The Bremerton, WA Sun
5/28/2000
Filmmaker Whitney is a picture of accomplishment

Just how would you pitch a documentary about James Ronald Whitney?

Would you use the director of "Just, Melvin" as a case study for ultra competitive overachievers? Would you sell Whitney to Hollywood as Forrest Gump but with a high IQ and an acute sense of awareness? Or would you say he's just like the rest of his troubled family?

All three descriptions might fit the 36-year-old Whitney.

"I'm as f-----d up as the rest of my family,"he said Tuesday. "I just look at life differently."

That view starts with his family tree, which looks like it grew out of a "Jerry Springer"show. Whitney's father was married to Melvin Just's sister and then to a stripper/prostitute before marrying Melvin Just's step-daughter, the woman who became Whitney's mother. The branches entwined further when Whitney's aunt married Just's brother.

So don't act surprised when you learn that Whitney is a Sin City product, born in Las Vegas in 1963.

On or off camera, he's not ashamed to tell you that his uncle molested him when he was 5 - and notes that he lost his virginity to his cousin while still in the second grade.

When Whitney was 9, his father ran off with his mother's best friend and became a Hell's Angel. He saw his father for the first time since then last year while working on "Just, Melvin."

In between, Whitney and his mother kept moving.

"We moved around a lot,"he said. "As a child, I lived in Tacoma more than any other city."

He and his mother lived in Bremerton, Silverdale, Poulsbo and Brownsville before heading south, with multiple stops in Oregon and California.

Like the fictional Gump, Whitney had to wear corrective shoes as a child. Doctors told him he couldn't run.

So he danced. He started dancing professionally at 13, which led to gymnastics and cheerleading, first at the U.S.Coast Guard Academy, then at Arizona State University. He would open his own dance studio, perform on "Dance Fever," "Fame" and "Star Search,"and shake his groove thing for four years as a Chippendale dancer in Los Angeles during the 1980s.

At 21, he married the tightrope walker from the Cirque du Soleil. They divorced eight years later, though he says they're still friends.

He boasts an IQ near 160, and acknowledges he is an overachiever, brought up by his mother to compete at everything. He entered games shows as a college student, winning thousands of dollars on "Body Language" and "Scrabble."

He has owned dance shops and ice cream parlors, smuggled past customs a Peruvian monkey to raise as a pet, traveled the world, written a musical (and don't forget the film score for "Just, Melvin"), started work on creating his own universal language and numerical system, and found time to become vice president of Tucker Anthony, a stock brokerage firm on Wall Street.

He always carries his cell phone and takes stock market calls while simultaneously working the film festival circuit.

With his first film on screen and two other documentaries in the works, Whitney still makes sense out of the busy life he's created for himself.

"If anything, it's all about movement,"he said. "It's just a different kind of dance, a different type of choreography for me."
                                                                                    -- Sean McCarthy


The Bremerton, WA Sun
5/28/2000
Just, Melvin
Just, the family next door


A documentary details allegations of drug and alcohol abuse, child molestation, incest, rape and murder that an area man left in his wake.

Editor's note: This story contains explicit language and disturbing references to child sexual abuse. We believe the language is appropriate in the context of this story, but some readers might find it offensive.

From left, Jenise Inda, Jerri Wright, and Pambi Crandall went to the
Egyptian Theatre on Tuesday to see "Just, Melvin." In the film, the three
family members told their stories about Melvin Just.
Staff photo by Melina Mara

On VH1, they'd call it something snappy like "Behind the Obituary." Today's episode: Melvin E. Just.

The Sun initially summed up the life of Melvin E. Just last summer. A one-sentence death notice. Five paragraphs appeared the next day. The 71-year-old went quickly, nicely and neatly, at least on the obituary page.

Born in Bremerton, raised in Crosby, buried in Seabeck. A local boy, Just joined the Army to fight the Communists in Korea. He returned home to live in a junkyard and work as a diesel mechanic. Only a stroke slowed him down. He spent his last days at Forest Ridge Health and Rehabilitation Center; his last day was July 31, 1999. Just left a trail of survivors: a brother, a sister, a wife, a son, three daughters, eight stepchildren, and countless grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

He lived and he died. Just like others. Or so you would have thought, had it not been for one of those grandchildren „ James Ronald Whitney.

Whitney couldn't wait for Grandpa Just to die. He wanted people to know how his family had suffered at the hands of Grandpa Just. And he wanted people to know while there was still time to bring Grandpa Just to justice.

