Just, Melvin: James Ronald Whitney’s Tale of Family Abuse, Incest, Molestation

In “Just, Melvin,” director James Ronald Whitney chronicles a most painful journey through his family’s past to unravel a vicious cycle of abuse, incest, and molestation and their devastating effects on at least three generations.

As disturbing and as shocking as the material is, however, helmer’s detached approach and complicated structure lend the film a curiously remote tone that makes it less engaging than it should have been. Even so, explosive subject matter should help place this docu in festivals and venues that exhibit controversial nonfictional works.

The genealogy of abuse in Whitney’s family is so prevalent and so complex that it defies easy grasp or description. Upon marrying Whitney’s alcoholic grandmother, Fay, Melvin Just began abusing physically and sexually her three daughters, Anne (Whitney’s mother) and her twin siblings, Jan and Jeanette. Molestation of Fay’s and Melvin’s two biological daughters, Jerri and June, began when they were toddlers.

Then Melvin’s second marriage to Venice brought a new stepfamily within his reach: Pambi, handicapped at birth, was first molested by Melvin at age 5, and Bobbie was still in a stroller when Melvin’s incestuous advances began. Venice’s and Melvin’s biological daughter Jenise fell prey to her father’s sexual abuse at the age of two.

But the cycle of abuse was not confined to Melvin. Venice’s second husband and father of Denise and Bobbie gained custody of the children when Venice was deemed unfit by the court. He began molesting both his biological and stepdaughters. Director Whitney himself also became a victim of abuse by his Uncle Jim at the age of five.

Film also explores the murder and rape of Josephine Segal, a retired WWII nurse, who discovered Melvin in bed with Denise. Though eventually he was convicted on 12 counts of molestation and served 8 years in jail, Melvin was never brought to trial for Segal’s murder, despite strong evidence and eyewitness accounts from his daughters, who not only saw the murder, but were later forced to bury the body in the woods.

Docu unfolds as a series of intimate interviews with many of the victims, each revealing a legacy of suicide, drug abuse, alcoholism, prostitution and homelessness, attesting to the long-lasting catastrophic impact of their childhood’s sexual abuse. Among the highlights is Whitney’s lengthy interview with Melvin, when he was in a retirement home, in which he denies any wrongdoing.

Melvin’s voiceover narration punctuates the horrific story, which also integrates excerpts of various chapters from the family’s past. Scandalous testimonies of how Melvin was paying the girls 25 cents to one dollar, depending on the depth of his penetration, or how he forced them to get “training” by using crayons and hot dogs, are devastatingly shocking but they’re often placed or presented in a manner that diminishes their emotional effect. Overall, this richly-detailed docu suffers from an unnecessarily cluttered structure, which makes it difficult to unravel the specific family links among its numerous victims.