What I Want My Words To Do To You
I guess it's a guy thing. I've thrilled at least thirty times to John "Duke" Wayne confronting hostile Comanches at in John Ford's western classic, The Searchers, but avoid like malaria movies starring Sandra Bullock, or featuring
ya-ya sisterhoods, chicks savoring fried green tomatoes or trying to get their groove back. In theatre? The Vagina Monologues is not for this dude, so I came with trepidation to What I Want My Words to Do to You. This documentary features Eve Ensler, the vagina monologist herself, in an off-stage guise.
For four years, Ensler has led a writing worshop at the maximum security Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. The film (co-directed by Madeleine Gavin, Judith Katz, and Gary Sunshine) shows Ensler in class, chairs in a circle, guiding her prisoner students, most of whom are long-term to life, to construct their own autobiographical monologues.
My fears of a soupy evening proved absurd. What I Want My Words is an incredibly forceful and stirring documentary. Away from anatomical soliloquies, Ensler is a great facilitator, an empathetic group leader, and a fabulous, no-nonsense writing teacher. We watch Ensler time and again get water from a stone, coaxing the most beautiful, courageous, tender, personal writing from the most blocked, bitter, self-loathing, female prisoners. At their best, the words are a match for the applauded memoirs of incarcerated males: George Jackson, Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X.
Did Ensler handpick her class? Hollywood casting couldn't improve on this integrated mix of street-taught, straight-speaking African-Americans, pale, guilt-ridden young white girls, and several wise, thoughtful, beyond-days-of-rage middle-aged women. The last two are ex-Weather Underground members, Kathy Boudin and Judy Clark, who, behind bars for several decades, have never stopped contemplating their murderous activities as fiery youths militantly protesting the Vietnam War. Today, they seem the most peaceful and pacifist of women, and, obviously, totally rehabilitated. Not that they will be let out.
Boudin: "I've been in prison for 20 years. I don't look at this is unreal. We're just as real as the outside. This is our life."
Ensler's workshop is, as it should be, partly consciousness-raising. Her students are encouraged in their writing to address the crimes that brought them to jail, to understand why they were done, and then, without dismissing the seriousness of the felonies, learn to forgive themselves, and to envision a better future, whether in or out of prison. Truth-telling as a transformatory experience.
To my mind, there's only one self-deceptive holdout: the infamous Pamela Smart, who, in the New Hampshire of the early 90s, was imprisoned for allegedly persuading a high-school boy with whom she was sleeping to bump off her husband. Nicole Kidman played a satiric version of Smart in Gus Van Sant's To Die For.
"B"-budget female prison flicks often include a trashy, divisive causasian jailbird whom the audience loves to hate. Smart-coy, pouty, a narcissist drama queen-serves that function in What I Want My Words. When she reads her monologue to the group, she claims, breathlessly, that "I've never said any of this before." But she delivers the same unpersuasive story she's been offering up for a decade, including in TV network interviews: though foolish, I'm innocent. My high-school boyfriend was the sole killer.
The documentary concludes with an amazing day at Bedford Hills Correctional. A troupe of renowned theatre-and-film actresses, including Glenn Close, Marisa Tomei, and Rosie Perez,arrive at the prison to put on a staged reading (they have been coached by Ensler) of the monologues from Ensler's class. The rapt audience of 300 prisoners includes, in seats up front, those who did the writing. While the monologues are recited by the famous, cameras sit on the astonished, humble authors.
What an extraordinary thing: faces transfixed as the pained rhetoric become, a Warholian moment, the stuff of Art. One unsocialized prisoner represents all in her burst of pride: she mouths the words she penned as they are dramatized from the stage, and, at the end, points to herself and declares, beaming, "I wrote that!"
(Boston Phoenix, July, 2003)