In Fairfield, a woman is doing the unfathomable. Her name is Susan Tom, and she is raising 11 adopted children with special needs, including three with fatal diseases. She's doing it matter-of-factly, as though it were preordained, though she states there was never any grand plan. "These kids were mine," she says, describing her profound connection to them. "There were plenty I said no to."
The first full-length documentary from Jonathan Karsh (once host of the Bay Area's Evening Magazine), My Flesh and Blood is a heartbreaking account of a year in the life of the Tom family. And what a year it was: A single orbit around the sun sees the Toms through various and sundry milestones experienced by all children (birthdays, first dates), emotional challenges attending adoption (birth parents show up, disappoint, and disappear), and life-threatening conflict from both disease and a member of the family. "We live for the day, the moment, the month," Susan says, and it's no wonder.
At the heart of the action is the mercurial Joe, the beautiful, terrible 15-year-old who suffers from cystic fibrosis, ADD, hyperactivity, and undiagnosed fits of rage. When he isn't storming around the house, insulting his siblings and threatening to kill them, he's a very loving boy, impossible to dislike. That his mounting anger is a source of fear for him as much as for everybody else unlocks at least a little of his suffering; we see that he's a prisoner of it, too. Meanwhile, his CF keeps him in the hospital for lengthy stays, often alone, though his mother is a constant visitor. His is not an easy life.
Meanwhile, Susan has to answer to the needs of her other 10 children as well. Xenia, adopted from Russia and born without legs, is a confident dancer (on her hands!) and athlete just beginning to experience young romance. Sensitive, intelligent Faith, severely burned and disfigured as an infant, faces taunts at school. And Anthony, an angelic young man with a horrifying skin disease that, according to his mother, "causes pain from the moment you're born to the moment you die," is now ravaged with untreatable cancer.
As excruciating as it is compelling, My Flesh and Blood has no easy answers. While some children clearly thrive, others suffer atrocities, and all must endure the abuse of Joe. In particular, Anthony's lot, involving extremely painful three-hour baths that burn his peeling skin, is sometimes impossible to witness. It's a miracle that Susan can do it.
Indeed, her character is something of a mystery. Present, real, and bare-bones about her life, she never minces words. When discussing Joe's case with his social worker, she says, "We are living with an abusive person." When asked to describe herself for a hypothetical personal ad, she says, "Fat, lots of kids, interesting, sense of humor." She is single, unemployed, living off of money from the Adoption Assistance Program and SSI. In the face of very little security (and certain suffering), her bravery, honesty, and warmth are deeply anchoring for her family. She is, unquestionably, a woman to admire.
And yet it's never quite clear why she does what she does. After all, it's a rare choice she makes, assuming a level of responsibility that few people seem called to take on. Her own mother, visiting after an unexplained estrangement, believes that Susan does it to fill a void of loneliness. (Susan's mother admits that she charged her daughter with the care of her younger siblings and never told her that she loved her. "[Susan] was always lonely," she says.) It's a plausible explanation, but it would help to hear Susan's opinion. In this area, the film doesn't dig quite deeply enough. It's a beautiful thing that she does, but what's her motivation? What makes a woman choose such a life, as heavy with anguish as it is blessed with gifts?
Meanwhile, it's impossible to ignore the plight of Margaret, Susan's able-bodied adoptee from Korea. At 18, Margaret seems to do the lion's share of cooking, cleaning, and around-the-clock care-giving for her siblings, all while maintaining a job and attending community college. When she begins a class in counseling, she has a breakthrough: She realizes that she's lonely and lacks even a single confidante. In a dramatic outburst, she explodes with the energy of emotions long withheld. Alas, her mother – who has put her in this position (indeed, who has lived it herself) – silences her. What's going on here? Susan promises to speak with Margaret in the morning, but we never see it, so we never know.
Most striking about the composition of this movie is its pacing. Director Karsh opens with a whopper, and then he allows the movie to take its time catching up. When we finally return to the opening scene, it's with different eyes and a much greater depth of understanding. The rewards of that moment are exceptional.
As a work of documentary, My Flesh and Blood is artful and sensitive, graceful at keeping out of the way of its subject. As an emotional experience, it is a challenge – not without its rewards, but certainly not for the faint of heart. Those feeling particularly vulnerable, for whatever reason, should beware.
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