This remarkable documentary left Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees grateful that there are people like Susan Tom in the world.
"There was no grand plan. It wasn't like 'gee, I think I'll have 13 kids.'"—Susan Tom
Think of what a handful a house full of children would be. Now imagine that you don't even have a spouse to help out. Now further imagine that nine of your children are "special needs" children, with physical handicaps, chronic illnesses, or developmental problems. Ready to throw in the towel? Susan Tom could have—but these children are her "flesh and blood."
The award-winning documentary My Flesh and Blood is the story of one eventful year in the life of single mother Susan Tom and her 13 children, 11 of whom are adopted and 9 of whom have special needs. Despite what sounds like a potentially sappy premise, this is a lively, engrossing documentary, and it also has a gripping story at its core, as 15-year-old Joe, whose conditions include cystic fibrosis and attention deficit disorder, comes into conflict more and more with his adoptive family, especially after his birth mother marries. Over the course of three seasons, we watch Joe's behavior seesaw and become increasingly ominous, as Susan keeps on with the day-to-day labor of love that sustains this unusual domestic arrangement.
The members of the family are all remarkable for individual reasons. Joe, the first one we meet, is a charmer when he chooses to be, a clown who loves attention, but also a deeply angry and disturbed teenager who is prone to outbursts of verbal abuse. His 19-year-old brother Anthony, on the other hand, is a gentle, quietly humorous presence despite the constant pain he endures from a horrifying condition known as Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB). Warm-hearted, outgoing Xenia, 13, doesn't let the fact that she has no legs stop her from pursuing the cute guy at school she has a crush on. Elfin Faith, 8 years old, endured terrible burns as a baby and dreams of looking "normal." Susan Tom herself, who maintains herself and her house full of children on the small income provided by Social Security and the Adoption Assistance Program, is even more remarkable in her own way, although she denies having any unusual qualities beyond "good organizational skills." She is assisted by her 18-year-old daughter Margaret, who has subjugated her own needs for so long to those of her siblings that it's no surprise when she reaches the breaking point.
First-time director Jonathan Karsh does a fine job of maintaining a narrative drive in what could easily have become a "portrait" (a result he says he specifically tried to avoid) and in presenting the Tom family in a way that isn't maudlin, preachy, or intrusive. In the behind-the-scenes materials and Karsh's commentary, we learn more about how he and his tiny crew managed to present the family in such an honest way: They essentially became members of the family for the entire year over which they carried on filming. Thus, there's never any sense of scenes being acted out for the benefit of the camera (except when Joe is maneuvering for attention), and there are never any re-enactments; in Karsh's commentary, in fact, we learn of off-camera events that cemented Susan's concern that Joe was becoming dangerous to his siblings but that aren't seen in the film. The honesty of Karsh's approach is beautifully counterbalanced by Susan's matter-of-fact, humorous persona; part of what makes her so extraordinary is the fact that she sees nothing extraordinary in what she does.
Like the best documentaries, My Flesh and Blood left me eager to know more about the people it portrayed. Fortunately, the disc offers a handsome array of extra materials to fill that need. The audio commentary by Karsh is one of the meatiest extras, offering some updates on the Tom family's lives, describing off-screen events, and illuminating some of his filmmaking choices. We get to see Karsh himself interacting with some of the Tom kids in a behind-the-scenes sequence that shows the camaraderie he established with his young subjects. Deleted scenes include interviews with Susan's two birth sons, who had moved out of the family home by the time the documentary was filmed, and there are follow-up interviews with Karsh and Susan, from which we gain an increased sense of Susan's perceptiveness as parent and caregiver. A considerate touch in the DVD design is to indicate the running time of each extra feature on the menu, so you know how much time you will be committing when you make a selection.
The only thing I would change about this fascinating, moving experience is to have still more of it. Yes, even taking into account the wealth of bonus material, I feel like I want to learn about the children who don't feature prominently in the film and to hear more about the backgrounds of all the children before they came to Susan. How did each one come to be a member of her family? I'm sure it was wise of Karsh not to bog down his film with lots of exposition and minutia about adoption processes, but if he should next choose to write a book about the Tom family, I'll be waiting to snap it up.
In addition to showing us how one woman's love and care has transformed these children's lives, My Flesh and Blood opens up our eyes to the lack of facilities available to some conditions, like EB, or combinations of conditions, like the coexistence of physical and emotional problems that makes Joe almost impossible to place in out-of-home care. It can be difficult to watch at times; I admit I covered my eyes more than once when faced with the sight of a child's pain from a terrible condition, and I am haunted by my new knowledge of the horrors of EB. You will undoubtedly be moved by what you see. If you fear that the film will be depressing, though, you'll probably be surprised; often it's upbeat, even rambunctious, since the Toms aren't focused on what can be perceived as their disadvantages. The positive spirit of these kids and their mother is sure to be what lingers with you. Far before the end of the film you'll be cheering on the Toms—and director Karsh, for having introduced them to you.
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