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Interview with Monte Hallis

STORYCENTER Blog

We are pleased to present posts by StoryCenter staff, storytellers, colleagues from partnering organizations, and thought leaders in Storywork and related fields.

Interview with Monte Hallis

Emily Paulos

At StoryCenter we have a creation myth. For the first ten years, as often as not I would lead off my initial lecture about our work by showing a single story from the very first Digital Storytelling workshop. The workshop was lead by my partner – the late Dana Atchley – in this work, as we found ourselves one weekend at the American Film Institute (AFI) in Los Angeles. It was one of, if not the first, production workshops in the new Apple lab for digital production at AFI. Friday night to Sunday afternoon, February 4-6, 1993. The 1 minute 30 second movie that premiered on Tuesday night, February 8. I had gone home, but Dana and our sidekick Patrick Milligan had stayed down to attend. 

The story was by Monte Hallis. I can’t say I remember much… A smart, focused woman among a group of seven participants. She was going through a major change taking care of her friend Tanya Shaw, a young mother of two girls who was dying of AIDS at a local hospice center. Dana asked Monte to make it personal. She did. The rest is the story/history of our organization. 

While in Los Angeles for a workshop in February of 2013, twenty years to the week of the original workshop, it struck me that we should celebrate our 20th Anniversary with a discussion with Monte Hallis. She graciously agreed.

Here is the interview.

Interview with Monte Hallis - February 13, 2013

Joe: What do you remember about how you ended up in the workshop in 1993?

Monte: I don't remember. I know I was invited by someone, but I don't remember who.  And to be honest with you, I had no interest in the workshop whatsoever. At the time I was inundated, I was overwhelmed with Tanya, my life was overwhelming, Tanya was dying, we hadn't really placed her children, everything was tenuous and I was more or less the only one left to deal with all of that. Tanya was ready to transition, and I was scared to death. I wanted to help her die in peace, I wanted to do it right, and I didn't know if I could. I had never been with anybody who had ever died before. I told her I would try.  

So with the workshop, I think I just needed a break. I felt a little distanced from my creative energies. I had been a designer since college, and I felt like I needed to pull away a bit to provide some balance at that moment, with everything that was going on with Tanya. So because it was an invitation, I accepted it. I didn't really know what the workshop was about. I knew it was at the American Film Institute, and those were my people. From what I understood, we were going to play with a new software program and I was going to get together with people from various fields, and at many levels that sounded interesting to me.

I had no idea. In fact I felt annoyed when I arrived at the workshop and found I was going to have to create something. "You mean I have to have some material? What? I thought we were just going to mess around?"

That is how I ended up at the workshop.

Joe: So the irony was that you were taking the workshop to get away from all of the emotional burden of helping with Tanya. I guess that didn't quite work out.

Monte: When I was told I was going to have to tell a story, I said to Dana, "Listen, I am not in a place to tell a story. I have these other things I am dealing with."  And I remember that Dana challenged me, and asked me to explain, and I gave him a thirty second version of what was going on. It was a story, but it wasn't personal to me. And I knew I had some material to work with. We had just done an interview with NBC's Dateline, and I imagined doing some sort of collage of the events in Tanya's life and my connection to it or something. And Dana said, “Well maybe you should consider doing something more personal about you,” which of course was not what I was intending to do. [Laughs.]

So I played this game I play with myself, which I sometime do in my creative process, just to let myself suspend my judgment and just go along with an idea, even though I might initially be resistant. To test the waters to see if anything comes out of it. Honestly, I just got quiet and wrote something very quickly, which was very present for me. It was very intuitive, and Tanya was right there. And I think I knew, at some deeper level, that Tanya would be passing in a day or two, but, in another way, I didn't know for sure. It was perfect. It could not have been a more perfect voice, a more perfect opportunity for me [to be present with what I was going through].  

Joe: As I remember, we had Dana's Next Exit show on Thursday night, and participants in the workshop were encouraged to attend. Then we had the first meeting on the Friday night, and the seven participants were sharing ideas around the room, and I remember Dana asking that question about what makes this story personal to you. I don't remember your response, or frankly any thoughts about what you were going through, so that suggests he may have spoke with you one on one as well. But you didn't write the piece that night at the workshop. I seem to remember you went away and then returned the next day with the script, as you just described, just done, and we didn't do a thing to change it. You were going to see Tanya every night. Did you go there after the workshop? Is that when you wrote it?

