A Secret Love (2020)
Director: Chris Bolan
Screenwriters: Chris Bolan, Alexa L. Fogel, Brendan Mason
Starring: Terry Donahue, Pat Henschel, Diana Bolan
A Secret Love tells the story of Terry Donahue, a former All-American Girl’s Professional League Baseball player and her partner of 70 years, Pat Henschel. The documentary is sparked by Terry and Pat having to make a decision about where they are going to spend their retirement years. This life change forces the couple to face the fact that they have hidden their love from their families for most of their relationship.
In the first few minutes of this feature documentary we are shown some of the day to day implications of living in secret – Terry gets a phone call from her doctor and asks them to wait for her ‘cousin’ to get on the other line, for example. Within the first four minutes of A Secret Love your heart is broken as Terry worries that if she tells her family the truth it will change how they love her. It is important to see this coming out narrative, which is not toxic albeit not exactly idealistic, represented in cinema, as Pat respects and supports Terry in her coming out process. The documentary reminds us that coming out transcends the progress made by the LGBT community between generations, and that coming out today invokes the same concerns and struggles.
The first half of A Secret Love explores many stages and key moments in the lives of Pat and Terry. Terry’s illustrious career allows the documentary to delve into the history of women in baseball, in addition to considering LGBT history at the time the women met. Refreshingly, this focuses on lesbian history rather than a blanket look at the community. We see a mixture of traditional talking head interviews conducted with people from the era, as well as archive footage of Pat and Terry in their younger days. The relationship as described by the couple is one of passion, so much so that they would rent hotel rooms together (without luggage), yet this truth seems at odds with the type of relationship the documentary is attempting to present. Intimacy and passion seem to be stripped away in favour of presenting a sweet elderly couple, the wider societal habit of desexualising the elderly being exacerbated by the involvement of Terry’s family in the production of the film.
The biggest issue with A Secret Love is the involvement of Terry’s great nephew Chris Bolan as director. His closeness to the couple, and particularly Terry, makes it impossible for the documentary to explore why it is that the couple felt they could not tell Terry’s family about their relationship. It is made clear throughout that there’s conflict between Pat and Terry’s family, but the director’s positioning as a relative of Terry means that this is not explored as it should be, perhaps so that Terry’s family do not come across in a negative light. Whether this issue is personal to Pat or as the result of homophobia is left up for debate, a story about Terry’s brother being vocally homophobic and her mother being devoutly religious offering the perspective of familial difficulties whilst Terry’s deceased father’s positive relationship with Terry’s partner Pat suggests the opposite. The only logical conclusion is that the homophobia of the living family is the real issue – a niece uncomfortably joking at one stage that the couple must get married as they are “living in sin” – though this is never confirmed.
Terry’s niece Diana is arguably the antagonist of the documentary as she continually undermines Pat and Terry’s relationship, seemingly without cause. From her perspective, Pat is cold towards her and only tolerates her because of Terry. However, later it is clear that Diana is actively competing for Terry’s affection at Pat’s expense, which can be difficult to watch.
While we fortunately get a glimpse of the couple’s lives outside of the involvement of Terry’s family – they have dinner with friends, Diana finds a photo album filled with images of Terry and Pat in joyful moments with other LGBT people – so much of this is quickly pushed aside to once again explore how Diana feels about the couple’s relationship, the antagonistic niece referring to Terry and Pat’s friends as their “other” family in a dismissive and patronising tone.
The story of Pat and Terry’s relationship within the historical context they lived in is enough to carry the film through such disappointing moments highlighting narrow-minded perspectives, and is ultimately powerful enough to save what is at times a poorly made documentary. If you can get past the framing issues and how the documentary seems to lose its way a little at around the halfway point (which is likely caused by Terry’s health deterioration), A Secret Love is well worth a watch to catch a glimpse of the enduring love and joy Terry and Pat have shared over a lifetime.