So Whitney did what people do at the turn of the millennium. He made a feature-length documentary film about his grandfather and called it, "Just, Melvin." The 96-minute expos» debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has been buzzing through the nation's film festival circuit since. HBO acquired the broadcast rights to "Just, Melvin" earlier this month and will showcase the documentary in a limited theatrical run in New York City and Los Angeles. The run will qualify it for Academy Award consideration.

But for all that hype, perhaps the most important screening of "Just, Melvin" happened Tuesday in Seattle, when six of Whitney's eight aunts saw themselves, telling on the big screen for the first time, the kinds of things they never expected anyone outside their family to believe.

The list of unbelievables included child molestation, incest, rape, murder, drugs, alcoholism, prostitution and repeated attempts at suicide. Whitney interspersed these intense family confessionals with lighter moments he spent on national TV with Soupy Sales and "Star Search."

Justice first came to Melvin Just in a Humboldt County, Calif., courtroom in 1978. He was convicted on 12 counts of child molestation committed on members of his family. He served about eight years in state prison in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

That's no secret. But letting the world know that Grandpa Just was a pedophile wasn't enough for Whitney. He wanted everyone to know how his grandfather's abuse sent ripples of destruction throughout the family, how he victimized all 10 of his children and stepchildren, and how the cyclical waves of abuse crashed down on Whitney and his cousins.

And there remained one dark family secret Whitney wanted to reveal: the unsolved rape and murder of a California social worker assigned to protect the children in the late 1960s. Some of Whitney's aunts said they had the answers, had seen the body, heard what happened. Only no one would listen.

In 1994, Humboldt County authorities reopened the case. They had one suspect: Melvin Just.

Whitney decided he had to get involved in late 1997, when he learned his grandmother, Fay Just, was in a California hospital bed, where she continued to drink herself to death. He flew from New York City with a camera crew to confront Grandma Just about her role in the abuse of her children.

"It was all going to be one movie, 'Just My Family,' " Whitney said.

He hoped the cathartic experience of filming his family's dysfunctions would bring closure to the cycle of abuse that has rolled over the Justs.

"But there was so much that focused around my grandfather," he said. "I didn't care if it took me 10 years. He was either going to be arrested or he was going to be dead."

Whitney worked with the district attorney's office in Humboldt County while mounting his cinematic investigation, and said "Just, Melvin" was his way of holding Grandpa Just accountable for his sins in a way the California judicial system never would.

The viewers, acting as judge and jury, never see or hear much of a defense of Just.

June Musselman, the eldest of Just's three natural daughters, said at the screening that she always loved him but acknowledged she probably blocked out any traumatic events.

Just's second wife, Venise Just, claimed in the film to never see her husband abuse or molest the kids. She wasn't present at Tuesday's screening because her stepdaughter, Pambi Crandall, said she has a restraining order against Just. Venise Just said she doesn't plan to see the movie, and declined to comment further for this story.

The denials that matter come from the mouth of Melvin Just. We meet him late in the film and late in his life, when Whitney confronts him on the Bremerton boardwalk with the accusations. Confined to a wheelchair, Just casually munches on a Big Mac - his belly protruding from under his T-shirt - while Whitney asks him about the abuse, the molestations and the murder.

Just denied it all, even the molestations for which he served prison time.

"I didn't molest them

G-- d----n kids. But if you keep at this f---ing subject, I'm going to molest you right quick," he barked at Whitney.

How did Melvin Just get the role as the villain in the Just family's script? We never do learn that in the movie.

Whitney said Melvin Just's father, Lester Just, was known by the family as "Lester the molester." But is that an excuse? Abuse begets abuse? Whitney said it's not about excuses, but about choices.

As Whitney's uncle, Jim Lawson, said in the movie, "They say men shouldn't sleep with their daughters. But a lot of people do it." Only Lawson isn't saying that to defend his stepfather. Lawson is saying that to explain what he did: asking his half-sister Jerri Wright to move in and become his common-law wife. Lawson said in the film, "To have sex with a stepsister, I don't think that's wrong."

Wrong or not, that was the only life Melvin Just's family knew „ whether they lived in Bremerton, or in Carlotta, a town of 345 in Northern California's redwood country. Most of the extended family is split between these two spots along the West Coast. Some live out of their cars. One of Melvin Just's brothers lives "up in the hills" of Central Kitsap. An estranged sister is out in the Midwest. A stepdaughter in Texas.

