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by Jonathan Karsh (Director)
New Video Group, 2004
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jul 18th 2006

My Flesh and Blood

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 disability studies.


© 2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian 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.