Advertisement

Daughter Awaits Documentary With Anticipation and Dread

November 01, 1995|ALAN EYERLY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAKE FOREST — In this country's agonizing debate over the abortion issue, one of the most powerful symbols associated with the anti-abortion movement is a photo of an aborted fetus preserved in a bottle.

Abortion-rights advocates counter with the unforgettable photo of Geraldine (Gerri) Santoro, who died in 1964 following an illegal, botched abortion. Her story is told in an hourlong documentary, "Leona's Sister Gerri," airing Thursday at 10 p.m. as part of the "P.O.V." series on KCET Channel 28.

Just 28 years old, Santoro bled to death, naked and alone, in a Connecticut motel room. A gruesome photo of the body, later published in a 1973 issue of Ms. Magazine, shows Santoro crouched on the room's bloody floor, her purse at her feet and her right arm grasping a white towel.

That disturbing image, which continues to appear on placards at abortion-rights rallies, was taken nine years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state laws prohibiting abortions were unconstitutional.

Now, 31 years after Santoro's death, her youngest daughter is reliving painful childhood memories while waiting with a mixture of dread and anticipation for the documentary to be shown.

"Part of me wants to put this on the shelf so that no one sees it," said Joannie Griffin, 38, who lives with her husband, Tice, and their two children in Lake Forest. She originally thought the documentary about her mother would be an obscure work shown to small gatherings at universities, "but it's taken on a life of its own."

"It wasn't very real to me," Griffin said, until she saw a PBS promotion for "Leona's Sister Gerri" earlier this week. "All of a sudden my mom's face was on TV," she said. "I was floored."

Both Griffin and her older sister, Judy Blare, are interviewed in the documentary. They were only 7 and 8 years old, respectively, when their mother died. Circumstances of the death were not originally revealed to the children, who were led to believe that their mother had died in a car accident.

But after the photo of Santoro appeared in Ms. Magazine, Joannie and Judy's aunt, Leona Gordon, told them the whole story. Gordon is the "Leona" referred to in the documentary's title.

"She hit me with all of it," Griffin recalled. "Up until then, nobody had told us what had happened. The lie was still going on."

*

What had happened was a tragic series of events, all chronicled in the documentary, that began when Griffin's late father, Sebastian (Sam) Santoro, started physically abusing his wife and daughters.

Conditions didn't improve after the troubled family moved to California, so Gerri separated from her husband and returned to Connecticut with the children.

It was there she began a secret relationship with a married co-worker, Clyde G. Dixon. Gerri accidentally became pregnant, and her due date coincided with a visit that her estranged husband was planning to the East Coast.

"He was trying to reconcile with her," Griffin said. "Either she would be nine months' pregnant or have a brand new baby. He would have killed her. She had no options. It was just bad timing and bad luck."

About two-thirds of the way into her pregnancy, Gerri Santoro checked into a motel room under an assumed name. Dixon borrowed abortion tools and a medical textbook, then made a crude attempt to terminate the pregnancy.

*

The procedure went horribly awry, however, and Dixon fled the scene. He later turned himself in and spent a year and a day in prison after pleading no contest to charges of manslaughter and attempting an abortion. He died in 1979.

Following their mother's death, Joannie and Judy moved to Tustin with their father in the mid-1960s. But the physical abuse continued, and Joannie was placed in a foster home during her teens. Her father died around the time Joannie learned the truth about her mother.

The documentary was made last year after one of Joannie's cousins, Toni Elka, related Gerri's story to producer-director Jane Gillooly.

"She [Elka] was devastated when my mom died," Griffin said. "She just couldn't let it go because it was so awful and so criminal that a woman would be allowed to die under such circumstances."

Although Griffin's pain has diminished somewhat, she remains angry and saddened about losing her mother at a time when it was illegal to have an abortion.

"Why weren't the laws changed in time for her?" Griffin asked with a flash of anger in her voice. "I spent most of my childhood pretending that she wasn't dead. Losing a mother at that age is really, really tough."

Griffin readily admits that she has mixed feelings about her mother's story being told on television. She hopes, however, that viewers will regard Gerri as "just this great person" who was driven to an act of desperation.

"She was very loving," Griffin said. "She didn't yell; she was patient. She was a good mom. She never said a bad word about my dad, and I respect that. I think she did that for our sake."

That is the Geraldine Santoro that Griffin remembers--not the dead woman lying on the motel floor.

"When you see that picture," Griffin said, "you can't imagine that she was a beautiful woman.

"Anybody can become desperate," she said. "That could be your sister, that could be your mother, that could be your daughter. That could happen to anyone if the laws are reversed."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|