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Art Williams and the Observer Effect

Less than a month to go before #thelastcounterfeiter comes out, and I’m just reflecting on the incredible journey I’ve been on with Art Williams Jr since 2005. When we first got together to document his story for Rolling Stone, some unusual forces were unleashed. As a true crime journalist, usually you just write a story and move on. If you’re interviewing a career criminal who says he wants to go clean, you want to believe him, but in the back of your mind you know there’s a decent chance that he won’t. That's human nature. People, criminals, and especially counterfeiters, have a natural tendency to go back to what they know, even if it's destructive. Such is the power of familiarity.

 

And that’s exactly what happened with Art. The Rolling Stone story came out, and a year later he was arrested for counterfeiting again. The act of me writing about him didn’t help. In science there’s something called “The Observer Effect”—the act of studying something, in this case him, can influence that which you are studying. Being in Rolling Stone glorified his criminal skills. Not so much to him, but to his teenage son, who began counterfeiting in earnest himself. This led to a series of events that resulted in Art’s second federal conviction, the one that put him away for 86 months. It almost certainly sped along his son’s later conviction as well.

 

Yet the observer effect also had positive consequences. Immediately prior to Art heading off to prison, we spent ten days in a basement apartment in Chicago, at least ten hours a day, interviewing for a book. It was excruciating for him. He relived an incredibly traumatic childhood in detail far beyond anything he did for the Rolling Stone story. There were tears every day. He confronted a lot of buried trauma for the first time. Art was brave. I kept warning him that I was no therapist, but I had a hunch that the act of telling his story could have positive consequences for him.

 

“Really? You think this could help me,” he asked hopefully.

 

“It could, but you should definitely see a professional,” I told him, and we both laughed.

 

I shared a lot of my own story with him too. Trust is a two-way street and we realized we had some things in common. I met and interviewed members of his family and his closest friends. He showed me Chicago and the South Side so well that they became characters in the book. When Art headed off to prison, it was devastating for me. By then we were friends. I knew his potential.

 

I kept in touch with him the whole time he was in prison as best I could, sent him books and letters, visited him when he was in FCI Manchester, wrote letters to the BOP when he got sick in Texas at FCI Big Spring. Our lives went on, inside and outside. By the time he got out he had fallen off the world’s radar, and that was probably a good thing, but we just kept on being us. There was never really a question in my mind that this would ever change, even if he went back to prison again.


Neither of us wanted that, of course, but we both knew that counterfeiters had a higher recidivism rate than heroin addicts. Like many Americans, I’ve lost siblings to heroin. But I’ve also always known that Art Williams is a uniquely gifted individual. His potential has always been huge.

 

When I became a writer and a journalist, I had dreams of changing the world for the better, and I always dreamed of doing it on a grand scale. That hasn’t happened. I never imagined that the best change I would contribute to would come down to an individual’s life, and that it would unfold over such a long period of time, but there it is. It’s been totally worth it. I told Art that telling his story was probably the best thing I’ve ever done as a journalist in terms of positive impact, and being who he is his reaction of course was inspirational.

 

“Nah man, you’re just getting started, J. Wait till they see your next book!”


Art Williams Jr and his son, in Art's Bridgeport gallery

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