Donor Spotlight: Writer, Producer, and Actor, Bobby Spears Jr.

Bobby Spears Jr. headshot

Bobby Spears, Jr. is a talented man. Having worked in TV and film production, he now considers himself first and foremost, a writer. As he should, for Spears has written a powerful story about the mental health industry. This is something he knows, for Spears also worked in the family business, providing housing and care to the mentally disabled. It is this experience that informs his book, Bedlam: The Life & Mind of Earl Sedgwick, about the owner/operator of a mental institution.

Considering our nation’s mental health crisis, Spears’ book is an important read. The book personalizes mental health care as well as those who suffer from mental illness. Any good book, fiction or otherwise, that helps us to better understand the issues connected to mental health is a gift, as is Bedlam.

In addition to his professional achievements, Bobby Spears Jr. is a husband to Adrienne, and the father of two children, Zakhari and Zoie. Spears is also a Kars4Kids donor, having just donated the family’s old dependable Volvo. We had a nice long chat with Bobby Sears Jr. about his new book and more:

Kars4Kids: Can you tell us a bit about your roots and your background?

Bobby Spears: I was born and raised in Philadelphia along with my sister Kay and my brother Andrew (who passed away when I was 14). I think I had a somewhat normal childhood except for our family business. I played football, ran track, had great friends. I did dream of being an R&B singer and drove my parents crazy, singing all through the house.

I was always a curious child. I was very introspective. I loved to learn about everything I could. I would sneak books under the covers and read by flashlight and I remember when I was in 4th grade or so, I devoured my sister’s psychology textbooks when she returned from her freshman year of college.

Our family enjoyed debating a lot. You had to have thick skin if you “didn’t know something.” Watching Jeopardy is still a favorite part of visiting my mom and dad. I am not sure everybody takes getting those questions correct as seriously as we do. It’s a healthy competition. Well at least that’s what we tell ourselves!

Kars4Kids: The IMDB mini-biography credited to you says you are a “writer, producer, and actor.” The order of how you listed these professions is interesting, particularly since your B.A. is in TV/Film production. At some point something must have changed. What makes you, first and foremost, a writer?

Bobby Spears: That’s my comfort zone. Even when I was studying at Howard. I would always partner with my friend Dave Priester and let him handle all of the technical stuff. We had to actually cut tape back then and I was terrible at that stuff. I would come up with the concept and write the scripts and then sometimes play some ridiculous minor character in the films we made.

I love telling stories. I’ve always had a wild imagination. Maybe because my siblings were out of the house by the time I was in 4th grade, I guess I was kind of an only child in a way.

Kars4Kids: The Spears family business involved providing housing and attendant care to the mentally disabled. How did this impact you and your work? What made you decide to take your career and talents in a different direction?

Bobby Spears: The most important thing I do is parent my children. I felt like a hypocrite telling them to follow their passions when I was not in fact following mine. For better and sometimes worse, the business has been everything to me. It has provided me the ability to be a present father, give my children some worldly experiences and at the same time I was exposed to some harsh realities. It wasn’t until I wrote Bedlam, did I examine what a profound and alternate experience I have had in comparison to most people.

Bedlam Cover small1
Bedlam: The Life & Mind of Earl Sedgwick by Bobby Spears Jr., debuted in January, 2022.

Kars4Kids: Tell us about Bedlam: The Life & Mind of Earl Sedgwick. Writers are advised to write about what they know. Is Bedlam based on the family business? Do you think proximity to the mentally ill has an effect on mental health and well-being? Is that what happened to Earl?

Bobby Spears: Bedlam is absolutely based on my family business and every single story is true. There is some dramatic license taken of course but the events actually occurred. However, if I wrote the novel today it would be different because I have a different perspective on my life now that I have exorcised so many demons by writing the novel.

I am not sure if proximity in general leads to mental health issues but in this case, the stress caused by the overwhelming responsibility of caring for people, especially while fighting against multiple factions who seem only concerned with paperwork and not the actual people that need care, can certainly push a person to the breaking point. So, yes that is exactly what happens to Earl. And unfortunately, in Earl’s case, he chooses to self-medicate. Tragically, that is a choice far too many of us make, and of course that exacerbates the mental strain.

Kars4Kids: The author note for Bedlam says, “Whether dragging dead bodies out of buildings at two in the morning or fishing prosthetics out of sewers at two in the afternoon, I have seen and heard everything you can imagine.”

While there’s a tendency to look away from the mentally disabled, Bedlam forces the reader take a closer look at those who suffer from mental health issues. What do you hope your readers will take away from the story of Earl Sedgwick?

Bobby Spears: That is the point right there. I want the reader “to look.” I want them to see these people that are forgotten souls. They are the most vulnerable amongst us and they have no voice. They are not considered by the power structure. They don’t vote or consume so they are dispensable.

Bedlam is designed to be like that scene in “A Clockwork Orange” where Alex has his eyes forced open. Bedlam shows you what people who you may walk by on the corner and just call “crazy” are going through and the toll the neglect from our government agencies takes on the people who dedicate themselves to taking care of them. Their plight is our plight because after all any of us could require that kind of care in the future. Nobody exists in a vacuum in this world. We share time, space, and energy.

