents a more hidden and poisonous evil.
His words were foul enough. The continual cheerful chanting of “death process,” “peaceful,” and “beautiful” during Terri’s final torture. The chastisement of Rev. Frank Pavone, who had the dignity and courage to describe the death of Tern with blunt accuracy: “This is a killing.” Tsk-tsk, cooed Felos. “Instead of words of reconciliation, words of healing or words of compassion, which you might expect from a spiritual person,” Felos retorted in an unctuous scold, “he used it [i.e., press coverage] to drive his ideological agenda.”
But this was only the bubbling up of something fouler still. His looks, his voice, his clothes, his mannerisms—all set off a profound danger signal. Not being able to ignore my spiritual alarm, I was forced to yield to its signal and look more closely at Felos. I bought his book and think I now understand the inner alarm. Reading it, I am convinced that he represents an entirely new and even more dangerous aspect of the euthanasia movement—the spiritual killer.
Commentators on the Schiavo case—at least those not favoring euthanasia offered some of the more bizarre tidbits from Felos’s revealing book, Litigation as Spiritual Practice (Blue Dolphin, 2002), most often the episode where he reports speaking through his stomach to Mrs. Browning, a seemingly unresponsive woman in a nursing home. This noiseless communication—quite noisy on a “spiritual” level, as Felos reports her screaming at the top of her spiritual lungs—convinced him that Mrs. Browning wanted to escape from her body. He happily took on the case, thereby launching his right-to-die career.
But that well-traveled vignette isn’t enough to understand either the full strangeness of Felos or his dedication to having people legally killed. While all is not revealed in his book, it is now clear to me that who George Felos is and what he does are completely entwined.
Who Is George Felos?
He grew up in New York. His family was Greek Orthodox, his family life “less than idyllic.” Looking back over his early years, he notes with pity, “I unconsciously blamed myself for permitting myself to be abused, as I believed I was, as a child.”
It is hard to know what to make of this cryptic statement. Abused in what way? Physically? Sexually? Emotionally? Whatever happened, Felos clings throughout the book to self-pity like a child to a favorite blanket. Over and over, as a kind of mantra, he confides to the reader that his life is haunted by an inner voice, “You are unworthy of love,” “You’re not good enough.”
Despite these feelings, Felos followed in his lawyer-father’s footsteps. After graduation from law school and a “spiritual awakening,” he got married and decided to bum around on a Greek island with his new wife for several months. When he returned to the states, his family had moved to Florida, where the young Felos would eventually join his father in a law firm.
In Florida, Felos’s marriage soon unwound. Or perhaps it was never wound to begin with. One is forced to conjecture, not only to piece together his character, but also because he is so effusively—even embarrassingly—self-revealing. According to Felos, the marriage was never “very stable,” and so for quite some time they couldn’t decide whether to have a child. After seven years they did, but only after Felos “heard the soul of my yet-to-be conceived child emphatically shout: ‘I’m ready to be born…will you stop this fooling around!”‘ Yet-to-be-conceived child? Speaking from where?
That brings us to Felos’s spiritual awakening. Leaving the Orthodox religion behind, Felos had become fascinated with the theory and practice of Yoga, the Hindu mental and physical practice of meditation meant to free souls from the cycle of reincarnation so they can happily reunite with the universal spirit. His yet-to-be-conceived boy was waiting, rather impatiently, in the chute to be born once again.
Unfortunately, at the end of the chute was the none-too-happy domestic situation of Felos and his wife. As Felos drills into the reader, his marriage was never more than lukewarm. With a completely straight literary face, he informs the reader, “I had been a platinum husband and father.”
He loved and supported his oh-so-selfish wife, he confides, but “to her, I seemed unattractive, sexually unexciting, balding, boring, and just not enough fun to be with.” The only time his wife seemed mildly enticed was the night before he argued his landmark right-to-die case in front of the Florida Supreme Court. “This was one of the very few times, if not the only time, I can truly say my wife was enamored with me. I suppose power and success really are potent aphrodisiacs—as my spouse had made particularly evident our previous night at the Governor’s Inn.” In regard to his son, Felos notes that “having been betrayed as a child,” he thought “being the perfect father would somehow purge the misdeeds of my parents.”
Despite his momentary success fighting for the right to die, his wife dumps him, a “self-induced” tragedy. “She reflected back to me my inner torment of self-rejection and lack of self-worth. My long-held negative patterns, beliefs, and feelings about myself grew progressively more difficult to tolerate. There were times I wished I were dead, it felt so unbearable being with myself.”
According to Felos, his wife actually did wish that he were dead, a feeling he was alerted to through a kind of “cosmic telepathy” as he traveled home one day on an airplane. Felos’s response: anger.
