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My Flesh and Blood depicts
the family of Susan Tom over the period of a year. She has adopted eleven
children, many of whom have serious illnesses or disabilities. Her two birth
children have left home, and she has been divorced for many years, so Susan
does it largely on her own. Her 18-year-old daughter Margaret also helps a
great deal with the chores. Joe is fourteen, and has cystic fibrosis,
diabetes, ADHD, and serious emotional problems. Faith suffered terrible
disfigurement when she was a baby, and is now in elementary school. Anthony is
nineteen, but he looks much younger, and has an appalling disease called EB
that makes it more difficult for skin to stay on the body; Anthony has many
open sores and has lost fingers and a foot. Their house is always full of
people, their lives are very full, and Susan copes with it all. She tends to
their needs and fights for their rights. Yet there is also a great deal of
disagreement and struggle in the house, and Susan goes to the children's
hospital so often she has her own parking space there. The documentary shows
their lives, and manages to show a great deal in less than 90 minutes about a
difficult period for them, and despite its apparently depressing topic it is
positive and enriching.
The obvious theme of the
documentary is that disabled children have the same hopes and dreams as other
children, and it does not take long before the viewer has moved from seeing
their primary feature as a physical impairment or difference to seeing them as
full human beings. We would expect this from any sustained depiction of people
with disabilities. What makes My Flesh and Blood distinctive is its psychological
perspective: this is director Karsh's first full-length documentary, and while
he does not appear in it, he is clearly interested in people's identifications
and motivations. He explains in his commentary that one of his parents is a
psychiatrist, and that he talked with his parents while making the film. He is
keenly interested when Susan's mother comes to visit for the first time in six
years, and in an interview with her, she explains how she gave Susan
responsibilities to look after her younger siblings from an early age. Yet
what drew Susan to adopt children with severe disabilities and health problems
never quite gets explained.
Among the children, Karsh pays Joe
the most attention. Joe is the one on the box of the DVD, and he is the one
who demands the most attention. In the documentary, there is not much
information about Joe's psychiatric diagnosis, but in the director's
commentary, he reveals that Susan thinks Joe is in the early stages of bipolar
disorder. It is certainly remarkable how he can go from a furious rage to a calm
serenity in a matter of seconds. It is also revealed in the commentary that
Joe has had brief stays in a psychiatric ward, and this helps to clarify one of
the issues that Susan discusses on camera: she says that she finds it
impossible to get Joe appropriate treatment, because the places that treat his
cystic fibrosis are not equipped to deal with his emotional problems, and will
not take him because he is a very difficult patient. Conversely, psychiatric
wards for children are not equipped to deal with serious non-psychiatric
diseases. So Joe stays home, and as he gets older he seems more and more of a
threat to the rest of the family. Susan believes that he could be a real
physical danger to her personally. It also seems clear, although the film does
not say much about this, that Joe's emotional problems meant that he did not
comply well with treatment for his other conditions, and this could have been a
factor in his worsening health.
Living with Joe is clearly a strain
on the rest of the family. Margaret, who turns 18 in the year of the making of
the film and whose life is very much based around caring for her siblings,
could now leave home. At one point she has an emotional crisis, when it seems
that maybe she should get out of the house for her own good. But she keeps on
helping out, even though the atmosphere in the house is often tense. This is
probably because on the whole the children and Susan manage to transcend their
difficulties and have moments of joy together. One very distinctive aspect of Flesh
and Blood is its use of film of the children playing. Some of this comes
from Susan's home movies, and some of it was shot on Super 8 by the
filmmakers. They are interspersed in the film, especially in the breaks from
one season to another. They highlight the beauty of the children without
disguising their disabilities. They have a slightly ethereal feel to them,
and are full of joy. They have a wonderful effect of lifting the mood.
The extras on the DVD are fairly
standard, but they are good. It includes some deleted scenes, additional
interviews, follow-up interviews, and the director's commentary. This is a
compelling film, and would be especially good for classes in medical ethics and
© 2006 Christian
Perring. All rights reserved.
Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities
Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main
research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.
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