Whitney and his mother, Ann Whitney, escaped the life earlier than the rest. They both live in New York; he, in the city, she, about 100 miles upstate.

In the documentary, James Ronald Whitney includes footage from his appearance on the game show "Body Language" in 1984 and "Star Search" in 1986 and 1987, splicing those campy scenes with intense confessional moments from his aunts.

While most people would look at a "Star Search" victory as a high point of their lives, Whitney said when he watches one particular episode, all he remembers is the call he received backstage minutes beforehand telling him his mother had attempted suicide. So when he said, "It's just something you don't forget," you know he means it.

Though "Just, Melvin" already has proven to be a hit at its first five film festivals, its director knows that he still has to sell moviegoers on the idea of sitting down to an hour-and-a-half of true emotional trauma.

"It's so easy to not come to see this movie," Whitney said. "It's so easy to ignore what's going on in the neighbor's house next door."

When he told his aunts about the project, they asked him why he would bother. No one listened to them when the abuse happened. Why should they listen now?

So the women didn't know what to expect when they rolled up in a white stretch limousine to the front of the Egyptian Theatre on Seattle's Capitol Hill. Whitney rented the limo so his aunts could feel like "movie stars," which, technically, they are.

They dressed their best for the night. June Musselman wore a dress „ the first time Whitney had seen his aunt in one „ but no shoes. Jerri Wright also arrived barefoot, sporting blue jeans with matching denim jacket and blue tie-dyed shirt.

Theater staff apparently weren't as strict as the crew at the West Bremerton Denny's, which tried to prevent the barefooted Jerri's entry Tuesday morning. She also didn't make any friends at Denny's by trying to order „with breakfast „ first a beer, then a screwdriver. At the Egyptian, she and her sisters settled for Pepsi with their popcorn.

After the screening, Musselman and Aunt Jenise Inda felt the need to answer a spectator's question: How can anyone in the family still claim to love Melvin Just after all of the suffering he caused?

"The reason I can still love him is a lot of things are blacked out," Musselman said. "I think a lot of kids do that to protect their own minds."

Inda's response: "I love my father because I developed a relationship with him as an adult."

Musselman said the film got the facts right. "We can't deny anything, because it was all honest," she said. "It was interesting to see what we all thought of each other. ... But I don't think there's going to be any arguments."

"What would we argue about?" Wright asked.

A young bearded man walked up to the sisters outside the cinema. He applauded their courage, bravery and honesty. "I cried. And I don't cry very often," the young man told them. He walked away. A couple of steps later, he turned and said, "Thank you."

One of the sisters, Denise Benson, was having a difficult time dealing with seeing her life and her family history splashed on the big screen. Benson said she had to mentally and emotionally prepare for the screening. "I focused on who could be helped by this," she said.

Childhelp USA's National Child Abuse Hotline - (800) 4-A-CHILD - receives 146,000 calls each year. But the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that there are three times as many child abuse incidents as there are reported cases.

Childhelp USA spokeswoman Rebecca Heller said "Just, Melvin" is "a powerful film that touches peoples' lives." She said Childhelp USA provided brochures at Sundance for filmgoers who may have found themselves asking, "Now what?"

Whitney hopes his film has broken the cycle of abuse in his family and can do the same for other families in similar straits.

His mother, Ann Whitney, had seen the film at its Sundance debut as well as at the South X Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. She shares her son's hopes.

"The best therapy I've had in my entire life is seeing my son on that screen confront Melvin with everything he's done. ... I hope it helps the girls, too," Ann Whitney said.

"What I've emphasized to the girls - and what's so amazing - is the audience response. They really get the message of this film: to help abused children. It's working. That's good. Otherwise, what's the point?"
                                                        -- Sean McCarthy


The Bremerton, WA Sun
5/28/2000
Filmmaker Whitney is a picture of accomplishment

Just how would you pitch a documentary about James Ronald Whitney?

Would you use the director of "Just, Melvin" as a case study for ultracompetitive overachievers? Would you sell Whitney to Hollywood as Forrest Gump but with a high IQ and an acute sense of awareness? Or would you say he's just like the rest of his troubled family?

All three descriptions might fit the 36-year-old Whitney.

"I'm as f-----d up as the rest of my family,"he said Tuesday. "Ijust look at life differently."

That view starts with his family tree, which looks like it grew out of a "Jerry Springer"show. Whitney's father was married to Melvin Just's sister and then to a stripper/prostitute before marrying Melvin Just's step-daughter, the woman who became Whitney's mother. The branches entwined further when Whitney's aunt married Just's brother.

