| St. Petersburg Times
April 22, 2001
One pedophile, many broken lives
In a harrowing documentary, one family tells a painful story
of childhood abuse and its unending effects.
For a guy who seems to have so much going right in his life
these days, James Ronald Whitney isn't having the greatest morning.
Talking to a reporter about Just, Melvin: Just Evil,
his intimately personal film about the grandfather who sexually
molested his 10 children and stepchildren (including Whitney's
mother), the filmmaker finds his cell phone connection from
Manhattan to Florida constantly cutting out.
When the reporter calls back for a third time, there's more
bad news: Part of the hotel where Whitney has housed his eight
aunts and mother, who last week attended HBO's lavish screening
party, is on fire. All he knows so far is that one of his relatives
Still, once Whitney determined that nobody was hurt and the
fire was under control, he was ready to finish the interview.
After all, for a guy who's seen his own mother attempt suicide
too many times to count, a stray hotel fire barely breaks his
"Well, there's lots of things that (might seem) pretty traumatic
for some people," said Whitney, 37, who initially believed his
mother's suicide attempts were rooted in his father's abandoning
the family with his wife's best friend. "In our family, that's
a Tuesday morning."
Just, Melvin documents the emotional wreckage created
by Melvin Just, a mechanic in a small northern California town
who consistently molested his own children and stepchildren
by two different women.
According to the victims' recollections, Just also prostituted
them to other pedophiles, eventually raping and murdering a
nurse- social worker who tried to protect them.
Evidence of the fallout unfolds throughout Whitney's film. Each
of Just's daughters and stepdaughters has attempted suicide,
struggled with substance abuse, fallen into prostitution and
homelessness, and more. Few of them can point to many periods
of stability or productivity in life.
In one of the film's most telling moments, Whitney's Uncle Jim
- one of Just's stepchildren - calmly discusses offering to
let one of his half-sisters share his home as his wife to avoid
"I think that two consenting adults . . . whatever they deem
is right, is right," Uncle Jim tells the camera. "To have sex
with a . . . sister, I don't think that's all that wrong."
This is how Whitney illustrates the enduring cycle of abuse
that has devastated his family and many others. There's no gravel-voiced
narrator to lead viewers anywhere; instead, the voices of Whitney,
his aunts and other relatives form the framework of the story.
Whitney's mother, Ann Marie, tells of trying to shoot Just while
he was beating her mother, only to discover that the gun was
empty. One aunt tells a story of being taken near a garbage
dump to have sex with other pedophiles; another says her mother
took diapers off a baby sister to lay her in bed with a naked
"Grandpa Just destroyed my family and almost destroyed my mom,"
Whitney narrates to the camera over footage from one of his
Star Search dance competitions (an appearance he made minutes
after learning that his mom had tried to suffocate herself with
car exhaust). "When I'm finished with him, he'll either be in
jail or he'll be dead. That's a promise."
Yet Whitney, who serves as co-writer, co-producer, director
and co- composer on Just, Melvin, insists he's not angry
about his grandfather's crimes, which earned Just an eight-year
prison sentence for child molestation in the late '70s.
"Instead of being angry, spinning around in circles going nowhere,
I have disgust that I've turned into something positive," says
the filmmaker, who also works as a stockbroker for a Wall Street
firm. "I have much more satisfaction."
Just, Melvin caught HBO's eye during the Sundance Film
Festival, where Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert championed
the film (on his TV show At the Movies, Ebert called it "one
of the angriest, most painful documentaries I have ever seen
. . . and it's one of the best."). Though it didn't win a prize
at Sundance, it did take honors at film festivals in Santa Barbara,
Calif.; Austin, Texas; Vancouver; and others.
Sheila Nevins, the executive who heads HBO's America Undercover
documentary series and helped shape Just, Melvin for
TV, says Whitney's documentary exemplifies the kinds of films
she's planned for America Undercover's first regular time slot
on HBO's schedule.
In the past, Nevins' documentaries might air any time on the
pay cable channel. But executives decided to give America Undercover
a regular home after The Sopranos for 11 weeks, funneling viewers
from HBO's biggest hit into documentaries about dwarfs, killers
of abortion doctors and Melvin Just.
"It's sociology meets archaeology meets television," says Nevins,
noting how Just, Melvin fits into HBO's vision of documentary
filmmaking. "It's not a newsmagazine piece, and it's not interrupted
by commercials. You can stay with this family until it's unbearable."
Whitney blends in kitschy clips of himself (in full, feather-
haired, 1980s mode) competing in Star Search's dance contests
and game shows, breaking the tension from his family's harrowing
tales. Using surround sound, he sprinkles shards of sonic touches
throughout the film, re-creating the sounds of Just yelling
at his children or assaulting the nurse in the background of
But even though he often faces the camera himself to relate
matter- of-fact stories of abuse - including his own molestation
by an unnamed uncle at age 5 and a sexual encounter with a 9-year-old
cousin two years later - Whitney accepts no praise for his family's
"Getting to the heart of an issue is what my family is about,"
he says. "We're okay going down in those valleys because, ultimately,
we're going to find a top."
According to Whitney's relatives, Just would make a game of
his molestations, telling the children to "play horsey" or giving
them money, which he would increase according to the child's
According to several of Whitney's relatives, when nurse Josephine
Spegel threatened to take away the children during an unannounced
visit in 1969, Just raped and killed her as some of his children
watched, burying the body in a remote location. He was never
charged in that incident.
By the time Whitney confronts Just, he's in a wheelchair and
living in a nursing home. For the price of a McDonald's Big
Mac and fries, Whitney lured his grandfather to a waterfront
boardwalk, peppering him with questions about the abuse allegations.
Just denied it all. And a few weeks later, he was dead.
"My mom said the most satisfying thing for her was seeing me
get in Melvin Just's face," says Whitney, who runs the film's
credits over bittersweet footage of his aunts getting drunk
and insulting Just during his funeral. "All those years later,
he was finally called on it."
Just, Melvin also presents a horrifying picture of poor,
rural family dysfunction that lives down to the worst stereotypes.
But Whitney, who counters that he can't bother with being "politically
correct," simply rolls the camera and lets his relatives speak.
The filmmaker denies feeling any anger, but Just, Melvin
nevertheless seemed drenched in frustration and pain, fueled
mostly by Just's cruelty and the inability of any adults to
Whitney, a former Chippendale's dancer, is a talented pianist
who says he stumbled into a finance career while helping successful
friends manage their money. These days, he juggles a Wall Street
career with work writing musicals and completing a new film,TheWorkingGirl.com,
about children whose mother is a porn star.
And even as he admits that his tragic past fuels his competitive
drive, Whitney hopes Just, Melvin educates adults about
the unending, destructive cycle of abuse one brutal pedophile
can spark. (Whitney includes a link to the charity Childhelp
USA on his Web site for the film, JustMelvin.com.)
"The idea for this is to serve as a wake-up call to society,"
says Whitney, noting that April is National Child Abuse Prevention
Month. "We call it child abuse, like (the effects) end at childhood.
But even now, (none of his aunts) have had clean or sober or
In the documentary Just, Melvin: Just Evil, Melvin Just's
family says he sexually molested his nine daughters and some
of his stepchildren. Just, above, with his daughter June, was
sentenced to eight years in prison in the 1970s.
With the bribe of a McDonald's hamburger, filmmaker James Ronald
Whitney lures his grandfather, Melvin Just, above, to a pier
for a confrontation. When peppered with questions about his
crimes, Just denied everything. A few weeks later, he was dead.
-- Eric Deggans