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Back Story: Most Memorable Interview

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FILE: ROB DONNELLY
  • File: ROB DONNELLY

I don't actually know if reporters are allowed inside the Brattleboro Retreat; I never asked. After all, I was invited. A man we called "Francis" asked Seven Days to write about his son, "Simon," who was hospitalized there for schizophrenia but was refusing to take psychiatric medications. He offered to take me to visit. Before even knowing if it was a story, I climbed into Francis' tiny Mitsubishi Mirage for the 150-mile trek down to Brattleboro.

When I signed in at the front desk, Francis introduced me as a neighbor, not a reporter.

It wasn't a lie: Our apartments share a lawn in the Old North End, and we rent from the same landlord. We occasionally trade garden vegetables. I had seen police cars pull up the month before to quiet Simon when he became too violent to manage. Francis told me he was transported to the University of Vermont Medical Center and then later to Brattleboro.

The receptionist there didn't ask me any questions; she just offered me a lanyard and a locker to store my belongings, then directed us upstairs. The cinder-block corridors in the state's largest mental health facility offered a startling contrast to its verdant grounds.

We found Simon huddled in the corner of a sparsely furnished white room. He hadn't eaten solid food in weeks. His hair stood on end. He didn't greet his father but instead swore and yelled incoherent invectives when Francis approached.

Francis offered his son a Coke and other gifts. He took it in stride when Simon snatched the soda and growled at the stuffed toy.

Francis talked calmly, sometimes to Simon and sometimes about him. Simon never acknowledged his father's presence. Once, he got up and spun in place for several minutes.

I stood against the doorframe, unsure of what to say. Small talk seemed inappropriate. Francis suggested that I offer a magazine to Simon, who accepted it with a menacing look and a grunt.

"He likes women," Francis said approvingly.

The visit lasted no more than half an hour, but it stuck with me for months. I felt like a voyeur intruding on the most intimate moments of a relationship.

Despite my discomfort, I felt privileged to witness it. There was something breathtaking and humbling about watching a father dote on a son who only swore in response.

It was the beginning of what would become months of heartbreaking reporting: I visited Francis at his house; he came to mine. I later visited Simon at the UVM Medical Center when he was transferred there, and at home when he finally returned in January.

Driving back from Brattleboro, whatever formality existed between reporter and source fell away. Francis told me his life story, and I shared mine. For three hours I forgot about my reporter's notebook, and we just talked — human to human — all the way home.

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