Sister Helen

Helen Travis was a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails, street-smart, foul-mouthed, boozy broad. Then a series of drug and alcohol-related tragedies struck her family. Her two sons died young—one of a drug overdose and one in a shooting—and her alcoholic husband drank himself to death. These experiences inspired her to change her life. She became a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails, street-smart, foul-mouthed, nun.

Sister Helen is a documentary about Sister Helen Travis and the cause she has devoted her golden years to, which is operating a halfway house in the South Bronx for alcoholics and drug addicts. It is a boarding house kind of dwelling, for Sister Helen and at any given time about twenty men.

Rather than be defeated by the pain and regret she suffered in her life, Sister Helen chose to put her all into giving at-risk people an opportunity they might otherwise not have to avoid the same kind of pain and regret.

Though her genuine compassion for the men she takes in is unmistakable, she adopts a tough, cranky persona. Her message to everyone who comes through her door is that they are guilty until proven innocent, they won’t be able to fool or manipulate her because she knows they’ll try and she’s ready for it, they won’t get the benefit of the doubt, they won’t get any breaks, and they won’t get any second chances. She feels like she has to set the tone that they are sadly mistaken if they think that they will find weakness here to exploit just because she’s a woman or because this is a religious non-profit enterprise.

Mostly she remains a hard-ass beyond that orientation period, though you can make a case that she individualizes her treatment of people a bit as she gets to know them.

Actually one of the odder examples of that is an Asian alcoholic guy who seems about as hopeless as they come. For all her tough-talking, no-tolerance stuff, he keeps falling off the wagon, he keeps getting kicked out for it, she keeps soon thereafter softening and letting him back, he keeps falling off the wagon, and on and on. It happens at least a high single digits number of times, if not double digits. I’m not sure why he warrants all these extra chances that others don’t.

Mostly, though, she won’t take shit from anyone, and the retribution for drinking, doing drugs, lying to her, etc. will be swift and sure. And she’ll remind you of that at every opportunity.

She gets glowing endorsements in the film from current and former residents, as well as from a parole officer who knows that any of his people who are a good fit for this house will have a better shot at recovery here than pretty much anywhere.

A few thoughts I had while I watched this documentary:

One is that most of these folks are fucked up in ways that seem to go beyond drugs and alcohol, and, relatedly, as much as this is supposed to be a feel-good story about inspiring successes, it’s not clear that all that many people under her supervision are doing all that great.

Granted, there is one fellow who is a college-educated, white-collar professional who lost everything he had—a family, a home in the suburbs, a career with a six-figure income—because he couldn’t stay away from drugs, and who, under Sister Helen’s guidance, has recovered from rock bottom, learned humility, and slowly, painstakingly, rebuilt himself as a better person and rebuilt his life. Once drugs and alcohol were subtracted from his life, there was plenty left.

But he may be the only one like that (not counting Sister Helen herself). For most or all of the others, subtract drugs and alcohol from their life and they’ve still got major issues, major limitations. Some appear to be feeble-minded to the point of being at least mildly retarded, others to have significant mental illness, others to have substantial emotional damage, and others to have the habits of a criminal lifestyle, but one can infer that there’s something like that going on with just about all of them.

The alcohol and drug use, then, is more of a symptom than the problem. Sans alcohol and drugs they’re minimally functional people at best who don’t fit particularly well in society, don’t tend to have what it takes for healthy relationships with much depth, and don’t have a lot to contribute. The alcohol and drug use seems like a way—albeit probably not the best way—they self-medicate to deal with these issues.

So with seemingly very rare exceptions, you have people who never get admitted in the first place because Sister Helen pegs them as bullshitters during the screening process, people who almost immediately fail and get kicked out, people who manage to stick around for a bit and then get kicked out, and people who manage to stick around for the intermediate or longer term whose lives are basically simple ones of doing some minimal manual labor in exchange for being given the food and shelter to keep them alive in a boarding house in a shitty neighborhood.

Yeah, they’re not drunk or stoned, for now, but it doesn’t seem like much of a life beyond that.

I guess it’s still a success story for that subset, if that’s about the most life they could have. You know, if a person is disabled in some sense that will keep them no higher mentally than the level of a 7 year old, then getting them to be a well-behaved 7 year old who can do a few simple chores around the house is maybe the highest realistic goal one can have.

But in terms of mental illness, I’m thinking about, like, this guy who has lived there for years, praises Sister Helen in interviews and talks about how she enabled him to get off drugs and turn his life around, and then gets kicked out because Sister Helen and the other residents can no longer tolerate the fact that he refuses to ever bathe.

