A personal, heart warming documentary film about a same sex couple coming out to their immediate family and the world after 60 years of a rich, fully lived but closely safeguarded secret relationship. Pat and Terry's dedication for each other depicts a rare face of love, fast fading from a spiralling world.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you”. Maya Angelou’s words carry the weight of the ultimate truth of our times. Now imagine the aching desire to bare your soul to those you love for 70 full years? A Secret Love is a story that explores the dynamics of a hidden relationship between a lesbian couple; Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel. For six decades they have both lived together, as ‘best friends,’ even to their family and closest friends. In 2009, they finally came out as a couple to Terry’s niece Diana, who seems more relieved than surprised, and says ‘Now you can tell your story’.
The documentary opens on the two women, now in their 80s, with Diana encouraging them to move into an assisted-living facility. They are both originally from Canada, raised on farms in a fairly traditional, conservative setting. For them, coming to the USA meant the freedom to live together and the chance to build a home, even if they had to pretend to be ‘cousins’. Along with building a life together, they also found a family there, an LGBTQ+ community amidst whom they didn’t have to hide their affection and love for each other. Terry’s niece is supportive and accepting and is urging them to move back to Canada, where they can be closer to her as they near a frail and more demanding age. For Pat, this means leaving behind their adoptive family and their painstakingly built life and returning to a place still haunted by feelings of rejection from all those years ago.
Directed by Diana’s son Chris Bolan, the documentary is an assortment of a life built on scraps; loving notes, grainy home videos, carefully preserved photos with the dates scrawled on the back of them in ink, of memorabilia the two have collected from their trips, of antique silver and china, of souvenirs and old gifts from their close friends. Sweet reminders of how eventually all of our lives turn into scraps of sentimentality, these provide insight into the tiny ray of hope which Terry and Pat found amongst the LGBTQ+ community in Chicago. Delightful anecdotes of compassion are interspersed with instances of extreme homophobia, particularly in Terry’s career as a professional baseball player, which became the inspiration for the movie, A League of Their Own (1992). The shared experience of playing hookie to avoid the raids that were conducted systemically in gay bars, which would have meant the end of both their careers.
Pat and Terry have constructed their life together with as much practicality as with bravery; they never lost sight of their goal - to be together - even if it meant hiding behind the ‘accepted’ values and facades of society to safeguard the truth. Having met in their early 20’s, today they are in their 80’s, finally ready to celebrate their lasting commitment before the ones they hold dear. And although this is long, long overdue, it is not the main reason for their decision. Old age and acceptance of what is probably the final chapter in their lives are the main motivation for the couple’s desire to come out.
Yet, for Diana and the rest of the younger generations of their family, the move represents a new beginning, a more honest and open start, the reaffirmation of a love that deep within they all felt, but were unable to fully embrace because of the unspoken boundaries imposed by society. Bolan deconstructs their relationship gently, made up of tender glances, some healthy bickering but mostly friendship and a wholesome feeling of family. Commendably, the documentary doesn’t come across as trying to tease out a ‘coming out’ story, but rather to showcase how two people, two rule breakers, still very much in love, are overcoming the hurdles of old age, trying to balance their desire for a more comfortable and reasonable future, with the nostalgia of a covertly, painstakingly built, intentionally cocooned life together. And while Terry is more open and amiable, Pat seems more cynical and unwilling to uproot them from Chicago. But despite the wave of impending changes, one thing is clear : that they will hold on to each other until ‘death do them part’.