Jim O’Neill’s eight-part series on one woman’s decades-long struggle with schizophrenia, “Rosie’s Journey,” was just published in the Dallas Morning News, with the final installment running last Sunday. Before the series’ publication O’Neill, 43, moved to Bloomberg News in New York, where he now covers higher education. Prior to his two years reporting for the Morning News, O’Neill spent nine years at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Edward B. Colby: How did you first learn about Rosie Sims?
Jim O’Neill: Well, my beat at the time for the Dallas Morning News was covering Dallas County government, and that included the county jail system, and I had done a number of stories on problems with the jail’s health care delivery to inmates — under U.S. Supreme Court rulings, inmates are required to receive proper medical care but they weren’t getting it, and people were waiting weeks and even months to get proper care, both people with chronic illness, people with mental illness, and so forth.
And then, as a result, I was kind of keeping up on the conditions there, and found out that this one woman had died in the jail. So I wrote a small piece that ran inside the metro section when I found out that she’d died, and it wasn’t very clear what caused it, but it turns out she was mentally ill — she had schizophrenia for many years. And I thought that it might put a human face on the whole issue of inmates in jails with mental illness, because more and more people are ending up in the jail rather than in state hospitals, and [that’s] obviously not the most appropriate place for them, since they don’t necessarily get the proper treatment. So I approached the family and it took a bit of time, but after awhile they warmed up to the idea of telling her story, and I have to give them a lot of credit because so many people, even today, feel that mental illness is a stigma, and without their cooperation and willing[ness] to share their story, none of this would have been possible. So that’s how I first learned out about Rosie, and then how we decided to try and use it to tell the bigger story and put a human face on it.
EBC: In talking with the family, how long did it take to reconstruct her story?
JON: Well, it took a number of pretty long sit-down interviews with the two daughters, Tosha and her sister, and then I also interviewed their brother by phone, who is living in Ohio, and then other family members were reluctant to get involved, but eventually they were able to convince their father to talk as well, and I met him. And then beyond that, obviously, I went and talked to other people involved — they were able to get me in touch with one of the paramedics who responded to the scene where she died. I also talked to some experts on mental illness, I went to the various state hospitals where she spent time over the years, and also drove out to Floydada, which is the small town in West Texas where she grew up, and drove around there and spent some time getting a feel for where she was raised and all.
EBC: Was it odd writing a narrative of Rosie’s life without being able to interview her?