Angry enough to kill his wife. After a post-separation meeting, “I was on fire, fueled by thoughts of bludgeoning and tearing her apart. If she were there at that moment I thought I would kill her—happily destroy her.”
Angry enough to kill himself. Days and nights of shrieking into a pillow and crying. “I saw myself on the cold terrazzo floor of the kitchen with the side of my throat cut and blood gushing from my carotid artery. I watched the hot red blood darken as it adjusted to the cool of the terrazzo.”
Meditation on Death
He did neither, but immersed himself more fervently in Yoga instead. This brought about a strange resolution by appeal to reincarnation. Yoga adherents believe that a human being consists of prakrti and purusha. Prakrti is a person’s body, mind, and self—the realm of illusion. Purusha is the soul, blissfully pure and empty consciousness—the realm of reality, of God-consciousness without self. If a person clings to the realm of illusion during life, his soul is condemned to reenter another body after death.
In one of his many “visions,” Felos saw “our souls [i.e., his soul and his wife’s soul] prior to this incarnation discussing what each needed to learn in this birth, and in compassion and love for each other agree to take this journey.” His marriage from hell, as he likens it, was actually prearranged as a kind of self-inflicted purgation. He could then accept the “death of [his] marriage” precisely because the hell had all been for the good: spiritual awakening.
Awakened to what? All life, for a devotee of Yoga, is a kind of “conscious dying,” an ongoing attempt to detach oneself from the illusory grasp of the body, the mind, and self-consciousness, and fall back into the only reality, “Universal Consciousness,” “God-realization.” Yogic meditation aims at just the kind of detachment that one will experience at death, and death itself is a kind of blessed release from the captivity of bodily illusion. Felos was therefore able to transform—dare we say sublimate?—his desire to kill his wife and himself into a spiritual practice that aims at death.
Small wonder, then, that Felos is fascinated with death—for us, strangely, creepily fascinated; for him, properly and wondrously transfixed. Felos’s great baptism into Yoga occurred at the “Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health,” housed in a former Jesuit novice house. His description of his spiritual experiences at Kripalu reads uncannily like the peyote-induced drug travels of Carlos Castaneda that made for popular reading some decades ago.
Peyote-induced or not, Kripalu burned into him the notion that spirituality and death should be happily entwined. On the plane home, he reports, “I pulled from my carry-on the book from the Kripalu Shop on conscious dying. Written by a meditation teacher active in hospice work, it described the enormous potential for spiritual awakening, both for the patient and the caregiver, which sometimes is realized during the death process.” Hospice work? Hmmm.
This book (perhaps by Stephen Levine) proved foundational in Felos’s fascination with death and with his newfound desire for hospice work, a sordid marriage that would frame his activities as lawyer for Michael Schiavo that ended in the murder at the Florida hospice.
“Our death—the permanent separation of our spirit, our consciousness, from the body—if experienced with awareness, can provide the opportunity to dispel the greatest of illusions: that we are this body.” This unholy connection between spirituality and death-seeking is unveiled in his reading on the plane back from Kripalu. “The author [of the book on conscious dying] goes on to describe how meditation and spiritual practice is the process of dying—the means by which we extinguish our ego and body identification and realize we are the expression and manifestation of the Divine…. I deeply connected with the message of this book, and as I gazed out the window upon the clouds and surface below, I felt death move a bit closer.”
Self-divinization and death became a lovely obsession for Felos. As he noted later, “I was fascinated by the proposition that clarity and spiritual focus at the time of death held great possibilities for Self-realization.” On yet another plane ride, he ruminates dreamily, “I wonder what it would be like to die right now?” He reports that his karmic, cosmic powers actually caused the plane’s automatic pilot to go haywire and turn the plane into a nosedive. Luckily, he stops wondering just in time. “Be careful what you think,” an inner voice then warns him. “You are more powerful than you realize.” Humbled “by God’s admonishment,” he snuggled back into his seat, all aglow for the rest of the ride.
Small wonder that George Felos took so much pleasure in trying to get Mrs. Browning’s feeding tube removed in the early 1990s. He simply believes he’s liberating souls confusedly clinging to bodies—bodies that are mere pit-stops between incarnations.
Speaking to the incognizant Mrs. Browning through his stomach—via “soul speak,” as he calls it—he informed her, “Mrs. Browning, it’s okay to leave your body. There is no reason to stay in this body [emphasis added]. It is all right to die now.” Before the case came to court, Mrs. Browning actually did die, but Felos carried on, establishing the fateful decision that ordinary feeding should be considered medical treatment, and therefore feeding tubes can be removed.
