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If These Walls Could Talk (1996) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

abortion story barbara clinic

Principal social theme: abortion

HBO. PG-13 rating. Featuring: (Part 1) Demi Moore, Shirley Knight, Catherine Keefer, Jason London, Kevin Cooney, Robin Gammell, Phyllis Lyons, Aaron Lustig, C. C. H. Pounder; (Part 2) Sissy Spacek, Xander Berkeley, Hedy Burress, Jana Michaels, Joanna Gleason, Jordana Spiro, Harris Yulin; (Part 3) Anne Heche, Cher, Diana Scharwid, Lindsay Crouse, Eileen Brennan, Lorraine Toussaint, Jada Pinkett, Rita Wilson, Georganne La Pierre, Brendan Ford, Aaron Cash, Craig T. Nelson. Written by Nancy Savoca (1, 2, 3), Susan Nanus (2), and I. Marlene King (3). Cinematography by Ellen Kuras (1), Bobby Bukowski (2), and John Stanler (3). Edited by Elena Maganini (1, 2) Peter Honess (3). Music by Cliff Eidelman. Produced by Laura Greenlee. Directed by Nancy Savoca (1, 2) and Cher (3). Color. 100 minutes.


This cable telefilm was both highly acclaimed and somewhat controversial. It highlights the story of three women who lived in the same house in three different time periods who faced an unwanted pregnancy and wrestled over the question of having an abortion. If These Walls Could Talk provoked considerable discussion, particularly on radio talk shows. It was followed four years later by a semi-sequel, If These Walls Could Talk II , which adopted the same format to provide a trio of stories about lesbianism.


The film opens with a montage of pro-life and pro-choice demonstrators from the mid-1990s. These images fade away, replaced by a new selection of images from the early 1970s, followed by those from the early 1950s. The camera then focuses on a house, and the year 1952 is displayed. The first story concentrates on Claire Donnelly (Demi Moore), a young widowed nurse living alone in the house. Her husband died in the Korean War, and she is more or less without any friends except her late husband’s family. She is stunned to learn that she is pregnant, the result of a one-time liaison with her brother-in-law to whom she turned in her loneliness. She becomes desperate and cannot envision any possibility of allowing her pregnancy to become known. The news would devastate her husband’s family. When her doctor refuses to help with an illegal abortion, Claire tries taking pills to cause a miscarriage. The attempt fails. She then tries to abort the fetus using a knitting needle, another painful and unsuccessful effort. For guidance, Claire turns to an older nurse at the hospital where she works, but is rebuffed. Later, the nurse slips her a phone number. Claire calls, but learns the process is too expensive. She is later put in contact with a “kitchen abortionist,” who would do the operation at her home for $400. She agrees and undergoes the procedure. The man leaves, saying if she has a hemorrhage to go to the hospital at once. Claire goes to bed in great pain, not wanting to call the hospital since she fears the news would get back to her husband’s family. She starts to bleed profusely, and by the time she telephones the hospital, she is too weak to complete the call.

The house is shown again from the outside, and the decor changes as the year 1974 is displayed. Barbara Barrows (Sissy Spacek) is a harried mother of four. She has just resumed her college education with plans to become a teacher. She suddenly discovers she is pregnant. Her husband, John, a policeman, says that she should have the baby, and the family will make sacrifices to accommodate the newborn. Her eldest daughter, Linda, an avid women’s libber, learns about the pregnancy and starts pressuring Barbara to have an abortion. Linda fears that her mother’s pregnancy might prevent her from going to college. Barbara calls the local women’s clinic to learn about the procedure. In the end, she decides against an abortion, and she assures Linda that this decision will not affect her college plans.

The outside of the house changes again, becoming shabbier. The year is now 1996, and the house has become a college dorm. One student, Christine Cullen (Anne Heche) is having an affair with one of her teachers. When she becomes pregnant, the professor breaks off the relationship and gives her money to have an abortion. Chris’s roommate tries to talk her out of it, saying that if she decides to go that route, their friendship would be over. Nevertheless, Chris visits the local abortion clinic run by Dr. Beth Thompson (Cher). She discusses her options, such as adoption, with a counselor at the clinic. Chris chooses to wait. Several women picketers from a religious group pester Chris as she enters and leaves the clinic. She talks with her roommate, who offers to accompany her to the clinic even though she opposes abortion. The next day, a pro-life rally is held outside the clinic, and it slowly gets out of control. This time Chris decides to go through with the abortion, and Dr. Thompson gently prepares her and talks to her while the abortion is performed. When the process is finished, a young man bursts into the operating room and shoots Dr. Thompson, calling her a murderer. He apologizes to Chris if the shooting frightened her, and the man leaves. Chris slides off the table and embraces Dr. Thompson on the floor. The counselor sounds an emergency alarm as the doctor dies.


If These Walls Could Talk is dramatic, well written, and well performed. The production values are excellent, and the issue of abortion is examined carefully through three case studies, mainly from a pro-choice viewpoint. The first story, 1952, is the best, showing the harrowing ordeal faced by a woman who wanted an abortion at that time. The film pulls no punches, and the squeamish might find Claire’s attempt to end her pregnancy with a knitting needle too grisly to watch. There is very little decision making in this story. Circumstances trap Claire into the need for an abortion; her agony is simply her inability to obtain a safe one. The channels that she is forced to go through are demeaning and terrifying, and eventually cost her her life. The second story, 1974, finds Barbara in a genuine dilemma. Abortions are now safe and legal. It is her right to choose, but others, particularly her daughter, try to make her decision for her. Her husband is more supportive, but he assumes that Barbara will choose to have the baby. Barbara weighs the problem, the loss of her chance to become a teacher, and the financial burden. She may also have moral objections, but they are unexpressed. She finally decides that abortion is not the right answer for her. The third story, 1996, has incredible impact, even if its premise seems more artificial than the earlier two tales. Unlike the other stories, the house seems no longer to be the axis of the story, which has now shifted to Dr. Thompson’s clinic. The film at this point seems to concentrate on the demonstrators as much as on Chris. They are all strange people, either religious fanatics or glassy-eyed zombies. Chris’ roommate is the only antiabortion character in the film who appears rational. The message of the third story is that the choice available to Barbara in 1974 is imperiled in 1996 due to intimidation and violence. If These Walls Could Talk is brilliantly conceived, and viewers would find much to debate in its presentation. Which story is the most effective? What could Claire have done to avoid her terrible fate? Why exactly did Barbara choose not to have an abortion? Is the third story too strident? Is the portrayal of the pro-life forces honest or not? Can the third story be regarded as antireligious in tone? Certainly, abortion clinics have been bombed and abortion practitioners have been murdered. To what extent can this violence be attributed to the pro-life movement? Is the film strengthened or weakened by not addressing any moral concerns? Perhaps the greatest attribute of the film is the stark contrast between the botched abortion in the first story to the safe, clinical procedure in the third story.

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