Johnathan Karshís documentary, MY FLESH AND BLOOD, takes us to a place that many of us will find difficult and joyful at the same time. It is a year in the life, told in sometimes painful detail, of Susan Tom, a divorced woman who having raised her own two biological children, has adopted 11 special needs kids. She somehow not only copes with the heartache and the chaos inherent in that decision, but actually thrives on it.
Itís filmed without a trace of pity but with great compassion for all these kids. The brave ones, the sweet ones, even Joe, the most difficult one. He suffers from not just a physical problems, chief among them cystic fibrosis, but also from emotional ones, a combination of ADD and an early childhood of being passed from foster home to foster home. Karsh gives each of these kids a separate identity such that after a while, even after the horror stories of burns in the past or sights of the torure that some treatments entail in the present, we can see them the way Susan does, looking beyond the physical to the precious soul within. When
There are lessons for us all, of course, but not always the obvious ones. See a plucky kid not let a lack of legs slow her down puts many of our problems into perspective. Ponder the trials of dating, and watch Susan peruse an online dating service with a wistful but not necessarily sad understanding that itís just not going to happen for her. But then there is the case of Margaret, adopted as a baby after a failure to thrive and brain surgery, who has matured into a capable, caring adult. Itís that caring that has put pressure on her that we would be hard-pressed to imagine. An overweening desire to please her mother and her siblings has made her feel that she doesnít deserve to put herself first, ever. The issue comes to a head one night when she tries to talk to Susan about how she feels. Prepared with research documentation and a lifetime of fears and doubts and worries, all she can say through tears is that she doesnít feel like she has anyone to talk to. It is obvious that Susan cares, that she wants to deal with it, but that there is just no time. Margaret will have to wait until morning when Susan will wake her up before the rest of the family. In a household with kids, literally, on deathís door, an emotional breakdown, no matter how acute, no matter how devastating, has to wait its turn. The unfairness of it is infuriating. Also unfair is the brick wall Susan has hit with fifteen-year-old Joe, whose escalating hostility has unnerved the family and whose threats of violence need to be taken seriously.
While Susan has seemingly endless reserves of love and patience, we in the audience have other reasons to be stirred to anger. We hear Susan on the phone to social workers. Even though we are privy to only Susanís side of the conversation, itís obvious that the state agencies assigned to monitor the well-being of these kids have trouble keeping track of the family histories or getting them all the help that they need. Suddenly it becomes obvious how kids slip through the cracks and become a fatality statistic.
MY FLESH AND BLOOD offers love as an answer, if not a solution, to problems that stagger the imagination. Thereís no getting around that these kids, treated like kids instead of patients, thrive, and seeing them getting to enjoy a childhood that every kid deserves canít help but give an audience a rush of joy. It doesnít, however, sugar coat Susanís life, her problems with Joe and the impending death of children. While the film does explore some of the reasons for Susanís choices, it doesnít make the leap that lets us understand why Susan has chosen this life in a way that can let us imagine doing the same thing. Still, you canít help coming away amazed and inspired by, her capacity for doing the right thing.