When Hollywood does good

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James Gandolfini (picture taken from Getty images)

I know this blog is about my kids and their amazing lives, so it may seem strange that I feel compelled to write a brief memorial to James Gandolfini. But little do people realize the connection between this man and rescuing our son from a third world orphanage.

This is just a (long) story of someone doing something good in life, and that goodness, like a waterfall, trickling down and touching others who will never meet him. We just learned yesterday of Mr. Gandolfini’s death by heart attack at the age of 51 while on vacation. It was emotional to read. My son never met Mr. Gandolfini and neither have I, but our family, and extended family, owe him.

Mr. Gandolfini did something good with his talent and position that indirectly helped us adopt our son: He produced a documentary called War Torn: 1861-2010 which featured my cousin Nathan.

When filling out applications for home studies–the first step in the adoption process–social workers mail you a bunch of application forms to fill out (and charge you a lot for doing so) and then consider to take on your home study based on the answers. One question is if anyone in your family has a felony. Yes, my cousin Nathan. Are they in prison? Yes.

And from what I’ve read and learned elsewhere this is where our adoption process may have ended. Anyone just paying attention to the cold hard facts would know that a close family member, someone I grew up with, from a side of the family I’m close with, is in prison for a violent crime.

So I was angry. Angry at my cousin, our system, our military and my own neighborhood for giving out free drinks to the returning hero that night. My impaired cousin, suffering from PTSD after two tours in Iraq, started bossing around, then put a firearm to, an Iranian cab driver here in San Diego. You see Nate had starting having a bad alcohol-induced flashback where he thought he was in Iraq, and sad as it is, this was part of his job in Iraq, to detain suspicious drivers. The Iranian cab driver (the only description I know him as) did not get why this guy was ordering him around and did not know what was going on. It’s like two different movies were playing at the same time: One where an innocent man was being threatened by a crazy person (the true story), and the other where a soldier put in charge of detaining suspected bomb carriers (my cousin had driven over a bomb once, had three friends killed in action and this threat was real to him) had to pull a firearm on a suspicious man (my cousin’s head’s story). The cab driver acted appropriately, called the cops and, although it was terribly scary, no one was hurt. Nathan was taken into custody crying and confused.

And Nathan got six years in prison (a plea bargain) after being threatened with 15. (But he’s due to be released early. We’ve been told March 2014.) No look into his history. No care of his medical condition or time in Iraq. No consideration for it being a first offense. No treatment plan. Nothing. Just a DA up for re-election, a situation with a firearm (which adds 10 years to any sentence here in CA) and an open and shut case. (At the time there was no Veterans Court in San Diego, but I’ve been told there is now.)

A camera crew (sent out by Mr. Gandolfini) showed up to film Nathan after he was sentenced, but before he was scheduled to show up for prison. They were doing a documentary on “Shell Shock” which we now know as PTSD. While us Wesleys were cut from the documentary, my cousin Charilyn, Nathan, Josh and my aunt Charlotte all got to share Nathan’s story. And we got to know our cameraman, Matthew O’Neill, who we forgot was even filming because he was just so personable. (And he let my daughter play with his really really really expensive camera because it made her giggle. We liked him.)

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Laelia (on the drive home): “Where Nate?” Me: “He had to go bye-bye.” Lali: “Bye-bye Nate.”

Two minutes later. “Where Nate?” (She thinks about it.) “Nate bye-bye.” (Feb 26th, 2010)

And that’s why the social worker asked, “You have a cousin in prison, but he’s featured in an HBO show? I think I saw that. Can you explain what happened?” They learned that the violent crime was just because of the presence of a firearm and not because anyone was hurt. They learned it was a very specific set of events that are not likely repeatable. They learned about Nate, the real person, not the criminal justice statistic. And my family (and extended family) after background checks and questions and lots of fact-checking were approved as a suitable and wonderful family for an orphaned child. Our son came home eight months later.

James Gandolfini did a documentary on PTSD that shook up the way we treat and view people suffering from it.

And that had a trickle down effect.

This film was shown to military personnel where they discussed it at length.

Things started changing.

Nathan’s mom became an advocate for returning soldiers and their families working through Blue Star Moms which began here in California.

Soldiers who were once told, “Don’t say you have any nightmares or any problems, or you’ll be delayed even further [from getting home],” and came away with the belief that “If the Marine Corps wanted me to have PTSD, it would have issued it to me in boot camp,” are now getting the resources, education and support they need. Or at least it’s getting better all the time.

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I’m cuddling my son this morning. He has a yogurt mouth, a pencil in one hand and is singing two letters of the alphabet very loudly (making cleaning the yogurt off his mouth nearly impossible). It’s scary to think that not too long ago we may have been unfit to adopt because of the ignorance surrounding PTSD. And I’m left here thinking of the hundreds of people, from financial supporters, encouraging/praying friends, government officials, USCIS personnel, Reece’s Rainbow staff and a million notaries who helped bring our son home. And in that list, strangely, is one Hollywood actor turned producer.

In memorial of Mr. Gandolfini. You never know how one good thing can really make a difference.

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AN UPDATE: I want to say that this is a very messy story. It’s not clear-cut, clean or nice. There are no “good guys” or “bad guys” but a lot of human people, even human court people. The law is set up as black and white and as unfair as it sounds to us, there is a real victim who got a bad scare that night and it probably left him shaken for a while. Choosing to drink to excess, whether to drown out a condition as bad as PTSD or for any other reason, is wrong. I hope there’s nothing political about this story. It’s just a true story about a good thing Mr. Gandolfini did to help soldiers and their families, which also helped us adopt our son.

6 Responses to “When Hollywood does good”

  1. Mollie says:

    That was beautiful. I’ve love James Gandolfini since the Sopranos and I was heart broken yesterday to hear of his very early departure. Thank you so much for sharing this. It only makes me respect him so much more.

  2. Charilyn says:

    I love the tribute! I’ll probably post a link to this in a couple of places. I always hoped we could actually meet him in person eventually, but our schedules never worked out.

  3. Linda Record says:

    This is yet one more reason why each of us needs to be engaged in wholesome, worthwhile enterprises. We can never know when we might be used as an angel in disguise. Thank you for sharing this, and thank you for the love you and Charley and Laelia and now precious Rolly spread in the world. As I’ve said so many times before, you’re making your mom awfully proud (and all of us who still walk on this earth).

  4. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for posting your blog and your update. Great tribute to this actor/producer and a great explanation on your family and the demise your family, in particular your cousin, has endured. Without being biased you accomplished yet another soundboard of reasoning for all sides. With the great tribute thrown in. I truly enjoy your writings!

  5. Deb says:

    Thanks for posting your blog and your update. Great tribute to this actor/producer and a great explanation on your family and the demise your family, in particular your cousin, has endured. Without being biased you accomplished yet another soundboard of reasoning for all sides. With the great tribute thrown in. I truly enjoy your writings!

  6. Cheryl says:

    wow, this a wonderful story of Mr. Gandolfini! thanks for sharing, I won’t just think of him as Tony Soprano anymore.

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