Monte: That's right. I was seeing Tanya every day, and I went that night, but I wrote the piece after I returned home. In fact, I am sure I didn't see Dana's piece the night before for that reason, and that is why the workshop process was more or less a surprise to me.  

I went back home and wrote the piece, and I would be surprised if it took me fifteen minutes. It was all right there.

Joe: I remember when my brother died, I had a midnight process, where the next day was the memorial and I was expected or wanted to make a memorial piece, and it was like that. I just allowed it to come out in a rush... what I call a "one take Charlie" event. I’m not over thinking this, I am going to say what I feel. No re-write, no second-guessing. 

Monte: I remember writing it, and I didn't know what I was going to write. I just wrote it, and when I got to the end, I laughed. The ending was, "I didn't know she knew my middle name,” because I had been with her the night before (or sometime that week if not the night before) and she told me that, "All we got is where we are going," and she told me that, and literally said my middle name. And I remember thinking, "She never said my middle name before," but it passed instantly in a flash out of my mind. So when it came back out when I wrote it, I laughed, and I always know when I laugh like that, I have hit upon something. Over the years, when I’m working creatively I recognize that laugh as a sign that I was on to something. And the tone of those last lines… it had a little bite, a little darkness, and that was something Tanya and I both shared. And this was something that made us so close; we knew that a couple of steps either left or right in our lives, and we could have been in each other's shoes. This is what made us resonate in each other's life initially.

Joe: You paint a rich picture of having joined a workshop reluctantly, to get away, then you land right back into the heart of the moment of your subconscious processing of the essential quality of the relationship. I am guessing this is why this story has resonated with us all these years – it was so essential a representation of two people coming to "know" each other as friends. 

So you went to see Tanya that night, and she was at a hospice center?

Monte: Yes, she was at what was then the new the Bean Hospice Center in South Central [Editor's note: Opened in 1992 and named after Carl Bean, an openly gay black minister and founder of the Minority AIDS Project in Los Angeles]. She was a trailblazer in every way; she was the first woman at Carl Bean. After getting all this local news coverage, people kept wanting to know about it. They watched every last bit, including which hospice she was going to.  

Joe: The next day, you showed up to work on the movie, and – I remember you telling me when we spoke about this years ago (five years after the workshop in 1998) – you said you stayed up late that night to work on the piece.

Monte: When the creative spark hit, I suddenly wanted to find all the right images. I could see it my head, and I just had make it happen, so yes, I stayed up quite late working on it. That was the fun part – putting the visual puzzle together. I looked at what I had, and what I could juxtapose, and then I started looking at images that would illustrate it in maybe not a linear fashion. That is not my style, but maybe something with more subtext.

Joe: There were several images in the piece that were particularly provocative, and, perhaps you do not remember it, but particularly the use of the shooting range. What was that about?

Monte: I do remember. One of the things both Tanya and I shared was that we both had very violent childhoods. That was part of our connection. And of course there was the violence of her impending death. As I said, it could have been either one of us. I never thought anyone would get it [that image], but it resonated for me. There was violence and tumultuousness in many things: her illness, her past, my past, and how we found this kinship. It wasn't in spite of the violence in our backgrounds, it was because of it. I had another close friend, who has since passed, who also had a very violent childhood. I have found over the years that in those kind of connections, when you find people, you don't have to say a lot. There is such a deep, deep connection. If you have been able to survive that, with certain things intact – emotionality, communication, your heart, whatever level of forgiveness, a certain intellectual capacity – and you make a connection at that level, it runs deep. You talk differently; there is a different kind of connection. So that was that image, and I am sure I thought, “No one will get this,” but that was the choice I made.  

Joe: It is rich. One of the things I did when I was teaching at the University of California in Berkeley was have the students look at a print out of the sixteen images in order from your piece, and ask them, “What is this story about?” And it was uncanny. They said it is either about a woman who lost her children, or a woman who was lost to her children.  

We describe in our workshops the importance of distinguishing between illustration that is explicit to the story, essentially illustrating nouns in the script, and images that have an implicit relationship to the story, images that suggest through metaphor, a relationship. Your story was very much using the latter approach. The narrative was so sparse that the images gave us another way into the story, and we always felt that was one of its strengths as something we wanted to represent for our storytellers as an aspiration.

