Bedford Hills inmates Kathy Boudin (left), Betty Harris (middle), and Cynthia Berry (right) at Eve Ensler's writing workshop. (courtesy photo)

P.O.V. on PBS documents Eve Ensler's writing workshop at a maximum security women's prison

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)
While there are great and obvious education and economic discrepancies between Ensler and the inmates - and among the inmates themselves - as the workshop progresses, the participants speak with equal authority and listen with equal deference. Camaraderie deepens and strengthens as Ensler pushes the women to confront difficult ideas and emotions: the details of their crimes, the feelings of their families outside, an unexpected act of kindness. Ensler plays a tricky dual role as psychologist and writing instructor, but because of the egalitarian group dynamic, it works. The women are willing to challenge any of Ensler's neat summations that they find too simplistic. And Ensler is catalytic in some of her insights, telling one inmate who is borderline suicidal with remorse that writing may be a way for her to find new possibility for her future.

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)

The documentary is revolutionary in its subtle revelation of the contradictions and weaknesses at the heart of our penal system. Listening to the inmates' stories, it seems unlikely that prison acts as a deterrent. The film also inadvertently questions the rationale we use to make judgments about who stays in and who gets out. We might release a drug dealer who has not accepted responsibility for her actions and so is likely to repeat her mistakes, while continuing to imprison a murder accomplice who has fundamentally changed and now has something positive to offer society. As Judith Clark, another Weather Underground member imprisoned at Bedford, wrote, "I want `my words` to leave you wondering why two million people in America today are locked up."

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. •

Scroll to read more Movie Reviews & News articles


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.