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By Doug Brunell | November 29, 2003

One of the first wayward thoughts to enter my mind while watching this film was: I must live in a sad world when I can’t do as many pull-ups as a thirteen-year-old girl with no legs. Of course, I’m the guy who laughed his way through “The Devil’s Experiment,” so you shouldn’t be that shocked. What’s coming next in this review, though, may be a bit much to take if you are a sensitive person.”My Flesh and Blood” is a documentary that focuses on Susan Tom and her brood of adopted children, eleven of which are handicapped in one way or another, such as Faith, the little girl who was badly burned as a baby, and Joe, who has Cystic Fibrosis and some nasty anger management problems. In addition to those two, there are kids who are retarded, girls who are missing limbs, and one young man whose skin blisters and falls off when touched. The footage of these children isn’t always pleasant to watch, but it’s my feelings toward the family that really started to bother me.
Throughout the film I kept having to examine whether I was a heartless bastard or just a realist. I imagine that’s more or less up to you readers to decide, but I’ll share my thoughts with you, and I’m sure you’ll let me know.
First point of contention: It’s marvelous that Susan has taken these children under her wing, but she can’t afford them. Her grocery bill is in the $600 range, and there is a lot of medical care that is needed. She gets her money from the various SSI checks the children receive. That just seems slightly off, though I believe her intentions are good. After all, she has taken these children in despite the fact that they are a handful. That said, she does have some help for when she wants to go out or search for men on the internet.
Susan’s aid comes from her daughter Margaret, an eighteen-year-old girl with epilepsy… who’s about to have a nervous breakdown. This girl doesn’t have a moment to herself, and it seems to be driving her insane. The one thing Margaret wants is for Susan to listen to her for just a few minutes. To just listen while she vents. Susan won’t do it. She claims Margaret isn’t making any sense. Well, it made perfectly good sense to me. If I were Margaret, I would’ve abandoned the lot of them ages ago, and that bothers me, too.
When I look at these kids; when I hear Joe telling his sisters he’s going to chop their heads off and express hatred toward them because some of them aren’t Americans; when I see Xenia, the thirteen-year-old with no legs, get stood up by a boy she likes; when I hear Faith say that one day she’ll look like a normal girl — I have to wonder if it’s all worth it. I have to ask myself what is worse: being dead or growing up (if they make it that far — and not all do) in a world that will never accept them as “normal” people? Wouldn’t Faith have been better off being burned to death instead of being so damn sure that someday she’ll look like a regular girl (two ears, a nose, smooth skin)? I’ve seen burn victims who have had extensive plastic surgery. They still don’t look “normal.”
As I asked myself these things, I started to see what this film was doing to me. I was confronting my own bleak view of the world. Case in point: One of the children dies, and I thought the family was better off. I thought the child was better off. And I thought Susan was being selfish when she said it was never a relief to lose a child. I believe she means that … to an extent. Underneath it all, however, I detect that she’s miserable, her kids are miserable, and the people who have to deal with them are a bit miserable, too. The kids who seemed happiest were the youngest ones, and I chalked that up to the fact that the real world hadn’t crushed them yet. It was in their eyes, though. They understood what was coming. When Xenia shrugs off being stood up at the Valentine’s Day dance, you can see it in her face. She says it doesn’t matter, but we’ve all been there. It matters a lot. And it matters even more to know you were shunned because someone was too weak to deal with the fact that you have no legs and live with a family of people in similar situations.
If you view life as being full of rainbows and ponies, you’ll see this film as a remarkable display of courage and hope. If you wake up to reality, though, you’ll see this as a depressing exercise in futility. It’s not that I don’t think these people are “normal.” It’s the people society considers “normal” that I worry about. Normal people are vicious and cruel. They avoid those who are different, and they smile while doing it. This is the world these kids have been condemned to live in, and that just makes me sick.

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  1. Dani says:

    Whenever I watch a documentary, I always go and research it, and find out more. this family was followed by cameras for an entire year. and a lot was edited. for instance, that scene with margaret had been going on for hours. not the 5 minutes it may appear to be. she had been sitting there listening to her for hours. I did feel sorry for margaret, so much put on her shoulders, and I honestly feel, susan would have been much better off hiring a person to help everyday for a few hours.
    I dont believe personally, that she was doing any of this “for the money” if she was, she wouldnt have adopted them, as she wouldve got a lot more money leaving them as foster children.

    I dont think this movie was made to make people feel good, I think it was made to make people think. I have a “special needs” child. and Ill admit, sometimtes I feel down and wish that he was more like his peers. but this movie really made me realise my son while having issues, hasnt really got anything compared to these children. so in a way, that sounds selfish, becuase it made me feel better that my life is not that bad.

    I do take my hat off to Susan. if it were not for her these children would not be where they are. I am a foster child myself. and I am a foster parent too. so I might see things differently than other people.

    as for whether or not these children would have been better off dead. well, you are obviously not the father of a child with any sort of special needs. for if you were, you would never even contemplate that.

  2. Jessica says:

    I’ve read numerous reviews on this movie, so many people saying how touching it is, how great a person Susan is. I have to say, the time where her daughter just wanted her to listen, and she kept saying not now…that for me made me question if this woman really felt a connection…to any of these children. She takes care of them, yes, but I didn’t see much love given to them. I wept for them all, and thanked god my own child was born healthy. A selfish thought perhaps, but you are right..”normal” people are cruel, and hateful, and it is sad what is in store for those kids.

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