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"James' Story" Since the Documentary

A Tale of Redemption and Friendship

By Dan Collison

May 29, 2001 -- Legend has it that certain Native American tribes didn't want their picture taken: They thought the camera would steal part of their soul. Journalists have been stealing pieces of people's souls for years.

Producer Dan Collison interviews James at St. Leonard's, the halfway house for ex-offenders where James lived for three months.
Photo courtesy of Mark Battrell

James speaks at the April 4 premiere of the documentary.
Photo courtesy of Mark Battrell

It's not malicious, but it happens, particularly in the case of documentaries where producers like me spend lots of time with their subjects. We get people to reveal the innermost details of their lives, take those details back to our studios, organize them in a way that we hope makes some sense, and put the story on the air. Then, having become intimately involved with these people, in many cases we never talk with them again.

We may mean to get back to them. We might promise to send them a tape -- but more times than not, we forget, and the person ends up feeling betrayed or abandoned. Perhaps it's one of the reasons journalists are thought of by the general public in about the same regard as trial attorneys and repo men.

It's also why what happened after I completed my latest documentary was so satisfying. The documentary -- "Learning to Live: James' Story" -- is about the transition of an ex-offender from prison to the free world. After getting released from prison, James came to live at St. Leonard's, a halfway house for ex-offenders in Chicago. St. Leonard's provides not only a bed and three meals a day but a rigorous treatment program that, if completed, improves a resident's chance of staying out of prison by more than 300-percent. James stayed with the program and graduated with honors, having "learned to live" in the outside world.

A few months after James co-wrote and narrated the documentary, he and I returned to St. Leonard's for the April 4 premiere. About 75 people turned out -- members of the press, James' family and friends, St. Leonard's staff members and 20 or so other ex-offenders. We all crammed into a couple of rooms and listened.

When it was over, James got a standing ovation. Standing at the far end of one of the rooms, James beamed as he spoke to the group. "I hope somebody will benefit from it, that's all," he said. "For me, I didn't want the pain anymore. I didn't want to live life like I was living. I was neglecting myself -- and my family."

James embraces daughter Willene.
Photo courtesy of Mark Battrell

James' son "Little James" -- whose arrest on a drug charge is examined in the documentary - talks to St. Leonard's program director Jim Stein.
Photo courtesy of Mark Battrell

After James spoke, fellow ex-offenders stood and said how much James' story had moved them. It was like a 12-step meeting broke out. More and more ex-offenders testified -- recounting their stories, explaining how hard they are working to stay clean, and telling James that he's an inspiration. "We love you, James, for turning right and keepin' straight," said one.

"At the risk of sounding saccharine, people feel loved here," St. Leonard's program director Jim Stein told Jon Anderson, who covered the premiere for the Chicago Tribune. "We care for each person. We have to do tough love, too, but even the ones we have to dismiss, they feel cared about."

Members of James' family -- including his nine-year-old daughter, Willene, who had visited her father in prison since she was a baby -- attended the premiere. "I'm famous," Willene told the group when asked how it felt to hear herself in the documentary.

James' 19-year-old son was more reserved. Earlier while the documentary played, "Little James," as he's called, sunk back in his chair so far that he almost disappeared. It was understandable. His arrest on a drug charge is revealed and examined in the documentary.

It was brave of Little James to come and listen -- and to face the hard facts that he, like his father, has problems that may haunt him the rest of his life. Afterward, when James announced that it was his son's birthday, the crowd broke into a round of "Happy Birthday." Little James smiled shyly and glowed from the attention.

It's rare to experience this kind of immediate reaction to a radio documentary. Usually a story airs, a few emails trickle in, Mom might call, and that's about it. But this time, there were tears and laughter and reflections -- proof that the story had an impact.

What brought me the most pleasure, however, was watching James turn his life around. James and I have stayed in touch. We get together for dinner now and then and he tells me about his job, which he still likes, and his new love. He and his fiancée are looking for an apartment; it will be the first place he's had on his own. As he promised, he's spending lots of time with Willene. And he's doing what he can to help keep Little James from ending up where he did.

The story of redemption has been told in many forms, many times over. But it's a story that -- when told with the honesty and humility of someone likes James -- can still empower and inspire even the most cynical among us.

Dan Collison is an independent radio and film documentary producer living in Chicago.