So don't act surprised when you learn that Whitney is a Sin City product, born in Las Vegas in 1963.

On or off camera, he's not ashamed to tell you that his uncle molested him when he was 5 - and notes that he lost his virginity to his cousin while still in the second grade.

When Whitney was 9, his father ran off with his mother's best friend and became a Hell's Angel. He saw his father for the first time since then last year while working on "Just, Melvin."

In between, Whitney and his mother kept moving.

"We moved around a lot,"he said. "As a child, I lived in Tacoma more than any other city."

He and his mother lived in Bremerton, Silverdale, Poulsbo and Brownsville before heading south, with multiple stops in Oregon and California.

Like the fictional Gump, Whitney had to wear corrective shoes as a child. Doctors told him he couldn't run.

So he danced. He started dancing professionally at 13, which led to gymnastics and cheerleading, first at the U.S.Coast Guard Academy, then at Arizona State University. He would open his own dance studio, perform on "Dance Fever," "Fame" and "Star Search,"and shake his groove thing for four years as a Chippendale dancer in Los Angeles during the 1980s.

At 21, he married the tightrope walker from the Cirque du Soleil. They divorced eight years later, though he says they're still friends.

He boasts an IQ near 160, and acknowledges he is an overachiever, brought up by his mother to compete at everything. He entered games shows as a college student, winning thousands of dollars on "Body Language" and "Scrabble."

He has owned dance shops and ice cream parlors, smuggled past customs a Peruvian monkey to raise as a pet, traveled the world, written a musical (and don't forget the film score for "Just, Melvin"), started work on creating his own universal language and numerical system, and found time to become vice president of Tucker Anthony, a stock brokerage firm on Wall Street.

He always carries his cell phone and takes stock market calls while simultaneously working the film festival circuit.

With his first film on screen and two other documentaries in the works, Whitney still makes sense out of the busy life he's created for himself.

"If anything, it's all about movement,"he said. "It's just a different kind of dance, a different type of choreography for me."
                                                        -- Sean McCarthy

The Bremerton, WA SUN
Sean L. McCarthy
Kitsap not 'Just' another HBO documentary

You'll see a bit of Kitsap on HBO tonight.

But it's safe to say that the slice of life portrayed in the documentary, "Just, Melvin," is far from ordinary.

If you think "The Sopranos" are a mixed-up bunch, wait until you see the film that follows it at 10 p.m.

"Just, Melvin" is a searing documentary about a family torn by child molestation, drug and alcohol abuse, incest, rape and murder — all revolving around Bremerton patriarch (and some in his family would add, "pariah") Melvin Just.

The film, which made the festival circuit rounds from Sundance to Seattle last year (you may recall reading about the film and family last May), shows how Just's daughters, stepdaughters and grandson seek retribution for his heinous crimes.

Now, Just gets his day in the international court of public opinion.

The documentary is included in HBO's America Undercover series.

And filmmaker James Ronald Whitney (Just's grandson) says the timing could not be better, since April is National Child Abuse Awareness Month.

Whitney and his mother appeared on "Jenny Jones" two weeks ago to promote the film and child abuse awareness.

This past week, all eight of his aunts — including those who still live in Kitsap County — joined Whitney and his mother in New York City for a screening of the film sponsored by HBO and Childhelp USA.

Whitney told me it was the first time "all nine of the girls" had been together.

Appearances also had been lined up with "Court TV" and "The View."

It's all part of a new wave of publicity for "Just, Melvin" and for the need to speak out against child abuse and molestation.

Last year, the film won best documentary honors at film festivals in Santa Barbara, South Beach, Newport Beach and Vancouver, British Columbia. Whitney was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award in the "Truer Than Fiction" category.

Two weeks ago, famed Chicago film critic Roger Ebert gave "Just, Melvin" a thumbs up, calling it "one of the angriest, most painful documentaries I have ever seen — and it's one of the best. ... You have never seen anything like it."

"Just, Melvin," overwhelms you so much that you have to rethink your strongly held position that the setups on "Jerry Springer" are fake. Well, maybe some of them still are.

But the Just family is very, very real.

Hanging out with his family this week in New York, Whitney said he could, "for the first time in my life, see an attempt at making progress" to break the family's cycle of abuse. Whitney has noticed something else, too, about his aunts.

