Interview: Jim Wahlberg talks recovery, filmmaking and prayer
Jim Wahlberg is a filmmaker and the fifth of nine children from a Hollywood family that includes his older brother Mark. Raised in a Catholic family in the Irish working-class Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, he had gone to prison twice by age 22, already caught up in a life of drug hustling and robbery. A chance encounter with a priest placed him on the road to recovery and healing for his entire family.
Mr. Wahlberg, whose acclaimed documentaries on addiction include the 2020 short film “What About the Kids,” recently published his memoir “The Big Hustle: A Boston Street Kid’s Story of Addiction and Redemption” (2020, Our Sunday Visitor). He serves as executive director of the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation, named for his brother.
On Monday, Sept. 21, I interviewed Mr. Wahlberg by telephone about his journey from drug addiction to peace. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for style and length.
It sounds glamorous to say you’re a member of “the Wahlberg family,” conjuring images of Hollywood. How glamorous was your Boston childhood in real life?
It wasn’t really that glamorous for any of us. We grew up nine kids, finally living in a three-bedroom apartment, a triple-decker in Boston. So it was a little crowded; we were hungry a lot of the time; and we had parents who both worked multiple jobs. But my mom always says that the less we had, the happier we were and the closer we were. We lived in a neighborhood where other people didn’t have anything either, and we all looked out for each other. But as we were growing, and our parents worked more and harder, there was less time to spend with us and I was left to my own devices.
What attracted you to alcohol and drugs?
I was attracted to anything or anyone that would give me attention. Lost and starved, I seemed to look for that attention in all the wrong places. I looked towards the older kids in the neighborhood on more than one occasion; they each time pointed me in the wrong direction. I had my first drink when I was about 8 years old, then didn’t drink again for another two years, but my behavior deteriorated during those two years. The next situation, I had stolen someone’s wallet from their locker at the Y.M.C.A. and brought the contents of about 50 bucks—and this was in 1975, so it was a lot of money back then—to the hippies who lived up the street from me. For that 50 bucks I got a quart of Budweiser and a pack of cigarettes, but more importantly, I got to hang out with them. So I drank that quart of Budweiser, and unlike the first time, when nothing really happened, this time I couldn't seem to get enough. They would put their beers down, and I’d grab them to drink as much as I could, as fast as I could.
When I look back at that, I feel like God was trying to draw me near, and I was resisting because I grew up with “God is going to get you for all the bad things that you’ve done.”
A lot of people in recovery talk about hitting a bottom. When did you hit your bottom?
Several years later, I think I hit multiple bottoms. Each time I thought I hit the bottom, the next time the bottom got a little lower. By the time I was 12, I was committed to the Department of Youth Services. They were in charge of making all the decisions in my life. I spent a lot of time in juvenile detention, in group homes and foster homes. So you would think that would be a bottom. Unless you’ve really done it, I don’t think anyone can identify with being dropped off at a stranger’s home and told “this is where you live now” as a kid. Then there was being homeless at the young age of 12 and thinking, “it couldn’t get any worse than this.” When I look at a 12-year-old now, I think, my God, I was running the streets without anywhere to go when I was this child’s age and size.
When you finally ended up in prison as an adult, you admit to just going through the motions at Alcoholics Anonymous and therapy groups at first. What would you say to people who do the same thing today?
Honestly, I was looking for a way to create the illusion that I was trying to get rehabilitated. I would say, go for whatever reason you go for and eventually you may stay for yourself. Ultimately, that’s what happened to me. You know, I went there running game, trying to create an illusion, but to be honest with you, I remember thinking: “What a great program for these people, but it’s not going to work for me, because I’m not worthy of the things they’re talking about.”
You even intended to hustle Father Jim Fratus when he hired you to work in his chapel, but he ended up hustling you. What do you mean by that?
Ultimately, he was hustling me for Jesus. He knew I thought I was going to pull one over on him. He came to me like he was going to give me this job because he needed someone to clean the chapel, but he was trying to lead me back to the faith. After the first week or two of working, we had a vigil Mass on Saturday, and he said, “Why don’t you just come to Mass on Saturday and then you can clean, since the chapel has to get cleaned?” I never saw the move. I was just like, “Okay Father, I’ll come and clean,” and never thought an instant about the Mass.
If your family, friends and social workers couldn’t get through to you, how on earth did this Catholic priest do it?
