A Secret Love is nothing new in terms of documentary style: it is straightforward, showcasing archival footage mixed with interviews from family members. What is so special, however, is the subject of the story: two elderly women, Pat and Terry, who have been in love for over 65 years. A Secret Love provides a small, yet meaningful glimpse into their lives, and it is absolutely wonderful.
The introduction of Pat Henschel and Terry Donahue is presented by means of their phone call with Terry’s doctor. The two are beginning to realize the impending nature of their old age, which means some hard decisions will to have to be made regarding their health and futures. When they go to visit Terry’s family, we see how close she is with them, specifically with her niece, Diana. Revealed through interviews with the family, their overall impression was always that Pat and Terry were just friends, with a newfound realization coming only recently. The documentary threads together the present, where Pat and Terry struggle with their changing situation, along with the past, about how this couple came to be.
The main conflict is not that these women are gay — this fact is covered almost immediately in the documentary. Through its shift to a more pressing issue, their age and health, the film explores how couples and relatives deal with the adversity of mortality. Terry’s niece, Diana, is concerned about her aunts moving to a safer place where they can be cared for, which leads to uncomfortable, yet inevitable, conversations between the three of them.
“I remember what you told me, about how growing old isn’t for sissies.”
Where the story succeeds the most is the especially heartwarming origin story of Terry and Pat’s romance, though disappointingly, this doesn’t receive its due cut of the run time. History has erased the existence of the love that they have for each other – and that many others also have for each other – leaving these struggles and triumphs mostly lost to us, except for when projects like A Secret Love highlight their stories. The documentary certainly examines this sentiment to an extent, but ultimately with insufficient depth. However, the moments of true intimate inspection between Pat and Terry, such as their nostalgic look through old photos and letters, are wholly beautiful — as Pat gazes at an old photo of Terry, she remarks, “You were pretty cute, my dear.”
In addition to the emotional journey, the overarching topics A Secret Love covers are inarguably relevant. Persecution of homosexuality was prevalent in the time that Pat and Terry fell in love, and the documentary’s subsequent connection to their families’ reaction to their sexuality paints a poignant picture. In the face of new challenges, the present-day storyline following the couple as they decide on where their life must take them next, brings forth the conversation that many families eventually have to face. Accepting age can be difficult, but honestly portraying that process is equally important.
A Secret Love would have benefitted from deeper investigation, but the story it follows is fundamental to many families. Pat and Terry’s infectious story is a divine one, full of love and companionship, and A Secret Love offers a missing piece of history that we have only begun to discover.