Are drugs his main problem, and getting him off drugs the solution? Well, I’d say drugs are a problem, and all else being equal it’s better that he not be a drug addict than that he be one. But he also has some kind of mental illness that manifests itself as a phobia about bathing, to where he’ll avoid bathing even if it means lying (when challenged, he fumblingly suggests that maybe people are mistaken in thinking he never bathes because he does so late at night when they’re asleep), getting kicked out of his home, losing what he himself identifies as that which has enabled him to turn his life around, disappointing the person he credits with saving his life, etc.

Fixing his drug addiction doesn’t fix his mental illness (which means that really his drug addiction likely won’t get fixed in any permanent way either).

I don’t mean to be too harsh about it, or to come off like I think mentally handicapped people have lives of no value. Sister Helen’s program enables some—not all and probably not even most—of the fucked up people who come her way to have the best lives that can reasonably be expected, and that’s not nothing.

The other reaction I have is that I wonder if she takes the “tough old broad that you better not even think about trying to get anything over on” shtick a little far.

There’s a scene late in the film where one of her long term, most loyal residents has a urine drug test come up positive for drugs, and she drops the hammer on him. He frantically tries to defend himself, insisting that it has to be a mistake because he absolutely did not do drugs, but she’s having none of it. Her attitude is: You did drugs. You’re lying to me. Either of those by itself is enough to get your ass booted from here.

Challenged to take another test, he tries but says he’s too upset to urinate but he will as soon as he can, which she scoffs at. He pleads, he keeps insisting on his innocence, he tells her he would never betray her, he says he’s sure he can get things set right if he’s allowed to speak to the doctor who said the test was positive, etc., and she’s just hostile and antagonistic about it and reiterates that he can no longer live there.

It’s not as if she has no sympathy. She admits in an interview that she didn’t sleep all that night contemplating this, that she feels terrible for him. But she thinks that she can’t let any of that show in his presence, that she can’t display any weakness that could be exploited, even for someone she has had a positive relationship with for years.

OK, maybe she knows better than I and what she’s doing is the best way to handle this. But my reaction is that even if hard-ass policy is justified, a hard-ass personal manner with someone you’re close to might not be. If it were me, I’d be inclined to say something like this to the guy:

Hey look, man. You know I care about you, you know I want what’s best for you. On a personal level, I absolutely want to believe you. But there are reasons I have to enforce strict rules about this kind of thing. I’m not saying I know for a fact that you’re lying. I’m not accusing you of that. But I know that some people in your situation are telling the truth and some are lying, and in the long run if I go with my heart and believe everyone is telling the truth then it turns out worse for all concerned. I have to treat these cases as genuine positive drug tests and enforce the rules accordingly, no matter how I feel about a given individual. I genuinely hope this test is mistaken, and if you can prove that it is beyond just insisting that it has to be and asking me to take your word for it, I will happily reverse my decision. And if you can’t and you have to leave here, I’ll still be rooting for you to overcome this setback and recover. Maybe that’ll even mean your coming back here one day, in which case I’ll welcome you. I’m sorry it has to be this way. It’s possible you’re being treated unjustly, and if so I’m sorry. But, like I say, in the long run it’s justified to have a rule that—in the absence of refutation—a positive drug test means you aren’t eligible to live here anymore. Please understand that, and understand that it’s nothing personal and it doesn’t change how I feel about you.

The bottom line is the same, but you’re not just rejecting the guy and insisting he’s guilty. And I’m not advocating taking this verbal approach just to soften the blow; I’m saying that, for me at least and actually I’m confident for her at a deeper level, this is a very sincere explanation of why one is doing what one is doing, and what it does and doesn’t imply.

And then it turns out that there’s evidence he was telling the truth after all. That’s enough to get her to allow him to stay, but unfortunately not enough to get her to apologize to him about reacting so harshly initially.

If anything, he’s the one who is more apologetic, like “I shouldn’t have gotten upset. I should have realized there was this other evidence and brought it to your attention sooner,” etc.

But then, who am I to criticize? She’s the one with the experience working with these people, and even after this whole incident this guy seems as devoted to her as ever, indicating that he doesn’t feel like he was wronged by her or treated unkindly. I’m just saying it made me uncomfortable, and I don’t see myself being able to treat someone like that. Again, even if I believed a hard-ass policy was justified, I wouldn’t be such a hard-ass on a personal level about it.

On the whole, though it may or may not seem like it from what I’ve said, I think Sister Helen is a highly admirable person and I respect her for tirelessly working and sacrificing to attempt to better the lives of folks that many people would probably think aren’t worth it. And I’m glad this documentary exists to tell her story.

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