Film shows hurt families can inflict on selves

May 15, 2001|By Susan Reimer

IN 1979, Annapolis filmmaker Patti Obrow White produced "The Wagon Train Trial," a compelling documentary chronicling the stories of four incorrigible teen-agers who make a journey of self-discovery from Arizona, over the Rockies into Denver in horse-drawn covered wagons.

It is a bumpy ride for these kids, in more ways than one. Juvenile delinquents who had used up the patience and mercy of the system, and their parents, the teens battle the elements and their own demons for four months.

The toughest part is facing the unflinching verbal challenges of Bob Burton, who founded VisionQuest as an alternative to jail, group homes or mental institutions for these last-chance children.

Fast forward 20 years.

Tracy, one of the teens on whom "The Wagon Train Trial" focused, is now a divorced mother of four children, the youngest two by the shiftless man with whom she now lives in Denver.

Sexually abused by her own father, who introduced her to intravenous drugs and forced her into prostitution to pay the bills, Tracy has cobbled together a life, in part because of what she learned from Bob Burton on that wagon train trip. But it is a life always on the brink of fresh disaster.

She is finishing college and she has a part-time job. But her determination to survive has caused her extended family to cling to her like a life raft, and they are about to swamp her.

The most pressing crisis is her eldest, James, a 12-year-old pressure cooker about to blow. He has been in and out of locked wards in mental health facilities for half his years, but now he is sneaking out at night and keeping a gun in the house, and she knows she will lose him to the streets or the criminal justice system will throw him to the wolves.

Desperate but not hopeless, Tracy calls Burton, the only man she has ever trusted, and together they begin a years-long effort to save James from death or prison. Like his mother before him, James is taken by Burton, along with other troubled kids like him, on an 18th-century style trek across the country as Civil War soldiers.

This is the subject of "If I Could," a new film by Patti Obrow White to be screened Sunday at Maryland Hall for the Performing Arts to benefit the YWCA of Anne Arundel County's violence prevention programs.

It is a wrenching two hours, and those who attend may find the generous catered reception that follows an insufficient restorative, to say the least.

The story of Tracy and James, and White's gritty record of it, is not simply a tearjerker, though it surely carries a three-hanky rating.

Watching this film does not simply make you sad. It makes you want to flee your own skin, your own head. To forget or never know what terrible things families do to each other, and the children who absorb the damage.

James, too, was sexually abused by a male relative. He has been witness, as Tracy was, to the violence of his parents' marriage, and he was the victim of her neglect when she took refuge in drugs. Theirs is family tradition turned on its head.

Tracy pulls herself together, and she is a model of recovery and redemption. But it comes too late for James. He was abandoned by his father, who leaves in a haze of marijuana smoke and neither calls nor writes.

The loss of his father is compounded when James' battle-weary mother allows the juvenile system to take her explosive son away from her, to lock him up, shackle him and medicate him for months and years. He is full of hate and rage and violence, and skilled at using these things as weapons against his mother.

I watched this film not with a lump in my throat, but with clenched fists. But by its conclusion, I came to believe, as Bob Burton does, that while we cannot rehabilitate the victims of such horrific dysfunction, we must try to "habilitate" them. We can give them the tools to overcome the trauma of sexual abuse or abandonment and live life without inflicting them on the next generation.

"Families destroy themselves," says Burton in the film. "Only families can heal themselves."

At the film's conclusion, James is trying again to re-enter the world inhabited by his family, but he has failed before outside the rigid discipline of VisionQuest.

It is Tracy's will to save her son from early death or lifelong imprisonment that gives us hope that James will someday succeed. But Tracy's vivid determination also makes us despair for the families with less.

White, a three-time Emmy-winner who gave up her job at CBS to work from a home office so she could be close to her boys, now adolescents, is a gifted storyteller. Her 20-year relationship with Tracy allowed her to film this family's life at its most devastating, and most hopeful, moments.

The film has been selected to premiere at the prestigious Seattle International Film Festival June 15, and it will certainly be purchased and shown at some future date on network or public television. This film will have a long life, as it should.

But you should see it at a time and place where you can do more than weep and wring your hands. You should see it at a time and place where you can help do some good.

Call the YWCA of Anne Arundel County at 410-626-7800. Spend $50 on a ticket for the Sunday night screening at Maryland Hall in Annapolis.

The money you help raise may slow the storm of family violence that Tracy and her son are trying so mightily to outrun.

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