Judge Tom Becker hopes no one ever again ends up like Leona's sister Gerri.
"The power of the picture has proven itself in ways we never dreamed. That it's become something of an icon for the whole issue is extraordinary."-Roberta Brandes Gratz, journalist
"When I first saw this picture in the magazine, I was shocked. Especially when I thought of how could they print this picture without my permission or somebody's permission in the family."-Leona Gordon, sister of Gerri Santoro
It's a horrifying image in black and white. The woman is naked, face down, legs pulled up, unnaturally crouched, dead in a nondescript room, a bloody towel stuffed between her legs. It was not a peaceful death but a lonely, undignified one, and the revulsion that we feel is directed, in part, at ourselves for even looking.
It was a police crime scene photo, and when it was first published in Ms. in 1973-tucked between the words "Never" and "Again" headlining an article on abortion rights-the editors did not even know the woman's name.
Her name is Gerri Twerdy Santoro. In 1964, she was 26 years old, separated from her husband, a mother of two, and the victim of a botched abortion. She became an unwitting icon in the pro-choice/pro-life debate when her photo became a symbol of the horrors of back-alley abortions.
She was also Leona's Sister Gerri, and this 1995 documentary by Jane Gillooly, for the PBS series POV, puts a face and a history to a sadly famous photo.
Gillooly gives us photos and recollections from Gerri's family (sister, brother, and two daughters) and a childhood friend. The story they tell is not remarkable: Gerri was a nice girl and a lot of fun; she was married at 18 to a man she hardly knew, who abused her; they had children, separated, and she became involved with, and pregnant by, a married man.
Up to this point, the film is a meandering set of memories, and what strikes us is how ordinary Gerri was-she really could be anyone's sister, mother, daughter, or friend. Gillooly's approach is low-key: talking heads (for the most part), photos, and some generic archival footage. It seems the director is honoring Gerri's life with a non-sensationalized or political presentation, and while this is noble, it is not necessarily compelling viewing. Gerri is one of a number of people-Terri Schiavo and Matthew Sheppard also come to mind-who became famous because of how they died. Unfortunately, the stories of nice people are not always interesting to the general public. (The Brandon Teena Story, for instance, is a compelling film because Brandon Teena was a dark, and at times, unsympathetic, character.) About half the film's 57-minute running time is devoted to these recollections, and it is plain-spoken Leona, who seems to have known her sister best, whose stories hold our interest. The tone shifts as the film leads up to Gerri's death in a motel room when her lover tried to perform an abortion. With shots of archival newspaper stories and interviews with the desk clerk, chambermaid (who found Gerri's body), and a former police officer who'd worked on the case, the film starts to look like an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. Here, the film picks up and the final 20 minutes give us insights on how Gerri's death, and the subsequent use of her photo, affected those she left behind.
The big question is: Did pro-choice America exploit Gerri through the constant use of her image? I would say, of course they did. But were they wrong to do so? Gerri's survivors seem divided on this question, and Roberta Brandes Gratz, who wrote the article where the photo first appeared, and Patricia Carbine, co-founder of Ms., offer what sounds like the well-worn company line when discussing their decision to use the photo and its long-lasting significance. It's too bad Gillooly-who was able to find the hotel desk clerk and chambermaid who were working in 1964-didn't offer perspectives from people who were not directly connected to Gerri or the photo. This photo has been a staple of pro-choice literature for more than 30 years; surely there are people whose stances on legalized abortion were affected by it, or women who had similar experiences and could have themselves been the woman in the photo. Fortunately, the DVD includes a fascinating extra, "Viewers' Video Diaries," which are viewer reactions to the original POV broadcast. Women on all sides of the abortion issue present feedback, with many sharing remarkably personal, heartbreaking, and surprising stories of how they dealt with unintended pregnancies in the years before Roe v. Wade. This is really a great supplement and makes this DVD package more complete.
Leona's Sister Gerri was shot on video and transferred to 16 mm film. Video, of course, looks nothing like film, and the video sources Gillooly was using in the early-to-mid 1990s look nothing like the digital video recent years. Still, we have a clear, serviceable picture and audio.
I wanted to like this film more than I did. I'm a big fan of the dying art of the low-budget documentary, and I think stories such as this should be told. I appreciate Gillooly's respect for her subject, and scenes of Leona going through Gerri's purse-which she has kept untouched all these years-are quietly moving. Still, I wish Gillooly had given us more context about the photo. Were it not for the inclusion of the video diaries, I might have had a harder time recommending this.
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Scales of Justice
• Viewers' Video Diaries (14:29)
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