In the writing of the script, the opening line, "I never had a lot of friends. When I was young, I confused friendship with popularity," has always been powerful, especially as you return at the end with the closure of a friend being someone who knows your middle name. For at least one of our instructors, Daniel in Denver, he always felt that initial confession about friendship established your own vulnerability as a storyteller and made us aware that you were processing some deep issues about your own childhood, your own life, through this story about Tanya. Do you think it is fair to say that this disclosure was part of your relating your own loss and pain to Tanya's loss; that in a sense it was also a purgation of your own childhood loss?

Monte: Absolutely. I think that's why I stuck with her through everything. On so many levels [of shared experience] – the loss of childhood, the loss of life, the loss of innocence, and joy, and things that could have played out differently.

Joe: Also, at least in the way I tell about this story, I suggest that the story brought together two large stories in social history. One was the public health story about the idea that AIDS was no longer a gay male story, but was affecting women, and disproportionately women of color. The other was that it was being told seven months after the Los Angeles riots, at a time that race relations in LA – and the larger US – were perhaps at a low point in the decades after the Civil Rights Movement. I remember that many friends in the LA community arts scene, many of whom had been friends for years, suddenly couldn't talk to each other, couldn't be seen hanging out together. People were confused, angered, perhaps scared. And here is your story, about a Black-White relationship, that seemed to transcend some of those recent issues. Was that part of your and Tanya's story?

Monte: The LA riots had a big impact on what was going on with Tanya and me. Tanya was living in South Central, and I was living in West Hollywood, and she needed prescriptions filled and someone to check in on her. And people were not going down there, and they couldn't go down there because of the curfew. I had an old Mercedes that was my primary vehicle, and I didn't think twice about going down to see Tanya. I don't know if I was smart or naïve… but in this journey with Tanya, it didn't just erode some of the issues I had growing up, not having grown up around any black people, it annihilated them. Because the fears that were going on around the riots, the racial fears, they all seemed so trite. We were doing life and death stuff, we were doing, “Are your kids going to have a home, are they safe, are you going to die in pain?” The riots were a hum over everything. It was newsworthy, but it was nice because the city was so quiet. And because I was in such a place with Tanya, and was into work in that community, I had a lot of information at my disposal about going into South Central. As soon as I was acclimated to the neighborhood during that period, I knew a lot of the women connected to Tanya. I just felt the news was not OK, it was pumped up really quickly, and I wouldn't buy into that. It would not occur to me not to go down there; I did not see the risk. I was down there every day, and I didn't experience what I would see every night on the news. 

Tanya used to say I was the whitest black girl she knew, and I would say, "Well, there is nothing white about you," and she said, “Yeah, I know." The race thing only came up once, right around the time of the riots, where she became too sick to continue to help look for families to place her children. She had been interviewing families and had to stop, and she asked if I would do the interviews, and she said, "Well, don't forget, I want a white family." We had not talked about this. Maybe a little at the beginning, but that issue had gone by the wayside. "Tanya," I said, "come on, you know if I am going to go out and meet people, and say that, and I'm white, then every social worker is going to come after that idea [and oppose the idea of a stated preference].” Tanya goes, "Its pretty simple, Monte. If it’s a white family, they will have a better chance at an education." And it was just like, "Okay, that's all I need. And I hope I can get someone in time." As far as the issue of race was concerned, it wasn't about race. It was about people and experiences. We needed to get through it.

Joe: We tell the story about the day the story was shown, two days after the workshop. That was the day Tanya died. Can you tell us that story?

Monte: I remember when she died, I felt relieved. I just felt this great release. I didn't know what that was going to look like. I had been driving around, picking up a radio so she could have some music to listen to, and something made me say, “I have to get to the hospice,” and she was dying, and I was with her. I sang to her as she died. People who were there, who knew me and knew the relationship, were worried about me. And I probably stayed there, holding her, awhile after she stopped breathing. And I remember people coming to me, and I remember that I felt elated, I felt great. I was happy because Tanya had died well, and I was able to be there for her. And I was able to keep my word to her. And I thanked her for the gift she gave me, allowing me to be there with her, greater than any gift I gave her. To hold her while she left. I sort of floated around, I hung around, and then her crazy family started coming in, and I knew how they had been with Tanya. There was some discussion about what to do with her body, and what they expected me to do, to pay for something, etc., but I just kind of floated away. I floated away from the hospice.   

