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'Leona's Sister': Transfixing Tale of an Unwilling Symbol

November 01, 1995|Howard Rosenberg

Thursday's PBS documentary, "Leona's Sister Gerri," is as much about a photograph as about the woman it captures in ugly, undignified death, a frozen moment that for more than two decades has been on public display as a hot-button metaphor on behalf of the abortion rights movement.

Her name was Gerri Santoro. And when her life ended after an illegal abortion, so did her privacy.

Some questions of privacy are easy calls.

Take Alec Baldwin's recent tumultuous clash with a paparazzo snapping him and his wife, Kim Basinger, as they returned home with their newborn child. Was the photographer legally correct? Sure. First Amendment, freedom of the press and all of that--a broad umbrella that covers even the creeps in the business. Inquiring minds must be served.

But ethically correct? No.

Just because you can do something--if you're in the media--doesn't mean that you should . Personal values intercede here, to say nothing of common decency. Celebrities are not aliens or outcasts. Give these people a tiny break. Must even their infant be gruel for the People's Right to Know? And anyway, who said the People have a "right" to peep and eavesdrop on every private moment of others who just happen to be famous? And who are these "people" who even want to? If only the paparazzi could photograph the wastelands inside their heads.

A harder call is the matter of 28-year-old Gerri, the subject of that "P.O.V." documentary on Thursday by filmmaker Jane Gillooly. And coming Friday is a talking-heads follow-up program titled "A New Dialogue: Americans on Abortion," which offers opinions from people who saw the film at pre-telecast screenings, including some from Gerri's hometown. But it's as tedious as "Leona's Sister Gerri" is transfixing. Another follow-up is scheduled for Nov. 17, featuring viewer responses to the documentary.

It's hard not responding to it on some level.

Gerri was 6 1/2 months pregnant when she died in 1964. You may have seen her photograph, the one she didn't pose for.

It's the police photograph of Gerri's nude body on the floor of a Greenwich, Mass., motel room, face down in a crouched position beside the bed, her knees drawn up to her chest, her bloodied buttocks facing the camera, her right hand still clutching the towel she had used to try to stop the hemorrhaging.


It's the photograph that was published, unidentified, without her family's permission, in a Ms. magazine article by Roberta Brandes Gratz in 1973--a "visible evidence of butchery," the writer called it--and thereafter was adopted as an indelible symbol by abortion rights advocates.

"Is it the one-inch tissue that we're concerned about?" asks a man displaying the photograph for TV cameras in 1973, "or is it the dead woman on the motel floor?"

But what about the privacy rights of the dead woman on the motel floor? She would never know that her lifeless form, captured in death agony, would be prominently displayed at marches and demonstrations and would adorn placards thrust at TV cameras. Would she have wanted this as her legacy?

"How dare they flaunt this, how dare they take my beautiful mom, my beautiful, beautiful mom and put this in front of the public eye?" Gerri's youngest daughter, Joannie Griffin, recalls feeling when, as a teen-ager, she saw the photograph in Ms. Although she and her older sister, Judy, hadn't known for sure how their mother had died, their suspicions were affirmed by the photograph printed in the magazine. "And who gave them permission? I was pissed."

Gerri's story is told by her sister, Leona Gordon; two daughters; a childhood friend and others. Without taking sides in the abortion debate, "Leona's Sister Gerri" is a straightforward, tragic biography of one of the women behind the statistics, a typical, fun-loving, New England farm girl who merged teen-hood with a quickie marriage to a man she met at a bus stop--a marriage that would be disastrous and cast a pall over her adult life.

Knowing Gerri's fate makes the profiling of her life especially poignant. She was the high school drum majorette who hung out with her friends at the local diner. She was the girl "who loved everybody," the mother who made her daughters' Halloween costumes and chewed Juicy Fruit gum, the abused wife who finally left the husband who savagely beat her and their children and then began an affair with Clyde Dixon.


This was prior to the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973 that legalized most abortions. So when Gerri got pregnant, apparently fearing her husband would kill her if she had the child, she checked into a motel where Dixon, guided by a borrowed medical book, inserted a catheter into her cervix. When things went badly, he apparently left her there to die, for which he would be convicted and sentenced to prison.

Both Dixon and Gerri's husband, Sebastian Santoro, are now dead. But she lives on as the abortion rights movement's poster victim.

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