| Bedford Hills inmates Kathy Boudin (left), Betty Harris (middle), and Cynthia Berry (right) at Eve Ensler's writing workshop. (courtesy photo)
T he power of words to misrepresent people is as much at the heart of the P.O.V. documentary What I Want My Words To Do To You as is their ability to change lives and perceptions. The film, which airs Tuesday, December 16 at 9 p.m. on PBS (affiliate KLRN Channel 9, cable Channel 10) documents a writing workshop taught at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility by Eve Ensler of The Vagina Monologues fame.
Located in New York, Bedford Hills is a maximum security women's prison that is home to some of the country's more infamous criminals, including schoolteacher Pamela Smart, who was found guilty of abetting her student boyfriend in her husband's murder, and Kathy Boudin, the former Weather Underground member who was paroled this fall. It is also the prison of hundreds of other women, some as young as 18, who may live out their lives behind bars, convicted of crimes ranging from possession of a controlled substance to first-degree murder.
The inmates who had their frenetic time in the national media spotlight highlight one of the failings of words that this film overcomes: the press' portrayal and our acceptance of these women as two-dimensional monsters or hapless victims of society. Fighting fire with fire, What I Want gives the prisoners the opportunity to explore their range of emotions over their crimes and the consequences. It shows them to be deeply reflective, remorseful, struggling to find continuing purpose in their lives.
| What I Want My Words To Do To You |
Dir. Madeleine Gavin, Judith Katz, Gary Sunshine; writ. Sunshine; feat. Eve Ensler, Cynthia Berry, Kathy Boudin, Judith Clark, Glenn Close, Rosie Perez, Marisa Tomei, the inmates of the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women (NR)
9pm Tuesday, December 16
10pm Thursday, December 18
2am Sunday, December 21
PBS KLRN Channel 9 (Cable 10)
The magic fades some when actresses such as Glenn Close, Rosie Perez, and Marisa Tomei dramatize the readings, offering an inadvertent peek behind the façade of acting. Close notes during the filming that, "In my actor's mind I can feel this," but emotionally, she can't imagine the inner life of the inmate whose words she will read. Some of the presentations are still powerful, but they simply pale beside the voices of the women themselves. More importantly, however, the inmates seem gratified and proud to have their work performed.
| Ensler (second from right) leads her workshop. (courtesy photo)
In the end, What I Want makes a profound argument for rehabilitation and redemption. The workshop participants reveal themselves to be at different stages of self-awareness and honesty, but they are clearly struggling toward these goals, and many of the women are there. Most of them live with the ghosts of their victims and a daily knowledge that they took another life. Clark tells Cynthia Berry, the inmate who says she will have no peace until God takes her life in retribution for her crime, the process of atonement serves the victim's family as much as it does the perpetrator, a potential healing that the death penalty aborts.
The film concludes by introducing the women as individuals - as nurses, college students, intake clerks, and volunteers in the seeing-eye dog training program - all lives they live in their imprisonment. It makes it possible for us to see these women as whole, complicated individuals. The words of Kathy Boudin, speaking to the victims of her crime, are among the last heard: "I would reach for you, not so that you could forgive me, but so that you could know I have no pride for what I have done. Only the wisdom and regret that came too late."
What I Want makes it possible for us to imagine forgiving these women and welcoming them back into our society, to which they belong. •