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What Happened to James Chasse: Losing 'Jim Jim': a story of schizophrenia

Friday, September 29, 2006

Losing 'Jim Jim': a story of schizophrenia

from The Oregonian, by Maxine Bernstein

Friends knew the young James Chasse Jr. as "Jim Jim," a quiet, bright and somewhat eccentric Portland youth who showed a creative streak early.

He was the youngest among Portland's earliest punk rock fans who gathered at shows across the city in the late 1970s and early '80s. He loved music, like the Ramones, Lou Reed and the Neo Boys, and started his own band, performing as its singer. He enjoyed art, producing a magazine at age 14 called "The Oregon Organism." It was filled with music reviews and poems he wrote, his own drawings, plus material from contributing writers and artists.

"We were all very impressed with his intelligence and creativity," said Randy Moe, a local artist about 10 years older who saved copies of Chasse's handwritten magazines. "He was just so far advanced for his age, it was amazing."

Chasse's sudden decline and affliction with schizophrenia in his late teens was difficult for his friends to understand. He was hospitalized several times, including a stint at the state mental hospital, and never seemed the same.

Now, his sudden death in police custody at age 42 , has greatly disturbed many in the community who wish they could have done more to help Chasse. They want to memorialize the "Jim Jim" they loved and knew --the poet, the musician, the artist.

Jason Renaud, now a volunteer with the Mental Health Association of Portland, knew Chasse as a high school student and as an adult.

"It was almost like knowing two different people --one cute and charming and cuddly and quiet and careful and sprinkled with pixie dust," Renaud said. "And the other, hurt, overmedicated, scared, confused, alone."

Artists plan remembrance

As his family privately mourns Chasse's death, two local artists are teaming up to hold their own remembrance. Next month, Moe plans to draw a portrait of Chasse, based on a Polaroid photo he kept of the 14-year-old "Jim Jim." The portrait will be part of a show dedicated to Chasse's memory, held Oct. 19 at the downtown Chambers Gallery.

Eva Lake, a fellow artist who manages the gallery and knew Chasse as a teenager, says she doesn't want Chasse to be written off as a "mental throwaway."

"He was articulate. He was creative. He was silly, you know," Lake said. "He was not boring. He had a lot of style."

Chasse's stapled, photocopied handwritten issues of "The Oregon Organism" reveal a teenager with a sense of humor and a creative mind. The magazine, he wrote, was going to be a "giveaway," until the last minute.

"I decided to charge a quarter for it and pray to god someone would pay money for this puke!" he wrote. "I realize that it isn't informative at all but you must admit (or die) that it is entertaining."

He wrote a poet's corner and music reviews of concerts, ranging from the Ramones, which he didn't see but interviewed someone who did, to Blondie, who played at The Paramount. His review of The Wipers, "my fave local band," was illustrated with his drawing of the band. "Now listen kiddies, the Wipers whambam-twosecond sound is faster than Ted Nugent talks and more exciting than any group I can think of," he wrote.

Moe and Lake each contributed to Chasse's magazine and held on to copies.

"A bit of a mystery"

Chasse attended the Metropolitan Learning Center in the early '80s. Classmates had heard Chasse had been institutionalized, and they noticed some odd behavior. About the same time, in 1981, his parents divorced.

Renaud called his classmate a "bit of a mystery." He remembers his obsession with putting his hand in a fist. "He'd say if he opened his hand, the world would cease to exist," Renaud said. "It was clear the weight of the world was on his shoulders."

Another classmate, Ani Raven, remembers Chasse as a student who kept to himself. But she and her best friend often sought him out because they liked him, and they'd find him in Couch Park near the school.

"Sometimes he told me that he talked to Saint Francis . . . he wanted to be like him, gentle to all beings," Raven wrote in an e-mail about Chasse.

Chasse, Raven said, gave her a white crayon, with a thread tied to one end, saying it represented purity in a corrupt world. More than 20 years later, she still has the crayon.

"Jim Jim was a beautiful soul when I knew him," Raven wrote. "I mourn his loss and redouble my efforts to further justice within our community. . ."

Moe visited Chasse when he was hospitalized in the mid-1980s. He was having hallucinations, and he handed Moe what he considered magical materials to protect him from evil.

"He was just not himself at all anymore," Moe said.

Moe said he didn't stay involved in Chasse's life after that and feels bad about that.

Later in life, those who knew him would spot Chasse hanging out in Old Town and downtown. They'd see him sitting in coffee shops, on park benches, on the sidewalk or outside the Central Library. They remember him lugging a backpack and guitar, often talking to himself or reading comic books.

At times, Chasse dressed like a woman, wearing dresses on the street with his long beard, Renaud said.

He had received mental health counseling from local agencies, and, since October 2001, was a rent-paying tenant at the Helen Swindells Building on Northwest Broadway, a low-income apartment building.

Ed Morris, the building site manager, said Chasse lived alone in a second-floor apartment. Morris called him a quiet, reclusive man who didn't cause problems.

Chasse, according to Portland police records, had few run-ins with officers. Police were sent out on a "mental care" call to a North Portland address in early 1990 and took Chasse into an "emergency" involuntary committal. He used another name when stopped for trespass at the Galleria in 1994, but the charge didn't stick.

His family, described as "loving with adequate resources and support," struggled to help him, an aunt said. His father tried to include him at major family and holiday gatherings. His dad, James Chasse Sr., an accountant, volunteered hundreds of hours at downtown neighborhood missions trying to better understand his son's struggles, said Julie Chasse Cargill, James Chasse Sr.'s sister.

She said the first reaction of Chasse's father when he heard his son died in police custody was, " 'I need to find out what happened,' as if finding out what happened would make sense of it.

"But of course, the more he finds out," Cargill said, "the more it doesn't make any sense. It's just extremely hurtful and sad."

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