The photo has long been in the abortion rights archives: a dead woman, nude, face down with her knees bent, surrounded by her own blood. She was the victim of a botched illegal abortion performed in a sordid hotel room in Norwich, Conn., by the father of her 6-month-old fetus. She was never identified when the photo was used on placards, or most famously, in a 1973 article in Ms. magazine. Though she became a symbol, she was an anonymous one.
On tonight's edition of "P.O.V." (PBS, 10 p.m.), filmmaker Jane Gillooly tells us about that woman, Gerri Twerdy Santoro, the youngest daughter of 15 children raised by Russian immigrant parents on a farm in Connecticut. Born in 1937, Santoro died in 1964, seven years before Roe v. Wade, and her life is the subject of "Leona's Sister Gerri."
This story of a working-class woman growing up in the '40s and '50s, restricted by her economic status and gender to fairly narrow horizons, is often moving. Santoro went to work in a plant after high school, and, at 18, married a man she had known only a short time. The film aims at being apolitical, which is silly. Gillooly tries so hard not to be an abortion rights propagandist that her film slides into coyness. Santoro died because she could not get a legal abortion, and to frame the issue as "complex" and the question as "open" is pretense.
Santoro, as revealed by her surviving family and friends, was not a fascinating woman. She was an ordinary woman. Her story is made more awful by its banality -- she did not need an abortion because she was a mysteriously complicated figure driven by dark demons as this film sometimes tries to suggest. She needed it because she was afraid that her dumb, abusive, estranged husband would be mad that she was pregnant by another man, who was also stupid, irresponsible and probably desperate. She made a mistake, and mistakes are what life (and death) are made of.
It is worth hearing her story, though, even as told through the somewhat vague reminiscences of her siblings and best friend. Gerri, "who loved everybody," married Sam Santoro, an orphan who loved nobody. She soon began to appear with bruises, but nobody said anything because, well, this was the '50s. They moved to California, and then she left him, taking their two daughters back home to Connecticut and supporting them with a job at an institution for the mentally handicapped. There she met Clyde Dixon, a supervisor. They had an affair, and she got pregnant. Meanwhile, Sam announced plans to visit, in hopes of patching up their marriage. Gerri was afraid, her survivors theorize, that he would kill her if he found out that she was pregnant with someone else's child. She asked around about getting some ergot, which she had heard would induce a miscarriage. Her sister Leona told her not to take ergot and gave her $725, thinking she would go away and get an illegal abortion.
Instead, Dixon got a medical textbook and some instruments from a colleague at the institution. They went to a motel, and when his amateur doctoring began to go wrong he simply left Santoro to bleed to death. She made one anguished phone call to Leona, who was not home, and did not leave a message. A hotel maid found her body. Dixon subsequently served one year in jail; he died about 15 years later.
Leona had to identify the body, and then tried to put the episode behind her. In 1973 she saw the picture in Ms., and was outraged. Nobody seems to know how the picture was obtained, including the writer of the article and the publisher of the magazine. But it doesn't appear from this account that Leona actually did anything about her anger, and almost 20 years elapsed between that publication and the start of the film. Since then, Leona has come to decide that publishing the gruesome picture was "honest," and she used it herself on a placard she carried at an abortion rights march.
Gerri's daughters, however, are still angry that their mother's tragedy was appropriated to illustrate a magazine article. The older daughter, Judy, is opposed to abortion, although she had one herself as a teenager. She will be judged, she says, "but as a Christian I believe I have been forgiven." Nonetheless, she says, "we have a right to a choice. That's why we're given a brain."
"Leona's Sister Gerri" is best when combining reminiscences with the old black-and-white family photos of a blithe young woman, posing in ethnic dress or atop her friend's car, or cuddling her children, while the sad path of her life is described. The memories of Gerri Santoro are strong enough to overcome some of the film's amateurish quirks, such as the makeup that ends abruptly at people's chins and the funereal music that announces rather than induces pathos.
Gerri would have been almost 60 now, had she lived. It is right that she should be remembered. CAPTION: Gerri Twerdy Santoro (right, with sister Leona) died after a botched illegal abortion in 1964. CAPTION: On "P.O.V.": A portrait of Gerri Santoro, held by her sister Leona.