And honestly I don't remember anything but driving from the hospice to the AFI. I might have taken the long route, but I think I just went straight there. When I got to AFI, I was sitting there in the car, and I felt her with me. Her presence was in the car. And I said, “Well, I have to go do this thing, I hope you like it.” [Laughs.]  I felt her presence, but I also felt she wasn't really hanging around, she was going, and I remember [at the screening] feeling, wow, I wish she had been there, I wish she had seen this. I wonder what she would have thought.

I had no idea what I was going to do with the presentation. I had no idea what I was going to say. I remember just picking up the chair, and putting it there in front. Inviting her to join the presentation. I don't remember ever being so vulnerable in front of other people, so completely in the moment.

Joe: It is a wonderful story. You were sort of a midwife in two senses. You were Tanya's midwife to the other side, and you were sort of the accidental midwife to an international movement. We like this as our founding myth because it is so much about presence. We need to witness each other; we need to be aware of each other. It is also a story where you can see where our work would head, to stories in public health, to stories about resources and support, and to stories of resiliency in the face of deep loss. 

So tell me, what happened with her two daughters? Were they finally adopted?

Monte: There was a couple hanging around that really, really wanted to adopt the kids. To this day, I am not sure… Tanya probably knew there were some good reasons for this family to adopt them, but she might have seen some reasons not to have them adopt them. And it is always hard to tell. The foundation we set up – the Tanya Shaw Foundation – was focused on this issue: how women with children, facing terminal illness, could die in peace, knowing their children were taken care of, and they could feel empowered in the process? And sometimes that formula works incredibly, where the birth mom could be connected to the adoptive parents, and the children could get this lovely closure because they were already placed in a loving home. And the Foundation would work for those situations, but sometimes the situation was an utter disaster. And I learned as much about this from working with Tanya as I did working with the other parents. We learned that sometimes the birth mothers would sabotage these adoptions because it was their way of extending their life. As the birth mothers’ health diminished, many times they would have dementia, so you had to had assess if they were of sound mind to make these choices. It became complicated… convoluted.

There was a white family from Bakersfield that showed up and were consistent with the girls and took the girls several times for a lot of respite. And they came to Tanya and said they wanted to adopt the girls. And Tanya wasn't that excited about it. As it came down to it, the girls had been placed a couple of times, once with an NBA star, and it didn't work out. The older girl was at an age where she was acting out and had a lot of emotional baggage to deal with, and they decided they wanted to adopt the little one. And Tanya was adamant that she wanted the girls adopted together. So a few of these placements, and a few hiccups, and I said, “Tanya, we have to make a decision,” and she said, “Well, I was hoping you would adopt the kids.” I was not in a great relationship. I loved the kids. If I had been in a different place, I probably would have considered it, but I didn't think it would be great with the kids. I would have probably taken the older one, I would have been better, and understood the issues she was having. So finally Tanya relinquished, and gave her blessing, and the family from Bakersfield adopted. And then after Tanya passed, the children were having their issues, and they were in counseling, and I would join them in counseling. And finally the counselor said to me, "I think you should back out of participating in the therapy. It will be easier for the new family." It wasn't very easy, but I did. 

Later, I was doing a job in New York, and I got a call from the adoptive parents – some kind of social call – but we had not talked in awhile. I said, "How are the kids?" She said the younger one was fine, but I said, “Well, how is the older one?” and she said, "Well, Monte, we had to give her up." And I'm like, "What?" They put her into the system. I couldn't believe it… that was the worst of the worst of the worst. I hung up and tried to track her down, but because I was not family, I spent a year trying, and because it was high profile, I couldn't get anywhere. It was horrible. But I had to live with that.

Then, I had kept my old phone number just for that purpose, because I thought the girls would call me someday. One day, the older one called me and said, "Do you remember me?" I said, "Yeah, a little bit." [Laughs.] She was going to high school over in San Bernardino and she needed some money for a prom dress. She was desperate, and that was the reason she called, and we reconnected.  

Joe: You told me a few years back that you were now Facebook friends with both sisters.

Monte: Yes, I became Facebook friends with the older sister and found out she had one child. She now has two. I just reconnected with the younger sister, and she has been a little bit hesitant. I still have stuff of their mom’s, but they are hesitant about reconnecting with their mom’s story. I found out they have connected with Tanya's sister, who is great, and I'm really happy about that.

Joe: That's great. If there was a cosmic context to have them come tell their story, not being the daughters of Tanya, but just being themselves, it would be a wonderful circle. It is wonderful to know they have moved on.

I am not going to take any more of your time. This has been extraordinary.