"AKA Jane Roe" filmmaker on Norma McCorvey's authenticity and getting to that "deathbed confession"

Nick Sweeney spoke to Salon about gaining McCorvey's trust and to film her final, chosen moments in the public eye

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published May 22, 2020 7:00PM (EDT)

Norma McCorvey in "AKA Jane Roe" (FX)
Norma McCorvey in "AKA Jane Roe" (FX)

Earlier this week, it was revealed that Norma McCorvey  — better known as the plaintiff, "Jane Roe" from the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion — gave documentary filmmaker Nick Sweeney a "deathbed confession," admitting she had been paid and coached by members of the anti-abortion movement to publicly oppose legal abortion later in her life. 

As Salon reported on Tuesday, McCorvey died in 2017, but the confession was recorded as part of the upcoming FX documentary "AKA Jane Roe," which was directed by Nick Sweeney and debuts May 22 on FX, next day on Hulu. In the film, Sweeney goes deep on all of McCorvey's beliefs and contradictions, from her time as "Jane Roe," to when she dropped that pseudonym in the '80s and became an outspoken advocate for abortion access, to her eventual conversion to evangelical Christianity, after which she renounced her past and joined up with Operation Rescue, one of the most vocal anti-abortion groups in the country. 

Sweeney spoke with Salon about filming "AKA Jane Roe" and how he earned McCorvey's trust after an initial rocky start to eventually get the confession and what he learned from the woman whose life subverted all expectations. 

So, I wanted to talk about what drew you to this story in the first place because it's one that has had sweeping implications for generations of American women — and you're not either of those.

Well, generally everybody, including me, knows about the case of Roe vs. Wade. It's a huge case that kicked off a very divisive debate that's raged on for decades, but I will admit that I didn't know a great deal about the person at the center of it, Norma McCorvey. The more that I researched about her and read about her life, it left my head spinning. I mean, here was this one woman whose life was so full of contractions and twists and turns, and huge, huge moments. I wanted to try to unravel that and find out what was really going on and who she really was. 

She was very enigmatic and quite reclusive at that point in time when I found her, and I really wanted to let her say —  in her own words — who she really was, what she really thought and believed in, and also what her legacy was. 

Right. I think that's really important — which leads me to wonder, I had read that when you first reached out, it wasn't necessarily super-warm between you guys . . .

[Laughs] No, not at all.

Could you talk about what establishing a rapport with her was like? 

I'd wanted to make a documentary about Norma, but she wasn't easy to find. She hadn't really appeared in public for a while and when I eventually found her, I got on the phone and mumbled through the idea that I wanted to make this documentary, that I thought she was really interesting — and she hung up on me. 

Soon after, she seemed to be curious about who I was, and she was asking me questions about what congregations I worship at, who am I and what organization am I approaching her from?

And I didn't have an answer for her because I didn't have an answer to any of those questions, and I think that she was grateful to be speaking to somebody who's uninvolved in the abortion debate. I think that's why she agreed to meet up, and then once we met up we got along very well. She often said that I reminded her of Connie, who was her partner who had died. So, we just got along really well, but I had no idea that the documentary would go in the direction that it did at all. I had absolutely no idea of the things she was going to reveal to me. I was astonished. 

One of the things I was curious about is pretty early on in the documentary, we turn the lens on multiple events during her childhood where I feel like Norma was stripped of any sense of autonomy; there were arrests, she was sent to reform school, a history of being the victim of physical and sexual abuse. And I feel like that sense of her not having control of her situation is a theme that carries into the rest of the film. I wasn't sure if that was intentional, and if so, why did you want to explore that? 

One of the interesting things about Norma that I realized when I met her is that she had a real survival instinct. She was a survivor and she had an incredibly difficult early life and I think that instinct that she was forced to develop at a very young age through those very traumatic events carried her through for the rest of her life. 

You know, there's this great line when she is talking later on in the film, she says, "I'm just looking out for Norma's salvation and Norma's ass," and I think that it represents that survival instinct. And I think it's really important in trying to understand who she was to know the things that she went through early in her life, many of which were absolutely awful and traumatic and affected her profoundly. 

Early in the documentary, there is a scene that has stuck with me. Norma is showing you around her bedroom at the nursing facility and she pulls out a pair of sequined or bedazzled slippers. And you remark, "Oh, those are quite femme." And then she responds along the lines that she considered herself more "butch," which led me to wonder — because she underwent this "conversion" later in life — what was the process of getting Norma to open up about her sexuality and gender presentation like? Was she pretty open? 

Yes, surprisingly. I'm gay myself, and I was very interested in that aspect of Norma's story. I was interested in the fact that she lived as an out and proud lesbian with her partner many decades, Connie, for a good part of her life and then all of a sudden in the mid-'90s, she was justifying her sexuality. 

You know, one of the saddest moments in the film is when Norma is being baptized in the backyard swimming pool in Texas, and Connie is a woman of few words, yet the expression on her face is one of just absolute heartbreak. There's a moment in the film when Reverend [Flip] Benham says that when Norma came to know Jesus, there were going to be some "lifestyle changes." Reverend Rob Shank says that she had to end her lesbian relationship and declare she was no longer a homosexual. These are the key thinkers of Operation Rescue saying that this condition was all part of it. 

But in terms of Norma opening up to me about her sexuality, a funny story is that when we first met up in Texas, I had no idea what to expect. I thought she was a reclusive, former lesbian. But I remember one of the first moments, we were walking into a restaurant and a young woman walked by and Norma wolf-whistles. So I knew at that point that maybe Norma was ready to reveal who she really was and talk about what was really going on. 

