Endless reserves of motherly love
By Danielle Stein
Susan Tom, a mother who adopted 11 disabled children, is the subject of a documentary now playing at the Angelika
No one would ever call My Flesh and Blood entertaining. A documentary about a woman who has adopted a houseful of disabled children, with conditions ranging from a degenerative skin disease to lack of limbs, it is not the typical movie for which you pay $10 at the multiplex, not the average dose of thrill or fun that a Supercombo so nicely compliments.
It is more like the film you are forced to watch for some class, or get sucked into when you flip to PBS during the commercial break in your Frasier rerun, but nevertheless find yourself filled with gratitude, by its end, at the circumstance that drove you to it.
Susan Tom is the 53-year-old single mother of 13 who is the centerpiece of My Flesh and Blood. Having had two healthy children of her own, she went on to adopt the rest, all of them kids with special needs. She is surrounded by the likes of Anthony, a 19-year-old with E.B. (Epidermolysis Bullosa), a condition that causes his skin to blister and fall off his body, and that has led to cancer. And Faith, an 8-year-old who was ravaged by a fire at four months, leaving her with a deformed face, scarred back, and absent right hand. And Xenia, a 13-year-old girl who was born without legs.
She bathes these children, and feeds them (an inexpensive grocery bill rang in at $610.77), and stays with them in the hospital through their various surgeries and close calls. She tucks them in at night, and helps them with homework, and cuts their hair in the kitchen. But even more amazing is the way she instills in them a sense of confidence and fun that makes their disabilities nearly dissolve into their expansive personalities.
The best example of this is legless Xenia, who jumps rope on her sneaker-clad hands on the playground and dances in her wheelchair at a school dance, surrounded by her middle school friends. She has a sort-of boyfriend (in the way only middle school kids can) who is a popular, good-looking kid. Particularly fascinating is the Halloween scene in which she throws back her head in laughter as a sibling performs the trick of sawing her in half.
Susan infuses in these kids a sense of normalcy through parenting that is at once extraordinary and, well, normal. Between the endless work, she talks to her kids as any mother would, scolding one for hogging the TV or chiding another for his rude behavior with a typical How old are you?
In the process, she crushes some of the stereotypes associated with people who adopt so many kids. She is not a religious fundamentalist, nor a con artist trying to milk the government, nor an abusive individual looking for targets. At times, in fact, she seems implausibly good and infallible.
But, of course, she is not perfect. She is considerably overweight as well as lonely. We see her surfing the internet for personal ads, and commenting on the fact that, even if a man wanted a fat woman with 13 kids, she hasnt the time or energy to give to another person.
And her wonderful parenting doesnt always equal success. The one child who isnt astonishingly well-adjusted is Joe, a 15-year-old sufferer of cystic fibrosis, attention deficit disorder, and bipolar disorder. The film opens with his declaration that hes going to kill one of his sisters one day, and throughout the film we come to learn just how serious he is. A limited relationship with his birth mother, whom he begs to live with despite the way she perpetually abandons and disappoints him, only fuels his psychotic rage. His constant threats towards his sisters come to life when Susan finds that he has sexually abused one of them.
It is this struggle with Joe that makes the year the cameras followed Susan perhaps the toughest of her life. She glides through with poise, though there are casualties. Her eldest daughter, Margaret, who has overcome her epilepsy to become second-in-command in the house she is herself a veritable saint has a long overdue breakdown. Its not hard to believe Margarets desperate complaint that Susan never finds time to talk to her, to even ask about her day.
My Flesh and Blood ponders why Susan has taken on a load unfathomable to the rest of the world. Is it because of an unfulfilling relationship with her own mother? A lonely childhood?
Just as unanswerable are the looming questions about her children. Will they survive? If so, what will become of them once they reach adulthood and leave Susans care? How will they deal with the social implications of their disabilities? Can they ever find real friendship, let alone love? These questions cannot be answered; to get through the day is struggle enough.
At one point in the film, when Joe is acting particularly monstrous (calling his sister a legless whore and threatening, quite seriously, to kill her), my viewing companion turned to me and asked why Susan doesnt just get rid of him, for the sake of the family. It then dawned on me just how foreign this womans existence is to us. We couldnt comprehend that she isnt just running a charity or a home for orphans, though both are beyond admirable. This woman is not best described as a nurse or caretaker or even saint, though she could be labeled all these things. What she is, to each one of these 13 kids, most deeply, most stunningly, is a mom.