Jean Harris first became known to the world as a hotheaded headmistress that murdered her longtime boyfriend, Dr. Herman Tarnower, the well-known Scarsdale diet doctor. But when I opened The New York Times in late December to find that Jean Harris had passed away, her crime of passion was one of the last thoughts that crossed my mind. In fact, my foremost thoughts were of the great impact she had on the rights of women inmates. And above all else, I thought of how Jean Harris has left the world with an invaluable lesson on the power of reconciliation.
Jean Harris spent 12 years in prison repaying her debt to society. In prison, her observations had greater impact than ever and were chronicled in her books that changed the nation's perspective on women behind bars, and in particular on the 85 percent of women inmates that are mothers. One of her books, They Always Call Us Ladies: Stories From Prison , encouraged us to think of prison reform, and shed much needed light on the hardships of mothers behind bars. She also fought for an inmate nursery program at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility that allowed women that were pregnant to care for their children for one year without the pressures of the outside world.
I first came across Jean Harris' work while doing research for the movie I was producing, Prison Stories: Women on the Inside, about mothers in prison and the children they left behind. In 1990 I went to conduct interviews for my film at the nursery program Jean implemented in Bedford Hills. I saw women who have faced incredible challenges and terrible odds in their lives cherish the gift of being a mother. At first, I thought nothing could be sadder than a child born behind bars, but when these women were relieved of the financial stresses of formula and diapers, they were able to create strong and loving bonds with their children. This idea of mothers in prison inspired one of the Prison Stories' trilogy, which was directed by three amazing women, had a cast of talented actresses, and was all about the plight of women inmates. For 1990 it was considered a revolutionary film in every sense, and was one of HBO's highest rated films at that time.
Jean Harris' work at the prison was hard-hitting, yet she was just about the last person I had expected to inspire me in such a powerful way. The only time I had heard of Jean Harris before this was on the front page of the Post, where she was portrayed as a cold-blooded murderess who made for a very bad witness in the courtroom. I had also tried her boyfriend, Dr. Herman Tarnower's, Scarsdale diet, which could certainly make anybody go crazy. But after seeing her work at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility I recognized she had undergone a complete transformation.
Her work not only propelled my passion for women's issues, but also introduced me to the power of reconciliation. In Rwanda, where I spend a lot of time with my company SAME SKY, the idea of reconciliation is an imperative part of everyday society. The HIV+ Rwandan genocide survivors that we employ to crochet beautiful jewelry no longer identify others as Hutus or Tutsis, but rather work side by side with people who could have murdered their families during the genocide. These talented women artisans have overcome such great emotional obstacles to no longer see people as Hutus or Tutsis but rather as Rwandans. They are true role models for the rest of the world, and their story is now testimony to how forgiveness uplifts society. Likewise, Jean Harris paid society for her crime, and it was her compassion and the power to reconcile that allowed her work to change the lives of women inmates and to impact their children who could have been left behind.