It was all God’s design, for sure. There’s no doubt about it in my mind. Each one of these things happened in a matter of just a few months: I start going to these meetings to create an illusion, I start working for the Catholic priest and now I’m back at Mass. Then soon after, Mother Teresa comes to the prison that I’m in—out of all the places in the world she could go. When I look back at that, I feel like God was trying to draw me near, and I was resisting because I grew up with “God is going to get you for all the bad things that you’ve done.”
There have been times in my life when I let that feeling of God’s presence slip away because I didn’t do the work.
When you pray today, what image of a higher power comes to you?
The image of Jesus Christ comes to me. The peaceful, loving, gentle Son of God. I also sometimes think of Mother Teresa. When she came to that prison and I saw her kneeling on that floor with all those inmates, in that moment I thought I was looking at the face of God.
If you could pick one patron saint for yourself, who would it be and why?
St. Joseph comes to mind: just an obedient, loving, trusting man taking care of his family, accepting a woman and accepting that this woman comes to him with child by God. And he’s going to be the adopted father, or foster father, if you will, of the savior of the world. To accept that job and humbly do the job is a beautiful thing. I also think about St. Mother Teresa and all the years she didn’t feel the presence of God but continued to do the work and serve the poor and do what she was called to do. On a different level, there have been times in my life when I let that feeling of God’s presence slip away because I didn’t do the work.
Besides prayer, what other resources have helped you stay sober?
We recently started a Catholic Men in Recovery meeting due to the pandemic and being trapped in the household. We have guys from around the world. We have a guy who checks in from Liberia in Africa, a guy from California, a couple guys from New Orleans, a bunch of guys from Florida. We meet every week virtually, and I pray a daily rosary here with my wife; we’re doing a 54-day novena right now. So I try to be in prayer, but I also try to live a life of service, keeping my hand out.
I was an example of what not to do, how not to live, and thankfully today I’m an example of the exact opposite.
What role has your wife played in your sobriety?
My wife is a woman of God. You know, happy wife, happy life. There have been times in the process when, against my better judgment, I [didn’t want to] do certain things or grow in certain ways, and I was afraid to give myself to Christ. And she was always there by my side, pushing, nudging, loving and kindly saying to me: “I need a man of God by my side raising my children. I need a spiritual leader in my home, and that’s your job.”
What has helped you find healing with your family and siblings after so many painful years?
We all experience our own difficulties and dysfunction. There are other people in my family who suffer from addiction, and others who have been blessed with recovery. You know, they say time heals all wounds, but it’s certainly more than time. It’s stepping up, being available, being reliable, being trustworthy—and being there for them in their time of need. And it’s being an example. I was an example of what not to do, how not to live, and thankfully today I’m an example of the exact opposite.
What is your favorite Scripture passage and why?
You know what I love more than anything—and I love it the way it is in the Bible? “Teach us to pray” (Lk 11:1), that simple and so profound Lord’s Prayer. I can’t even tell you how many times even nonbelievers get in the foxhole of life, and there [are] bombs going off around them, and they find God and want to go in that direction. I can’t even tell you how many times in life, even a sleepless night with whatever life was delivering me, that just saying that simple prayer over and over again—and sometimes just breaking down to “thy will, thy will, thy will”—has helped me with so many difficult situations. That and the Hail Mary have been the things I go to immediately; those two prayers come to me first and always.
You’ve become an accomplished documentary filmmaker and advocate for at-risk children. What do you hope people take away from your films and life?
To take this particular film that’s out now, “What About the Kids,” the Archbishop of Miami, Thomas Wenski, is in the film. His lines are: we need to do more as a faith community to take care of our sick; we need to do more for those addicted. Those are true lines. I hope we can do more and push for more to be done.
Any final thoughts?
I’d like to encourage people in these very difficult times to reach out to people, call people, especially if it’s people they know who have struggled in the past or are in early recovery—connect with them. You see, addiction is isolation, loneliness, depression and sadness. And recovery is the exact opposite: It’s community, it’s fellowship, it’s love, it’s connection. And in these dark times with this pandemic, we’ve been encouraged to isolate and stay away from people, to be in our homes and stay cooped up. Those are difficult and dangerous things for people who suffer from addiction. I’d also like to encourage people in early recovery to take this opportunity to reach out to others, to pick up the phone to call others, because nothing keeps me out of my own head like being of service to others.