For Felos, it’s an act of liberation, and hence an act of love. He’s merely sending a poor entrapped soul off, either to drop into the fathomless pool of God-consciousness—the ultimate escape from body-entrapment—or to be reincarnated into another body to try for realization again.
The Real George Felos
If we might pause for a moment to sketch a brief psychological profile of the man, I believe it would look something like this: George Felos seems defined by insatiable self-pity and an equally insatiable desire for affirmation. Whatever its unpleasant causes, it drives his wife (whatever her short-comings) batty, as even he admits. The seething anger at his wife and himself—bubbling violently enough to bring him to the cusp of murder and self-murder—takes him by surprise, upsetting his own portrait of himself as a calm, compassionate, sensitive, Birkenstocking, 1980s guy—a guy who would not make the same mistakes as his father. Having jettisoned Christianity, he has no recourse to a doctrine of sin and therefore cannot understand the faults and failings of his parents, his wife, or himself.
Yoga provided a way out. It appealed to the very American—very Eighties—tendency toward self-absorption and profundity without depth. It reconciled his self-loathing with his thirst for affirmation, offering the simultaneous salve of self-extinction and self-divinization. Even more insidious, it dissolved the deepest questions of human guilt and the mystery of sin and evil in the ebb and flow of reincarnation. No matter what one did, or what one failed to do—be it his parents, his wife, himself, or Michael Schiavo—all could be explained as the result of a previous cosmic prearrangement, and all could be rectified by the spiritual practice of detachment. Such detachment is really a kind of union with God and surges with the transformative power of cosmic love. “If our minds are fixed upon the refined vibrations of the Divine, we will generate thoughts of love, compassion, and abundance, and perceive ways and ideas to manifest in the world these higher thoughts.”
Helping Michael Schiavo kill his wife was one of those “higher thoughts.” Felos’s devotion to the right-to-die movement is, in fact, one long meditation on death and the spiritual joy of conscious dying.
With all Felos’s continual talk about holiness and love, one is surprised to find a certain callousness and taint of turpitude in his treatment of the Schiavo case. Apparently his quest for holiness has enough wiggle room that Felos was able to engage in less-than-honest practices on behalf of his client and his cause. For example, Felos failed to report that he was chairman of the board of the hospice where Terri Schiavo was moved. By law, only those certified with half a year to live can enter a hospice and receive Medicaid. Terri was not terminal but lived there for about six years. How did she get in? Behind the scenes, Felos—in complicity with the now-infamous Judge Greer—smuggled Terri in anyway and fraudulently finagled Medicaid into paying for it (thereby saving his client’s jury-award money).
Nor again did Felos seem bothered that X-rays taken of Terri’s body showed multiple fractures. Obviously, she had suffered much damage at somebody else’s hands, and Michael was the prime suspect. But, as with his own marriage, Michael and Terri had no doubt agreed before this latest reincarnation—after some discussion, of course—that just such a marriage would be mutually beneficial in bringing about their ultimate release from the illusions of their respective bodies, minds, and self-consciousnesses.
Laying aside such ripples in his karma, we can now see why Terri’s death by starvation and dehydration was not, for Felos, murder, but a “process.” After all, since our bodies are an illusion, then “pain and suffering [are] an illusion.” Indeed, as Felos discovers while trying to meditate away a headache, “in piercing the heart of pain we find bliss.” In meditation, Felos explains, because we realize that we are not our body, we can “watch” our pain in a state of detachment. If we foolishly attach ourselves to our bodies with our mind, then we are drawn into the illusion. We then experience pain as real, rather than watch it as a detached, peaceful observer. That’s why he was so peaceful and detached as he watched Terri slowly, painfully wither.
That very same detachment, Felos assures the reader, allows him to rise above the mere pedestrian and illusory distinction between good and evil. “As the duality of mind creates pain,” waxes Felos, “so we could make the same argument for right and wrong. As Hamlet proclaimed, ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.'” One can see why Felos’s spirituality made him so effective in the Schiavo case, untethered as he was by petty notions of good and evil.
Terri Schiavo died on March 31, 2005, at 9:05 A.M. A bit over four hours later—no doubt after intense grieving on his part—Michael Schiavo filed a petition with Judge Greer for administration of her estate as sole beneficiary. Before her death, Michael had protested his innocence on Larry King Live and elsewhere, claiming that the settlement money had been all but used up, leaving him only about $25,000. As it turns out, given the behind-the-scenes financial shenanigans with Felos, there was about $1 million in the account, perhaps $2 million depending upon how well the investments did since 1993. Felos received a little over a half-million for his efforts. Not bad wages for a spiritual killer.