Mental Health and the Black Community

Kars4Kids: What should we know about the black community and mental health?

Bobby Spears: Well, I think men in general in this society are far too often taught, either directly or indirectly, that to admit to needing help, especially mental health help, is a sign of weakness. When I think even more specifically about the black community, I believe that our very existence in this country is a study in mass trauma. We had to fight for basic freedom, fight for civil rights. Hell, even the phrase “Black Lives Matters,” created to call attention to the callous disregard for our human existence by those charged to serve and protect, causes a negative reaction in this society, and we continue today to fight against this system that in large part does not see us a part of this great experiment called America.

We are bombarded with negative imagery that reinforces stereotypes of ignorance and poverty and on today’s social media platforms there is a preponderance of dead black bodies just paraded for all to see. In order to be successful, and most black people have been told this in their households, we have to work twice as hard as anyone because the deck is stacked against us. In this environment there is seemingly little room for “weakness.”

Black America has a very complicated relationship with this country. Thankfully our younger generation is fully embracing a different view of mental health. They view therapy and expressing your feelings and working through problems as a beneficial trait but there are still too many people in the community lost. I think it mainly due to the basic need to survive and the lack of appropriate skills to achieve that survival.

Embracing Our Differences

Kars4Kids: You attended Howard on an Annenberg Scholarship which was awarded in part due to an academic paper you wrote on the importance of changing the way minorities are viewed and view themselves in the media. That was in 1996. Is there progress on that score? What can individuals do to move things in a more equitable direction?

Bobby Spears: First of all, 1996, damn! I am old! Ok. Well, while I’ve seen a tremendous change in the representation of minorities in television and film, I still see a disproportionate amount of negative.

When I wrote that paper, I had no idea how this Hollywood machine worked and while I am still learning, what I do know is that productions we see as “Black” or “Latino” or any other minority group, are rarely created, staffed, or controlled by any of those minorities. In all of media there is the phenomena of “gatekeeping.” This process is natural. There are 7 billion stories to tell and while social media has democratized media, we still can’t possibly tell everyone’s story. When that natural gatekeeping is controlled by persons outside of the community, the story is inherently told from their particular perspective. That perspective is shaded by generations of prejudiced images.

Today we are more polarized than ever and we have media conglomerates and talking heads profiting off of these negative portrayals. Maybe even more disturbing is how our minority communities widely consume these negative images. We all need to actively seek to view each other as individuals.

I believe we are conditioned to view each other as members of homogenous groups and for minorities this can have dire consequences. Every individual has traits in common with members of their culture and race but we all have very unique experiences and viewpoints. We need to learn to embrace our differences and celebrate them. We need to embrace empathy for one another.

When I think specifically about minorities, we need to understand where the power lies in Hollywood. The faces on the screen do not normally have the power. There may be 100 people on a production and if only the main three characters are Black is that really a “Black film??” So, we need to create, produce and consume more of our own stories from our own storytellers and not just scroll to the “Black” part of the queue on our favorite streaming service. Additionally, we need to stop allowing a small percentage of our community to define what is and what is not “Black.”

“TankVo” AKA “Veronica”

Kars4Kids: Can you tell us a bit about the car you donated?

Bobby Spears: The car was our beloved 2008 Volvo XC90, the “TankVo,” or as my daughter named it, “Veronica.” When my son became a licensed driver (and I was looking forward to my daughter right behind him) I wanted them to have a reliable, safe, fully-paid-for vehicle and one that I wouldn’t mind receiving a few dings from new driver driving. My daughter tested that theory early in the mall parking lot when a pole “came out of nowhere.”

I searched through Facebook marketplace and a guy had this beast for sale a few miles from the house. I loved how it felt when driving it and the amount of airbags and I also didn’t want to give my teenage son a vehicle that would encourage speeding. We had her just long enough to get both kids through high school and then the electrical system finally gave out on us. Sad day. We posted a memorial for her on social media.

The Spears children, now adults, with "Veronica."
The Spears children, now adults, with “Veronica.”

Kars4Kids: Why donate, when you could have sold the car or junked it yourself? And what made you choose Kars4Kids as the recipient of your donation?

Bobby Spears: Well first of all I have no idea how to “junk a car.” Do you just push it off of a cliff?? I did attempt to sell the car but we were in the process of moving and managing our daughter going to college and it was just too much. Then that jingle of yours hit me while I was listening to the radio on the way to the gym. I have heard it a thousand times and always laughed at it but that day it struck me that this vehicle has served its purpose for my family, I am blessed that I do not need it anymore and why not allow it to bless somebody else.

2008 Volvo XC90
The Spears donated this 2008 Volvo XC90, dubbed “TankVo,” to Kars4Kids to benefit children.


Kars4Kids: What’s next for Bobby Spears?

Bobby Spears: I am writing the screenplay for a feature film based on Bedlam, working on a follow up novel as well and there are a few other projects in the fire like a podcast and YouTube show, but mainly I am trying to adjust to life as an empty nester.

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