The Baltimore Sun
May 15, 2001, Page 1E
In 1979, Annapolis filmmaker Patti Obrow White produced "The
Wagon Train Trial," a compelling documentary chronicling the
stories of four incorrigible teenagers who make a journey of self-discovery
from Arizona, over the Rockies into Denver in horse-drawn covered
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
cahllenges 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 divorcecd mother of four children, the youngest
two by a shiftless man with whom she now lives in Denver.
Sexually abused by her own father, who introduced to her to intavenous
drugs and forced her into prostitution to pay the bills, Tracy has
cobbled together 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 that
she will lose him to the streets or the criminal justice system
will throw him to the wolves.
Desparate 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 even 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 Creative
Arts to benefit the YWCA of Anne Arundel County's violence prevention
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
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 a 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 even years. He is full of hate and rage and violence, and skilled
at using these 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 againt ot 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
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
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 televison. 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 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 that you help raise may slow the storm of family violence
that Tracy and her son are trying so mightily to outrun.
© Baltimore Sun