It appears James Ronald Whitney was a man looking for some closure in his life, from his family’s painful history. One severely disturbing documentary later, the only conclusion he’s probably reached is that the horror will never be over. The wounds are too big and too deep.
This is a story about incest. We’re not talking about an isolated incident. This is about a broad, systematic pattern of behavior. It begins with Whitney’s grandfather, Melvin Just. Now, I’m not one to just throw out the word “evil” (except when referring to WW II war criminals, Dr. Laura, Martha Stewart, and most of the cabinet of the Reagan administration), but if a consensus definition applies to anyone, it’s Melvin.
Whitney’s grandmother Fay was a promiscuous alcoholic with four children (twins Jean and Jan, Ann, and Jim) when she married Melvin Just. As we are repeatedly told, Melvin was an incredible mechanic. The real motivation for the marriage seemed to be access to Fay’s three young daughters. He soon began to molest and abuse them daily. Fay and Melvin later had two more daughters, June and Jerri. Melvin began molesting them while they were still toddlers.
After years of this, Melvin left Fay to marry Venise, who lived down the road. She had three daughters (Pambi, Denise, and Bobbie) by two different men. Later, the new couple had another daughter, Jenise. The second family endured as much abuse as the first one did. This family had one extra special claim to pain. A social worker came by the house one day and caught Melvin in the act. The children had to help dispose of the body.
Melvin was eventually convicted of 12 counts of sexual abuse, but served only eight years in prison and has been released into a retirement home by the time Whitney begins his documentary.
Intelligent and athletic, Whitney supported himself for a while as a game-show contestant and as a competitor in dance contests, such as Ed McMahon’s “Star Search”. Tiring of his mother’s repeated suicide attempts, it seems as if James wanted to find a way to help his family deal with the past and move on. He finds there’s been too much damage, though. Alcoholism, drug abuse, and homelessness plague many of his aunts.
Everyone opens on camera. They all speak in a frank, matter-of-fact tone as they survey the wreckage of their lives. June and Jerri are barely functional. In and out of rehab, they mostly live out of cars. Uncle Jim is a total loss. He offers to take his sister June into his house if she agrees to become his sexual partner. He also provided Whitney with his first sexual experiences as a child. It’s just how Jim was brought up.
James reconstructs the combined history of both families and demonstrates the damage that’s been done. Though confined to a wheelchair, Melvin is still alive, though not for much longer. James finally organizes two confrontations: one between himself and Melvin, and another between Melvin and his daughters. Mean and defiant to the end, Melvin denies all crimes, even those for which he was convicted. Fighting the urge to dump the old man in the nearest river, James wheels him over to meet his victims.
Strangely, none of the sisters who are willing to enter the room are willing to confront their tormentor. Shaking, they cling to civility and the motions of a normal family. In doing so, they as good as admit defeat to the demons that have controlled their lives.
There are some problems. Whitney takes a fairly non-linear path through the story, which makes it difficult to sort out all the family ties in one viewing. Probably daunted by the sheer scope of the trauma, the author probably took the path that made the most sense in his head. Films like this are painful, but the public needs them. If we don’t recognize the extent of human atrocity and address it, then nothing will prevent such acts from happening again. Silence is what allowed Melvin Just to function without scrutiny for so long.
Mercifully, there is a little bit of closure. Melvin dies, sparking the angriest, most drunken funeral I’ve ever seen committed to film. Some of the collective demons that haunt the sisters are slowly released. A priest attempts to rein in the chaos, to no avail. After literally burying the women’s biggest demon, there’s nothing really left to be said.