The Amazing Story of Lost in Woonsocket
The director of an addiction documentary airing this weekend tells The Fix how it changed his life.
When John Chester began filming an episode of Random 1, a short-lived A&E docudrama, he had no idea that it would become a full length documentary—Lost In Woonsocket—and that the experience would change his life. Random 1 focused on a question: Can one seemingly insignificant act of kindness towards a random stranger change their life? The theory was that a single, random act of kindness could inspire a compassion chain reaction. Lost In Woonsocket began as just another episode, with John and his colleagues searching the US for people to help. In Woonsocket, a small Rhode Island town, they met Mark and Normand: two homeless alcoholics sharing a tent in a patch of woods behind a drug store. The odd couple were co-dependent, enabling each other's alcoholism. Chester admits he had no prior addiction experience. “I didn’t know anything about addiction or recovery," he tells The Fix. "I didn’t know the difference between AA and detox.”
Mark was the episode's focus, with Normand only appearing briefly to wish him luck as he was being taken to rehab. The show aired as usual—but something unexpected happened. Normand's estranged children happened to change the channel to Random 1 (during an episode of Dog The Bounty Hunter) and saw their long-lost father, drunk and homeless, in the brief moment he was on-screen. They got in contact with Chester and pleaded with him to help their dad as he'd helped Mark. Despite Random 1's fundamental rule being to help people at random, Chester agreed.
“My job was to report the facts," he tells us. “I wanted people to judge if there was more harm than good.” But he found this hands-off model was no longer enough; he returned to Woonsocket to find Normand, still living in his tent. Mark also returned, beginning a dramatic saga that would entwine the lives of these three men for the next six years. Lost In Woonsocket airs Sunday February 26, 11 am EST, on the Oprah Winfrey Network.