Interesting — so, moving ahead in the timeline of the documentary, one of the moments that was kind of tough for me is we see members of the pro-choice community turn away from using Norma as a vocal public proponent of abortion access because she wasn't super-polished when it came to accurately sharing her her own story.  Speaking with her decades later, did you get a sense of how much of an emotional impact that had on her?

I think that Norma felt overlooked by the abortion rights movement. And she says herself, "I was not the picture-perfect white-gloved lady," right? And Charlotte Taft, an abortion counselor who ran one of the main clinics in Dallas, she gives this interesting line about how even though Norma wasn't the "poster girl" for Roe vs. Wade, the poster girl couldn't have been the plaintiff in the first place. They needed a plaintiff to fit the bill, so they needed somebody like Norma. 

It's an interesting contradiction, and I think it's an interesting paradox in general that at various points in her life, people wanted her to fit their expectations or suit their aims, but in the end, Norma wanted to be herself. She wanted to be truthful about who she was. I think it was hard for people on all sides of the debate, but I think it also took its toll on Norma, certainly. 

So Pastor Flip Benham — he was one of the religious leaders with Operation Rescue. I was curious if there were any challenges as a filmmaker in approaching him to participate in the documentary. 

There were no challenges. He was very happy to participate in the film. He is somebody who, still to this day, is going out to picket clinics six days a week. So he was very happy to participate and he immediately invited us along to the activities that he was doing that day and we went there and stood there and saw what he was doing. 

He's a very interesting character I think because Reverend Bob Shank is a very different person at the end of the film from who he is at the beginning. Where Flip is extremely kind of — well, he doesn't undergo the same kind of change. He's still the same Flip in 2018 as he was in 1995. 

He was definitely, I felt like, kind of a breakout character. 

You know, one of the interesting things about Norma's life is that it was filled with these huge, larger-than-life personalities. We've got people like the evangelical minister who baptized her in a backyard swimming pool, but then we've also got people like Gloria Allred — a famous, feminist attorney who stayed in contact with Norma even after she became an anti-abortion activist. They still spoke regularly, and Norma was always very fond of Gloria. 

Well, and to that end — Norma talks through the film about how she had always wanted to be an actress. She had actually acted in an independent film in 2010, and there's a palpable sense in her public presentation that she is "on stage." I wasn't sure if that was something you had to break through when you were interviewing her for the documentary? 

It's an interesting observation, and I feel that there's a sense of Norma being "on-script" and "off-script." I think that during a lot of her appearances after she became an anti-abortion activist, she thinks very on-script. That's something that Reverend Shank talks about. He said that Norma was coached in what to say because they new that she wasn't "rock solid on the rights of the unborn child." And I think that Norma spoke very carefully in many appearances, however in my documentary, she's very candid and she's very funny. She's got a dirty sense of humor, you know, randomly breaking into lines from "Macbeth."

I didn't feel that I needed to break through to get the real Norma. I just think she was ready to share that person. I'm really grateful she did that because she's very charming and very funny when she's being authentically Norma, and I think that's the thing that attracted a lot of people to her in the first place. 

Was there a point that you suspected the content of her deathbed confession? How did that confession come about? 

Honestly, I did not think that the film would go in the direction that it went. The things that Norma would say to me, really, I just never thought that she would be saying. I did want to set out to kind understand all the complexities in her life and who she was and what she believed. But I just never thought that she would admit to the things she admitted to. 

And one of the challenges of the film, and something that I'm proud of, is that the things Nora said — we set out to speak to people like the Reverend Rob Shank, who was one of the organizers of Norma's anti-abortion appearances, he corroborated those things. And he responds when he's confronted with such a momentous confession that what [they] did with Norma was highly unethical. It's such an unequivocal admission of what was going on. 

And I never expected that at all. I simply thought, "Her life is very interesting and complicated," but I didn't really know what was going on.

You spent so much time with her at the end of her life and she gave you this confession. What do you think she got from an emotional — or maybe spiritual? — standpoint by offering it? 

One of the things that I can only speculate on, but Reverend Rob Shank talks about a sense of power in Catholicism that comes from confession. I think he is obviously speaking about that in a religious context, but I think that people who are both religious and nonreligious realize a power in telling your story and being truthful and honest about it. 

Whenever we were together, Norma was determined to film all the time and whenever I was not there, she would want to know when I was coming back to film. She liked being able to share her story and be her unvarnished self. And I think knowing she was running out time, it was a motivating factor for her.

You know, if she didn't tell her story, somebody else was going to write it. 

So, you have this confession. It's taped. I can't imagine what it felt like holding it in your hands, if you will. I was curious from your perspective as a filmmaker, who you were most interested in showing it to? 

Good question. You know, I think that on all sides of the debate, people wanted to say they knew who Norma McCorvey is or was. And they don't. We wanted Norma to — as a society — wanted her to fit with who we want Jane Roe to be.

There wasn't one group of people I wanted to show the tapes to. It's a very good question . . .

I'm just imagining as a journalist having this confession that completely subverts people's expectations. 

I think she certainly subverted expectations, but I guess what's interesting is that she did that throughout her life, right? it wasn't the first time. This confession she gives in the film is not the first time she has completely subverted people's expectations of Jane Roe.

And it's a really good question. And I don't quite know the answer. I mean, all I can say is that sitting there, in the moment and hearing her say these things, I was just incredibly surprised as a filmmaker. You don't get many opportunities to come across a character as interesting or as complex as Norma McCorvey. I think there's a tendency to reduce people like Norma to trophies or emblems, and to kind of ignore the complexity, ignore the contradictions. And I'm just so grateful that I had the opportunity to meet somebody like that and to make a film about them. 

"AKA Jane Roe" premieres Friday, May 22 at 9 p.m. on FX and next day on Hulu.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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