“Do you know what the first words I spoke were? ‘Do by self.’ The trouble is, I want to do everything by self, and I can’t.”
- Jean Donovan, Choice of the Heart

Choices of the Heart

ITA: (to the camera) A young man was reported killed. He’d been taken off by the police and left by the main road. The boy’s mother asked me if I would go and identify her son with her. Jeannie and I took the jeep and found the place where he – they’d buried him. And we dug down and…his face had been covered with a white handkerchief. And I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I couldn’t sleep at night. I would wake up thinking about this face surrounded by dirt.

The Story

Jeannie Donovan, a party-girl searching for that something missing in her life, finds it in El Salvador, hooking up with three nuns and a heartful of ache, love, and horror in the midst of a civil war. This is a true story of the four American churchwomen murdered in the Central American countryside, and the indifference of the American government to their sad and desperate story.

The Backstory

This was my first movie written for television. I wrote it in 1981, before Agnes of God had been done in New York, when I was relatively unknown. Writer-producer David Rintels had read Agnes, was impressed with my writing, and when he was asked by John Houseman to join in this project about the four American churchwomen murdered in El Salvador David recommended me, guaranteeing the script if I didn’t come up to snuff. Well, that was the beginning of it all – I’m forever grateful to David for his support – and I began making my living as a writer. The script was completed for NBC, which then decided not to make it. It went to ABC and CBS who also passed. In the meantime, NBC had a commitment to make a film with Melissa Gilbert, and sent her a stack of scripts to consider. She read this and loved it – and so the film ended back at NBC. Joe Sargent directed it, shooting it in Mexico. (I’ve since worked with Joe several other times – once as an actor and again as a writer – he directed my film adaptation of Sybil.) The script was too long so I cut it to the bone – and when it was all put together it ended up being five minutes short. So I created a new scene that covered some of the stuff that had been cut, and the scene was shot weeks later in L.A. It was a scene centering around Ita Ford, one of the four women murdered, and Mari Gorman who played Ita ended up with an Emmy nomination – most likely because of that added scene.

Choices of the Heart
Melissa Gilbert in “Choices of the Heart.”

An interesting dilemma arose in the writing of this piece. One of the producers was Ana Carrigan, a film-maker who had made a wonderful documentary on the women, Roses In December. I had access to all of Ana’s footage for my research, as well as documents and tapes belonging to Jeannie Donavan, our main focus in the film. Jeannie was engaged to be married to a young man in the States, and we discovered during the course of our research that she had fallen in love with another young man, a Salvadoran, during the course of her work. I’m sure that this was a fleeting war-time romance, but it definitely happened – at least in Jeannie’s mind – and had a lot to do, I believe, with why she returned to El Salvador after an R&R trip to Ireland. (The young man, Armando, was murdered by the government.) Anyway, when Jeannie’s parents first saw the movie they were appalled, and I’m sure her fiancée, who knew nothing about this, was quite hurt. The parents’ ended up denying the romance ever happened, saying we added it to the film to Hollywood-ize it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I ended up winning a Christopher Award and the Humanitas Prize for my script, as well as getting a nomination for a Writers Guild Award. So it turned out well. (I recently saw the film again and was quite pleased.)