"They've already been recognized here in the street ... so it's leaving an impact on them, and it hasn't even aired yet," he said.

When the credits stop rolling tonight, a new coda appears — Childhelp USA's hotline, (800) 4-A-CHILD.

"There are a lot of adult survivors out there who haven't gotten the courage to speak up," said Rebecca Heller, Childhelp USA spokeswoman. "We hope people see the hotline and decide to call." The Bremerton, WA SUN
OPINION
June 11, 2000
YOUR VIEWS

Start petitions, sign letters, and pay tickets at this interactive Town Hall. Visit E-The People Melvin Just Not just family problem To the Editor: I say bravo to the creator of "Just, Melvin" (May 28) being a survivor of childhood abuse of many kinds. I think it is about time people understood that abuse isn't a family problem that should not be discussed with anyone else. It's a legal matter that should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The public should know who these people are so the can protect their children from them. Unfortunately, there are still ignorant people out there who would like to cover up the disgrace of having a sex offender in their family. That only allows the offender to keep offending. Speak up and speak loud so that everyone knows you will not allow this to happen again and again.
Publicly humiliate the abusers so they will think twice about doing it again. Help the victims to know that they did nothing wrong. Help them to get justice for themselves. Support the victim, not the abuser. And then maybe the rate of abuse will fall instead of rise every year. It's unfortunate that Melvin died before his story could be told, so he could feel some of the pain that he inflicted on his victims.
                                                        Nancy Tucker - Port Orchard


The Bremerton, WA SUN

OPINION
June 11, 2000
Thanks for story
To the Editor:

Thank you for the informative front-page article about the documentary, "Just, Melvin." Breaking the cycle of abuse is a difficult, ongoing process. James Ronald Whitney is to be applauded for his insight and courage to confront abusive family members. Letting the victims tell their stories and be heard is a very healing experience, that they are believed is even more so. Incest and abuse in Kitsap County families is nothing knew, but talking about it is. Families can circle the wagons when someone decides to tell the "family secret." It is wonderful that so many in the Just family have helped document their family history with the truth. They are healthier than most people would give them credit. They have already accomplished a great deal. Taking the door off the family closet and a "no more secrets" policy is the only way to stop the cycle of abuse and incest.
James Ronald Whitney deserves more than an Academy Award for this documentary. He has given his aunts a means of breaking the cycle of abuse and has changed the family history forever. Some day soon there will be a generation in this family that will not have been abused or molested by other family members.
This family is on the road to recovery already. I wish them well! This county still has some abusers who have molested for decades. No one has had the courage to confront them publicly. I hope this article and the documentary, "Just, Melvin" will give those the courage they need to stop the cycle of abuse in their own families. Sean L. McCarthy has written an article worthy of an award as well.
                                                        Kathryn Jenkins Trostad - Poulsbo


The Bremerton, WA SUN
OPINION
June 18, 2000
Thanks for story
To the Editor:

I want thank you personally for your front-page story regarding Melvin Just on May 28.
I have lived a large part of my life feeling there is no justice. But thanks to my son, James Ronald Whitney, and his relentless pursuit to expose the legacy of destruction that Melvin Just created, and the interest, support and coverage by my hometown newspaper, The Sun, I now have a restored faith in God and humanity.

With the documentary, "Just, Melvin," I feel that justice is being served. Your publication has become one of the most significant events to happen to his victims who are featured in the documentary.

It is finally a first step toward a healing process that may take some of them the rest of their lives. Most important, for the victims, is that they know we hear them, we believe them and we really care. They are excitedly aware that the sacrifice they made in telling their story is already helping others.
If the exposure of Melvin Just has caused any pain to anyone, I am sorry. But not as sorry as I am for his victims - and other victims of Melvin Just are now speaking up for the first time.

I thank all of you at The Sun for your overwhelming contribution.
Please use the number for Child Help U.S.A. (800-4-A-CHILD) if you know of anyone who is being or has been abused or molested!
                                                Ann Marie Lawson Whitney - Mount Kisco, N.Y.




DIRECTOR'S FILMS: GAMES PEOPLE PLAY: New York, GAMES PEOPLE PLAY: Hollywood, Telling Nicholas, Just, Melvin, TheWorkingGirl.com
Find out more about James Ronald Whitney's Productions at the Fire Island Films website
: www.FIFproductions.com
Comments or questions about the Web site contact the Web Master at www.SolutionsWebDesign.net

© 2003 James Ronald Whitney