Cover Story - April 27, 2011

How tragedy transformed a life

Menlo Park woman, seriously injured in a truck accident, is featured in a new documentary film

by Miranda Simon

Melissa Moody squints as she stares out toward the water at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, against a backdrop of gray. This is where she married Hap Wotila. But she isn't thinking about her wedding — she's thinking about how lucky she is to still be alive.

"This is fun. I haven't stood out in the rain for a while," she says, turning to the lens.

The camera is photographing a scene from a new 78-minute documentary on the nature of happiness by filmmaker Roko Belic, who traveled to 14 countries, collecting narratives of happiness and depression, in a four-year endeavor.

Those who have seen the documentary say the story of this Menlo Park resident is among the most powerful, Mr. Belic says.

Ms. Moody, a mother of three, was trampled by a truck when visiting relatives in the Texas countryside in July 1992. The accident left her face completely disfigured. She underwent 30 reconstructive surgeries.

"When I met Melissa, I knew she had experienced something that was traumatic, and the way she dealt with it was completely different than what I would have expected," says Mr. Belic, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his directorial debut, "Genghis Blues," in 1999.

According to social scientists interviewed in the film, those who endure hardships recover more quickly than we expect and may even be happier because of a traumatic event — especially if they tended to be happy before it occurred.

One of the main ingredients for happiness, the sociologists and psychologists say, is having meaningful relationships.

Although she is happy today, Ms. Moody, now 59, went through many very difficult years. She said her family and friends helped her get through the depression caused by the accident.

"I've always been a gregarious person. I always had a core group of friends" to help me through, she says. "I didn't let (the accident) stop me (from going out). It wasn't my fault so why would I let that stop me?"

In the film, Mr. Belic shows her giving a massage to a client at San Francisco's School for Self-Healing, where she is the director of education and development. She was treated there in 1999 for her vision impairment caused by the accident, and she stayed on as a volunteer and later joined the staff.

Then the film takes us to the scene of the accident. We see her treading over a muddy road in Texas, pointing to where she was having an argument with her sister-in-law, who then drove off while Ms. Moody's hand was stuck in a door handle of the truck. She was trampled under the wheels of the truck.

The documentary shows flashes of her wounds from the accident, with patches of screaming red flesh, a swollen forehead, and what remained of her nose.

Returning to the accident scene "brought the reality of the moment back to me — all the reality and the sadness," says Ms. Moody.

The accident brought with it a trail of problems that threatened to weigh her down for the rest of her life.

"There are many points when I wanted to die, commit suicide," she says, but she would buy herself time by remembering her children needed her.

Four years after the accident, her husband divorced her. Disabled, she was left with no income and no possibility of finding a job. After doctors pieced together her crushed bones, and a failed surgery left her at the brink of blindness, they told her there was little hope for further physical recovery.

But despite doctors' diagnoses, she was able to return to work and, 19 years after her accident, she says she is happier than she has ever been.

"She, like everyone, is still susceptible to hardship," but the accident pushed her to live more profoundly, says Mr. Belic.

Quiet reflection was forced upon her by the physical pain. As she lay in the hospital bed, she could only listen to harp and flute-based music because any other form of distraction was too disorienting, she says. Whenever she felt angry, her body would tense up and hurt.

She had double-vision, so she couldn't read or watch television.

She heard about a treatment for vision impairment, called CranioSacral therapy, by Dr. Meir Schneider, at the School for Self-Healing in San Francisco. She flew there from Texas.

"It was serendipity," she says. "I was divorced, I had no income, but I had some (airline) miles."

The therapy involved a variety of exercises, such as walking back and forth with a piece of black paper taped to her forehead. The paper blocked her forward vision but helped her regain peripheral vision.

One of her homework assignments was to get a boyfriend.

Hap Wotila was a long-time friend, and the only person she knew in the Bay Area, so she gave him a call.

"She said, 'I'll be down at the beach at 5 o'clock doing my vision exercises,'" he says. "So I parked my vehicle and there she was with her pants rolled up, the sun was going down. I thought, 'This is a striking picture.'"

Five years later, they married.

They are very social and meet friends often, he says.

The filmmaker, Mr. Belic, said he is convinced that social relationships are a key element of happiness.

"What I saw is that in places like the slums in Calcutta, people do not have any measure of success," he says. "What I saw, instead, was that people had a strong sense of community. Their purpose in life was being part of something bigger than themselves: Being as good as they can be among their friends and families."

At a recent showing of the film in San Francisco, Ms. Moody says, more than 50 friends showed up. After the showing, she went onstage to participate in a question-and-answer session. When she stepped off the stage, her friends flocked to greet her, and she showed everyone how happy she really is.

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