Opal Whiteley
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But she keeps coming back, and interest in her now is stronger than ever. A half dozen versions of her story circulate today, from Seattle to South Carolina, from New York to the United Kingdom. The complete diary is reprinted; there are two biographies, a children's book, a verse adaptation, at least two musicals and a traveling one-woman play. There's been talk of a BBC documentary, and yes, even of a Hollywood movie.

In Cottage Grove, time has tempered the controversy, but not dimmed the interest. In 1994, a group headed by South Lane Mental Health counselor Steve Williamson created Opal Park, in the Cerro Gordo community overlooking Dorena Lake. Opal Park -- the natural surroundings originally intended for use in treating clients -- is part of a growing organization that includes the Opal Whiteley Scholarship Fund, which helps "at-risk" high school students go on to attend college. Funds are partially raised through occasional "Opal Whiteley Weekends." Hosted by the Bookmine bookstore on Main Street in Cottage Grove, the Weekends feature bus tours to landmarks mentioned in the diary, readings by local actresses portraying Opal, and proceeds from book and memorabilia sales regularly going toward the scholarship fund.

Williamson, like many Opal fans, had heard of the diary through the years. But when he learned that Opal's case was very much involved with mental illness -- schizophrenia, many agree -- he began to research her story. "I wanted to give people an idea of what schizophrenia is, what mental illness is," he says, "using a person that they had heard of, with a story that wasn't scary, that was touching and really human." But one thing led to another, and he is now quite likely Opal's biggest home-town fan. And judging from the response to the Opal Whiteley Weekends, he's not alone. "We have all these people coming out just having the best time," Williamson says. "There will be a few people debating about whether she was remembering past lives when she wrote the French, or debating about schizophrenia, or the effects of child abuse on adult personality -- and a couple people claim she just made the whole thing up."

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