Posted on 10 July 2013.
Interview by Dino Thompson-Sarmiento, Senior Writer
Edits by Berlin Sylvestre, Staff Writer
It wasn’t all that long ago that I was in Vatican City, staring up at the illustrious art laminating the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, attempting to make my penance with God for being gay when I realized: “Hold on a sec. Michelangelo, a known homosexual, painted this!” I was in the holiest of holy places for Catholics beneath the most revered piece of work ever bestowed upon this religion … and it was rapturously created by a gay man’s hands. The realization hit me like a stack of Bibles: Homophobia is human error. Being gay is not a mistake; I am not a mistake.
The ego is a very real thing and it’s perhaps no more pronounced than in public figures like actors, models, and politicians — especially the latter, whose lives are a wax and wane of high praise and mud-slinging on every radio and television across the globe.
It made sense that former governor of New Jersey Jim McGreevey was apprehensive to speak candidly at first. After all, this was the formerly married man and father of two who, in the midst of a gay love affair, was outed by the press and virtually forced to resign in a highly televised press conference. This was a man who made the snickering jackals of media giddy with easy-target glee. Gov. McGreevey, though in love, was a broken man.
In more recent times, McGreevey has come to realize that life isn’t defined by our past … that there’s always a way to restart our own narrative. After a very public divorce, the fallen governor went through seminary school and received his Master of Divinity degree. His new mission? Helping prison inmates — most notably, female inmates — realize that they, too, can break the bonds of a sordid past and start anew.
Documenting his sojourn was acclaimed filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi, whose skeptical eye has so fearlessly captured political scandals, fallouts, and campaigns that she earned six Emmy nominations for her work. Her 2013 documentary,“Fall to Grace,” recently aired on HBO but is a soft departure from the cynicism of her earlier works. The two came together with FENUXE to give us an intimate look at the new life of Governor Jim Edward McGreevey and to expose the American prison system’s fallacies.
Why did you want to do “Fall to Grace” and why now?
McGreevey: Alexandra wrote me and presented the idea. My partner, Mark O’Donnell, was against it, but Alexandra was interested in focusing on the [imprisoned] women with whom I worked. She felt this story would highlight second chances. At the time, five percent of the world population was incarcerated and twenty five percent of those prisoners were in the U.S.
Pelosi: I had never met [McGreevey] and I honestly thought he was being a cynic in trying to become a priest, but as I got to know him, I saw his sincerity.
Gov. McGreevey, when did you first know you were gay?
McGreevey: Some time between five and six, I knew I was different but I didn’t know how. At eight or nine, I recognized I had feelings for the same sex.
Why not lead an authentic life if you knew?
McGreevey: My religious traditions taught me that being gay was sinful and damnable … and that played a big role. I didn’t want it. On one level, I didn’t want to be authentic to something damnable. To the world, Liberace was different. I didn’t wanna be that man. Being called ‘gay’ or ‘homo’ were cutting because they were true. I made a decision based on the teachings of the church and on self-preservation. The closet seemed like a far safer place.
How does this piece compare to your documentary “The Trials of Ted Haggard”?
Pelosi: Both these men were imprisoned by the church, but in Jim’s story, the worst didn’t define him. He didn’t let that one thing define who he is.
Do you feel that, by positioning yourself to help rehabilitate prisoners, you’re healing yourself somehow?
McGreevey: At some point early on I did. The dean of the seminary I was attending suggested I do this. I’ve met people who’ve been in prison for fifteen, twenty years and they’ve lost so much of themselves … so much of their person that I question the goal of prisons. [Imprisoning people] is like soul-letting as opposed to blood-letting. It’s very dispiriting.
What’s your ultimate goal?
McGreevey: I want to bring these prisoners’ stories to life. We need to surrender judgment and look at them through gentler eyes. I am that imprisoned woman. I want to restart the narrative of these lives. Most of us make mistakes. We all fall down, but we get up. We are God’s beautiful children.
How do you think this documentary is going to affect the public?
McGreevey: Awareness. My aspiration is that we raise the question about how we imprison people in this country. Nearly 70 percent of released prisoners will commit a felony within three years. What we’re doing is not working. Addicts are not being treated. Hence, the United States Department of Justice has given the [Community Reintegration Program] money to help people with addiction through 2015. In the end, we’ll end up saving money, as there will be less repeated offenses.
Pelosi: [The prison system] is definitely broken. It doesn’t make sense to lock up addicts and Jim has proved this through his rehabilitation project.
You have a wealth of knowledge on the American political platform in being Nancy Pelosi’s daughter, filming numerous political documentaries, and writing books on the subject. Has the media turned our political campaigns into freak shows? How would you describe the American political system?
Pelosi: I have great respect for politicians, but all professions have bad apples. Media spotlighting can be dangerous.
Don’t you think that when politicians supply the media with salacious scandal we owe it to the public to disclose these events?
Pelosi: Well … John Edwards was a fraud and he needed to be revealed.
By having an affair while in office, Gov. McGreevey, do you think there was some part of you that wanted to get caught or was it the thrill of getting away with it, satisfying the ego you mention in the movie?
McGreevey: It was a combination of many factors, including loneliness. You just can’t be authentic in the closet.
What advice would you give men who are living dual lives today?
McGreevey: Each individual has to make his or her own decisions. I traveled the country and was amazed to see gay men in the closet all over the place. Most people try to do the best they can. I will say … living openly is far healthier. Honesty equals self acceptance. Some say you’re only as sick as your secrets.
Why’d you pick a career in the Episcopal church?
McGreevey: I love the understanding of failure and redemption. Faith is a powerful tool to change the narrative of your life. It’s helped me find the gift of my life and a sense of gratitude for it. I first approached it as a cerebral decision, then a journey of heart and the acceptance of self.
Are you happy with who you are today Gov. McGreevey?
McGreevey: Yes, and I’m grateful for a loving partner, family with whom I work, for the women behind bars, and for the opportunity to shed light on their world. Being gay is a great gift. It’s allowed me to have compassion for others.
What’s your greatest achievement?
McGreevey: My two extraordinary daughters and my loving partner.
How does your mom (Minority House Leader Nancy Pelosi) feel about your career, Alexandra?
Pelosi: *moment of hesitation, then under her breath:* You’ll have to ask her. But she’s like any mom … she’s proud. She’d be proud of whatever I’m doing.
Back to ego: Is this documentary part of a lust for recognition and has it been satisfied?
McGreevey: When you look at this world, money and power isn’t permanent — it’s just temporary. Self love and self acceptance are very important. We’re precious valuable children of God and we serve others in distress. When we realize we’re healing others, we begin to recognize the gifts we bring to the world.
Do you feel many gay men have this affliction because they’re not learning to love themselves because they are gay?
McGreevey: Many of us have a healthy sense of shame, feeling that because we’re gay, we’re not good enough. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. The church has been so wrong on so many issues. Ironically, so many gay religious leaders have lived the blessing and burden of being gay. How we transform the gift of being gay is through the services of others.
Governor, thank you for being so candid. I hope it helps many of our readers out there realize that they do have a second chance, that they can get back up after falling from grace.
And it was with tears in his voice that the genteel and enlightened Jim McGreevey thanked FENUXE for also being a platform to transform lives. You can watch “Fall to Grace” anytime on HBOGO.com as the former governor follows Alexandra Pelosi inside a women’s correctional facility and uses his experience with hardship to counsel women back into God’s light and feeling their own sense of worth and purpose.