Laura Cain Makes 'Healing Neen' for Hearts and Minds

Tonier "Neen" Cain
and daughter

Laura Cain directed Healing Neen, which closes the 2011 Hearts and Minds Film Festival on Saturday, April 2nd. The hour-long documentary focuses on 43-year-old Tonier "Neen" Cain from Maryland. Neen has been noted because she has arguably the best recovery and redemption story of any American you've heard in the past few years or will hear in the next couple.

Neen was arrested 83 times. She was convicted 66 times for charges ranging from drug possession and theft to prostitution. She was homeless. She lived on the streets of Annapolis, subject to despair, hunger and violence. She was the eldest of ten children. Her mother was an alcoholic. Neen herself started drinking at age 9 around the same time she was sexually abused by men brought by her mom.

Neen has five children, but through the course of her life she lost custody of all but one. In fact, she was incarcerated for the last time in the Maryland Correctional Institute in Jessup while she was pregnant with that one in 2004. Now, several years later, Neen is free. She's clean and sober. She has custody of her youngest child. She has an important job. What she went through, why the abuse in her youth had a profound effect on Neen and how she turned her life around is the basis of Laura Cain's movie.

In 2010, I had a conversation with Dr. Nancy Iverson, the filmmaker of From Badlands to Alcatraz, which screened at that year's Hearts and Minds Film Festival. Iverson started as a pediatrician before transitioning to documentary director. She had no training in movie-making whatsoever, but that didn't dissuade her from literally diving into her project, which was about swimming.

Laura Cain similarly had no training in movie-making, but that also didn't dissuade her from drifting her way into director-hood. Cain was born in Venezuela. She moved with her parents to Miami at age 4. She got her undergraduate degree from the University of Florida and eventually her law degree from the University of Miami.

Cain admits that she didn't know what she wanted to be. All she knew was that she'd always been interested in the law, specifically civil rights law. While at the Miami law school, Cain was mentored by Professor Susan Stefan, a leading civil rights attorney working in the field of mental health. Cain says that once she started studying the civil rights of those in the mental health system, she knew that it was what she was meant to do.

In 1997, Cain moved to Maryland to pursue a job in that exact field. Now, she works for the Maryland Disability Law Center. The organization is a protection and advocacy group. Similar organizations exist in every state. The U.S. Congress mandated them to be independent oversight for hospitals in order to monitor conditions and keep people from abuse and neglect.

Not that long after Cain's arrival in Maryland, she began work on stopping a hospital policy known as "restraint and seclusion," a policy that has been historically practiced in mental health facilities whereby so-called violent patients would be tied down or locked in small, empty rooms. Cain learned that this policy resulted in great physical and psychological harm, even in some cases death. A 2001 case involved the death of a teenager as a result of being restrained, so the state of Maryland like other states eventually received federal money to reduce restraint and seclusion, and Cain's group was named in the government grant to help oversee.

To make the case, Cain wanted to get people who were in the system and who experienced this firsthand, so their voices could be heard. She didn't want it to be solely professionals and experts speaking. Someone suggested to her that she videotape a group of them.

She went with that suggestion and hired a professional film crew. Baltimore has become a city where a growing community of professional filmmakers dwells. For the past few years, the city has hosted an event called Camm Slamm, which has always attracted groups of talented filmmakers. Cain learned of one of those groups and brought them on board.

All Cain needed were patients to go on camera to recount their experiences. She found a program that began in 2002 called Trauma, Addiction, Mental health, And Recovery (TAMAR), which helps people in prison or the mental health system deal with their problems. In 2005, Cain was able to talk to four women in that program. One of which was Neen. What Cain and the filmmakers returned was enough to fashion into a short documentary, which she titled Behind Closed Doors.

Cain had no concept for it. She just wanted to videotape the women talking about their experiences. Cain admits she had no clue what her role was as a documentary director. It was only after she brought the five or six hours of videotape back did her role become clear. Those six hours of tape had to be organized, which required watching those hours and writing down in detail everything in those hours that was seen, heard and said, a process called logging. It's the first step in the editing of a movie before finally whittling it down into a succinct and hopefully powerful story.

How Cain did that was by listening to the interviews, listening to the words of the women, picking things they said that were most important and possibly revealing. After picking those things, those pieces, Cain had to assemble them. Having never been trained as a filmmaker, it's during this process that she said taught her the most about filmmaking because it's during this process that she saw all of her mistakes and what was needed to finish the movie, which also indicated what she needed to begin the movie. She did discover that in addition to the law, she did have a talent and perhaps a growing passion for it.

By 2008, Neen was out of prison and thanks to her brief appearance in Behind Closed Doors she was being asked to do speaking engagements. People were so impressed with Neen's story and how phenomenally she told it that more requests came, including ones to have it videotaped for further dissemination. Neen asked Cain if she'd help to facilitate that. Cain says she got her same crew from before and started shooting right away.

Cain pitched, however, that they should do more than just videotape Neen's speaking engagements. Cain wanted to do an entire documentary on Neen's life, her struggles, her survival, and her eventual salvation. This meant taking Neen back to places like the streets of Annapolis where she was homeless and desperate and even back to the prison cell that held her, at times bringing up very heart-rending memories.

This also meant getting at the root of Neen's problems, which took them straight back to the trauma of her childhood, which her mother did nothing to stop. With the help of Dr. Vincent Felitti whose studies on adverse childhood experiences in conjunction with the CDC, Cain's documentary really shines a light on how abuse in one's youth can lead to a range of social problems and how in fact childhood abuse is the leading cause of many society’s ills.

For more information on Neen, Laura Cain and this issue, or for a copy of the DVD, go to


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