By: Joelle Charbonneau
This week has been interesting to say the least. A news story broke about three murders that took place in 1967. The murders were committed by a 15 year-old boy named Jim Wolcott. He had a trial. Because of a diagnosis of a mental illness, he was declared not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental hospital until it could be proven he was no longer a threat to society. While at the institution, he received his high school degree and began taking college classes in psychology. 6 years after he began treatment, a new trial was held and he was declared mentally stable. Since that time, he finished college with a degree in psychology and went onto receive both a masters and doctorate in the subject. He now teaches at a university where he has received awards for excellence in teaching and has had students who are proud to call him a mentor go on to great things in the psychology and psychiatry fields.
The reason I have paid a great deal of attention to this story is because I attended the university where he currently teaches and took 2 classes from him. I found him to be an interesting teacher. He pushed students to think for themselves, especially in the honors class I took my senior year. He was smart, engaging and was compassionate when I needed to miss his class in order to come home for an emergency in my then boyfriend’s and now husband’s family.
The story broke this week that he had changed his name after leaving the mental institution all those years ago and that no one until now knew his past history. The mayor of the university town has called for his dismissal. People around the country have said that he should not be trusted to be in a room with students because he killed in his past or because he could have a mental break as he did over 46 years ago. The university has stood by him saying that while they were unaware of his past, they know him to be a valued teacher whose students have sung his praises.
Since hearing the news, I’ve thought long and hard about how I feel about this teacher’s past and how it should impact his present. Reading the story made me feel a ill. My initial thoughts were “Someone I know killed his family. He’s now a teacher. That’s terrible.” But those knee-jerk reactions have given way to something more important…a strange kind of hope that the justice system we as a society profess to believe in really works. That a boy with a mental illness can receive treatment and find a way to not only live a good life, but one that has had profound positive effects on thousands of students.
Despite so many advancements in our society, there remains a huge stigma attached to mental illness. The story that broke about this professor makes him sound sinister because he was once diagnosed with one. At the same time, it makes it sound as if having a mental illness helped him avoid justice and that he has never had to show remorse over his actions because of his past condition.
I disagree in the slant the reporter took. Maybe because I have sat and listened to this man lecture and have had conversations with him during office hours or in the hall of the school I attended. But after much soul searching, I can passionately say that I disagree that he should step down or be made to feel ashamed of the life he has built for himself since that terrible night over 4 decades ago.
Has he publicly stated that he is remorseful about his crime? I have no idea and I am not certain that it should make a difference. Speaking the words “I’m sorry” are easily said and just as easily forgotten. Living a life pursuing knowledge in the area that caused him to pick up a weapon and kill his family and dedicating his life to advancing that field so that others will not do what he did….that, to me, means so much more than any words. Every day that he spends helping educate and research that which caused him to take his family’s life is a way of remembering them and making sure that no one does what he once did.
The system worked.
No one can ever bring back lives that are taken, but there is great good in the determination to find mental health and to promote awareness in everything that he has done since. Does that negate the horror of what happened in 1967? No. Nothing can. But knowing that he has dedicated his life to a purpose that might save other families the same terrible fate that his suffered…to me that is more justice than most victims ever receive.
So perhaps I am naïve. Perhaps it is my hope that people can be redeemed that makes me write this post. But I stand by Dr. James St. James and am hopeful that since he demonstrated that he found a way out of the darkness that others can, too.