a secret love
Documentary, 2020, 4 stars
Director: Chris Bolan
If you’re an All American Girls Professional Baseball League tragic (guilty as charged), you might have a baseball card with the name Terry Donahue on it. After all, she played 4 seasons with Peoria in just about every position except pitcher. She helped inspire the book and film “A League of Their Own”. She was one of those legends who now live in the baseball hall of fame.
Nobody except a select few knew that during this time, which would have been one of the most exciting times in these women’s lives, she was also living a secret life, with her lover Pat Henschel. I’m overjoyed to have heard about it now. As well as exploring their love, this documentary explores the gay community of Chicago, and gives us insights into how gay women managed to live full, rich lives together in a time of social prejudice.
Donahue’s great-nephew listened closely when Terry and Pat began to open up about their incredible story to their own families when they were in their eighties. He knew right away he wanted to create a documentary about their story. Filming to capture the story took more than four years to complete.
Up until they finally had the courage to start coming out to their families, most people thought they were roommates and close friends. Most people except the other gay couples they’d socialised with for decades, and who formed a kind of second family for them. Pat and Terry grew so close to their extended gay family over the years in Chicago, as they grew older it was torment for them to have to move once they started to struggle to care for each other alone.
I can’t even imagine how tough it would be. This was a couple who had been fiercely independent and protective of each other and their secrets for so many years. To now have to face relying on others for support? To have to come clean about everything and hope that their family would accept them, love them, and help them? It must have been surreal. Their families, while supportive, certainly present their own set of challenges.
Through the documentary we see Pat and Terry’s ordinary (and yet extraordinary!) lives through their own eyes. We get a sacred glimpse into those glorious years they were secretly together, and wonder at their strength and tenacity. We also see them now, older, sicker, desperately clinging to each other and the past as time, old age, illness, and family encroach on their lives.
This documentary tells us so much about what it was like to grow up lesbian through the middle of the 20th century. It tells us about hope, and idealism, and those simple things that make up a relationship through the years. You will laugh, and sob, and cheer, and wish it would go on much longer than its 90 minute running time. I wanted to see more of Terry’s baseball years, more of Pat’s life probably bossing around half the queer community of Chicago. The pieces we get are so tantalisingly brief.
I truly believe that films change lives, and this film has altered mine. I know I’ll never look at my own partner the same way again. I will try to never take her smiles and laughter and support for granted. I hope that when we reach that time of our lives, that we still have the same smiles and laughter for each other, and that same love and fierce protectiveness.
Pat and Terry love each other, and they have loved each other for 70 years. In this film they finally get to tell the world that despite the disapproval of society, nothing the world could ever throw at them could touch who they were to each other. As a documentary their story is told with humour, with care, and with skill. It’s so achingly beautiful.