By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 17, 2001
To work as a documentary filmmaker is to walk the thin line between
observation and involvement. The best often become so intimately
embroiled in their subjects' lives that, in the end, they can't
Which is exactly what happened between Annapolis filmmaker Patti
Obrow White and her first subject: A troubled 13-year-old girl named
Tracy. More than two decades after White told Tracy's story on "CBS
Reports," where White was a producer, the two women were reunited
for White's latest feature-length documentary, "If I Could."
The film's theme: "Families destroy themselves, so families
have to heal themselves." Narrated by Sally Field, the film
will be screened Sunday at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts
as a benefit for the YWCA's violence prevention programs and will
make its formal debut June 15 at the Seattle International Film
It's an intergenerational story that begins in 1979, when White
began following Tracy, a 13-year-old "throwaway kid" who'd
been sexually abused, then gotten involved in drugs and prostitution.
Instead of being locked up in juvenile detention, she was sent to
a Tucson-based rehabilitation program called VisionQuest -- a wagon-train
program meant to instill in its young charges a sense of responsibility.
The idea was for them to work through their problems to earn their
"There were 90 kids on the wagon train," White remembers,
"and she stood out in a crowd. She was very verbal, very feisty
and very angry. She agreed to do this [be a part of the film], but
a day or two into the filming, she was screaming at me and putting
her hand into the camera. "And I've since had some of the same
issues with her son." Tracy's son, James, is the subject of
the second film. "I don't think people have really tackled
issues that show how people carry these things from generation to
generation," White says. "It gets handed down because
the traumas" -- in this case, sexual abuse -- "aren't
dealt with the right way."
"After Tracy left the program," White continues, "I
stayed in touch with her." Tracy and her mother lived in Denver
but still struggled with, as White puts it, "poverty issues.
They kept getting kicked out of apartments, but she didn't go back
to prostitution and she didn't go back to drugs." She did,
however, get pregnant at 16. White returned to Denver with "60
Minutes" host Harry Reasoner to do a story on teen prostitution.
When they finished filming, White stopped by Tracy's apartment and
discovered she was about to give birth.
They went out for dinner, then Tracy felt her first contraction.
"I was there for the labor," White says, and after the
birth, "I was the first person to hold the baby." Tracy
was planning to give up the baby for adoption, but she changed her
mind and tore up the papers.
Eight months into raising the girl she called Becky, however,
Tracy was collapsing under the responsibility. She called Bob Burton,
the VisionQuest founder who'd helped her during the wagon train,
and he flew to Tucson to help her put the baby up for adoption.
White didn't know it at the time, but she had already started the
process of becoming enmeshed in the third act of Tracy's life.
First, though, they had to make it through Act II. After Becky
was born, Tracy gave birth to James, now a troubled young man of
14. Next came Holly, 11, then Antonio, 6, and Simon, 3. Two years
ago, Burton called White and told her: "You won't believe who
I heard from. . . . Tracy! . . . And we're going to take her son
-- we're going to take him on scholarship" into the VisionQuest
The same problems that affected Tracy's life were now affecting
her son's life. Where Tracy accused her father of abusing her, her
son accused a friend of his father's of abusing him.Tracy called
Burton because she hoped he could save her son the way he'd saved
"These are intergenerational family
issues," says White, a 52-year-old mother of two whose husband
owns a yacht manufacturing firm with offices in Annapolis. "And
they were trying to continue the healing of these issues."
White was faced with a huge decision. She believed she had the
makings of a great film, but she didn't have the financial backing
she needed or the time to find it. But, as White says: "I couldn't
duck away from this. It felt like destiny to me."
So she called Tracy and asked, "How would you feel if we
took a look at you and your son and helped other families?"
After thinking it over a few days, Tracy agreed to give the filmmaker
and her crew complete access. The result is "If I Could,"
which was filmed in real time while also using the CBS footage of
Tracy at 13. The final cost: $650,000, only half of which has been
underwritten by corporate sponsors. White's crew edited the film
in Eastport. Last fall, they were trying to find a narrator and
sent it off to Sally Field's representatives. When the actress finally
watched the movie, says White, she called back immediately and said:
"People have to see this film. People don't understand what
families go through."
Adds Lee Anderson, who works with White: "This [film] is
edgy and tough and very explosive, and a lot of people are afraid
of it because it's very real. It's almost too close to real life."
White and her group are now trying to sell the film to Showtime,
HBO, PBS, A&E or some other cable network. And even though her
second film about Tracy and her family is finished, the filmmaker's
involvement in Tracy's life continues.
Two months ago, Burton suddenly called White and said: "Well.
You were the first person to hold her, so you can talk to her."
On the other end of the line was Rebecca, the child Tracy had given
up for adoption 19 years ago. White told her: "Your mother
has never not loved you. The only reason she gave you up is because
she didn't want you to go through the struggles she went through."
Last month, Tracy and Rebecca were reunited in Tucson. Sitting
next to each other, with Rebecca rubbing her mother's shoulders
and holding her hand, they watched their own history -- White's
film, "If I Could."
"If I Could" will be shown at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at the
Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase Street, to benefit
the Anne Arundel County YWCA's violence prevention programs. The
proceeds will also provide a VisionQuest scholarship for one local
at-risk youth. Tickets are $50, which includes a catered reception
afterward. Call 410-626-7800.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company