It was one of the most bizarre -- and scary -- local stories of the past week: UAlbany police say a man attempted to abduct two women at a bus stop near the university's downtown campus. And in one of the incidents, they allege the man had a knife -- thankfully another student intervened and no one was hurt. [YNN] [News10]
One of the things about crime stories is that so often the people involved -- both perpetrators and victims -- end up being portrayed as one-dimensional characters. And while there are understandable reasons why that happens -- time, space, limited resources, limited attention -- it also sometimes makes it hard to remember these events are happening to real people. And maybe it also makes it harder for us to understand how and why these things happen.
The man accused in the alleged abduction attempts is 54-year-old Anthony Collins. As it happens, Collins is the subject of a documentary project by UAlbany student Shannon Straney. In the short doc, Collins talks about being diagnosed with mental illness, and Straney's project is aimed at better understanding how the condition has affected his life. Part 1 of the project is embedded above.
We got in touch with Straney this week to ask her a few questions about the documentary project, and how it's prompted her to look at the alleged incident from the past week. Here's a quick Q&A...
How'd you get to know Anthony Collins? What prompted you to start a documentary project about him?
I met Anthony outside Hudson River Coffee House about three years ago. I was there filming for another project and went outside for a cigarette and he struck up a conversation. I remember thinking he was this really charismatic guy -- just a huge personality. I asked if I could take his picture sometime and he said how about now? So I grabbed the friend I was with and we headed over to his apartment and just shot the sh*t for a couple hours and I took some photos and video.
After that I ended up studying abroad for a semester so I didn't see Anthony for a while. I got back in touch with him when I got back to Albany though -- I stopped by his apartment and left a note taped to his door asking if he remembered me. A few days later he called me back and the first thing he said was, "Shannon! Who could forget those legs?"
We kept in touch and that semester when I had a class where I had to put together a short documentary project I asked if I could interview him for it, and he agreed. So I started spending a lot of time at his apartment just taking pictures and having conversations. And by December of 2012 I had that four minute piece.
How would you describe the guy you know? Did you ever get the sense he might do something like what's alleged?
This kind of ties in with what you said about how people involved in crimes that are covered by the media end up being represented as one-dimensional characters -- either all good or all bad. Easier to digest that way.
But the truth is that human beings aren't that convenient. People fall somewhere on a spectrum, really. In my interactions with Anthony he was always very kind and open. He loved sharing his story and he loved good conversation. He could talk for hours. We would sit at his kitchen table and drink coffee and he would chain smoke and just talk.
I think as someone who was diagnosed with a mental illness pretty late in life, he really grasped the stigma of it -- he had what was seemingly a "normal life" beforehand (job, family, etc.) and then after he had a few incidents and was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, it was really hard for him to hold on to all of that. He had this rare understanding, and I think that's one of the most fascinating things about him. He knew both sides of the coin.
I would describe Anthony as very trusting, very intelligent, very nostalgic. His family and where he came from are really important to him. Once he knows you he's got this dog-like loyalty. I've seen him give people who needed it a cigarette or a beer or even a couch to sleep on. I did spend a lot of time alone with him for this project, but I never personally felt unsafe. He liked to push things, though, see how much he could get away with, but I never had a situation with him that couldn't be worked through by conversation.
What was your reaction when you saw the news about him?
When I read the email from [the UAlbany police] about Anthony being arrested for the attempted abductions, I felt awful about all of it. I'm still trying to sort it all out in my head, honestly. I'm really thankful those girls are alright and that someone at the bus stop stepped up and intervened... but it's really strange trying to process that Anthony is involved with this.
Do you have any hopes for how people will interpret your documentary project now? And it's labeled "chapter 1" -- is there more to come?
When I put the documentary together, the broad goal was to give Anthony a platform to talk without the stigma mental illness brings. People hear schizophrenia (or any other mental illness, really) and they're terrified. People don't understand it. They have all these stereotypes.
I wanted to make something that might tell Anthony's story in a different way than it would usually be told. Basically that he's a human being with all these valuable and unique relationships and perspectives and experiences, and one of these experiences happens to be dealing with life as someone who suffers from a mental illness.
In our conversations together we talked a lot about the services that are available to Anthony and people in similar situations as his, and also about whether he found the services available helpful and what loopholes existed. We talked a lot about how people with mental illnesses fall through the cracks. I feel like there are a lot of stories being shared right now where someone with a mental illness will commit a crime and after the fact everyone kinda steps back and goes huh, well yeah I guess we could have done more.
It's a cyclical thing. I just feel like people with mental illnesses often fall into this self-fulfilling prophecy -- society is just really confused and scared and hasn't adequately figured out or implemented a way to help people going through these unique experiences. I'm not trying to defend him, or what he's alleged to have done, or in any way diminish the experience these girls went through at the bus stop, but there's this commonality to what happened at the Waterbury bus stop and the Washington DC Navy Yard and a whole other bunch of situations, and it's that we really can't keep on just ignoring the needs and issues of one section of the population.
It's something I believe is very necessary to have an active dialogue on, and Anthony was the perfect subject for that. He was really eager for people to hear and understand his story.
I was planning on continuing the project and making more chapters. I have a lot of unused audio and photos from what I had put together in 2012 and up until about 2 months ago I was keeping in touch with Anthony. I'm still hoping to tell more of his story.
Shannon Straney is the final semester of her undergrad degree at UAlbany. Here's more of her work.
This interview was conducted via email and has been lightly edited.
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