It was 25 years ago that 19-day-old Nejdra Nance (born Carlina White) was abducted from Harlem Hospital in New York City. The young woman who kidnapped her, Ann Pettway, posed as a nurse and snuck the infant out of the hospital. Over two decades later, Nance solved her own kidnapping. How? She had grown suspicious throughout the years because she bore no resemblance to Pettway, and could not obtain a social security card or any formal government identification from her 'mother.' That suspicion led her to several missing children websites; on one in particular, she saw a missing baby from the year she was born who looked uncannily like her own baby pictures. After further investigation, it was discovered that Nance was in fact missing baby Carlina White. This weekend, Lifetime Networks will debut Abducted: The Carlina White Story, based on the story that touched mothers and families around the world.
EBONY sat down with star Aunjanue Ellis to talk about her role as Pettway and why it's time for the silenced pain of women desperate to become mothers to be revealed.
EBONY: Ann Pettway's story is relevant for many women because the quest for motherhood, when it seems unattainable, can be very emotional. Can you explain the process you underwent to really understand her mentality and put yourself in her shoes?
Aunjanue Ellis: Well, first I had to do some research, as much as I could under the circumstances. After that, I just tried to find my points of commonality with her. She did something that was hideous, but I could not judge her because it would have been an injustice to everyone. I wanted to find out what was going on with her and just really try to immerse myself in that, and bring that forth as much as I could.
EBONY: It was a terrible crime that she committed, but for the sake of women who are desperate to be a mother, did you ever feel any sympathy for Anne?
AE: I mean yes, she had been trying to have children since she was a teenager. What does that say about a woman who feels less of a woman, because she can’t reproduce? She felt a pressure that she shouldn’t have felt. You think about the cultural and social ramifications of someone feeling that incompleteness at that [young] age, and all because she’s not a mother. Is it related to her worth as a woman? Is it related to her worth as a Black woman? Is it related to her worth as a woman apart of this community? I really tried to find the community reflection in it all.
EBONY: Yes, and this goes so far beyond a woman kidnapping a child; this is about a universal desperation many women face. How did you remove yourself from the role when filming wasn’t in process?
AE: What I did at work, I left it at work and I came home and I let it go. I think sometimes frustration happens with actors because you’re only able to do a fraction of what you want to do, and in this project I was able to do as much as I wanted to do. I have done roles where it troubled me so much. [For this project] we had a great director and I had a great group of women who I was working with, and all of us wanted to be as honest as possible. And because I had that kind of environment, I was able to put it all out there. But, I did a lot of groundwork, so I was able to come to work do my best and then leave it alone.
EBONY: Do you feel this movie will change people’s perception of Ann Pettway?
AE: You can look at different women and never know what somebody’s going through. I felt like it was my responsibility to not make her look like somebody easily “branded”. I didn’t want to make her look like too much of a villain; I didn’t want to make her a villain at all. If I was being honest, I couldn’t do that, because in her mind, she was not a villain. She was a desperate woman and when she got Carlina in her arms, she felt it was her responsibility to be a mother to this child.
We have to see both sides of the coin. It’s too easy to go, “that’s the woman who would do something like that, look at how she looks.”
Pain doesn’t have a face and pain doesn’t have a certain way of adjusting. Pain is universal. This was a woman who was wrong, but if you are desperate enough, what do you think you would do?
EBONY: I was just talking about how we as Black women mask our pain and hide behind these tough-girl stereotypes. What do you hope this movie will inspire or compel women to feel with regard to Ann Pettway’s life story, and the emotional issues Black women face daily?
AE: We’re seeing this more and more with Black women dealing with emotional issues. We have women who are killing themselves. We’re not used to hearing about that. Black women are supposed to be “strong”, but the burden of carrying our race and carrying our families adds the pressure. We aren’t allowed to be weak and a way to deal with this emotional injustice is to have real discussions about our pressures. Ann had to deal with these pressures. I hope this movie inspires us to learn deal with our emotional issues in a productive and constructive way.