A review of “My Flesh and Blood” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: Not rated, but could be PG for intense emotion

Run Time: 1 hour, 24 minutes

 

 

Poignant, disturbing, and thoroughly captivating, this unsentimental documentary speaks to pain and need in its most profound manifestation.

Fairfield, California resident Susan Tom is not your ordinary mom.  A divorced mother of two, Tom is something of an enigma, a contemporary Mother Theresa who has adopted eleven special-needs children with nowhere to turn.

 Tom heads a chaotic household whose daily regime would fell an ordinary mortal.  Her unflagging energy and enthusiasm along with limited financial help from Social Security and exclusive adoption benefits help her kids thrive despite their cruel and disfiguring disabilities. 

Paraplegics and a burn victim are just the tip of the iceberg. Tom also cares for Anthony, a 19-year old boy suffering from Epidermolysis Bullosa, a crushing degenerative disorder that causes the human skin to literally disintegrate.  Tom refers to Anthony’s daily four-hour bath ritual as akin to being dragged behind a truck for several hours, then dipped into a vat of acid.

The physical yields to the emotional in startling ways. Joseph is a bipolar 15-year old who also suffers from Cystic Fibrosis.  His alarming mood swings and bitter resentment over being abandoned by his birth mom threaten to destroy the goodwill of the household that Tom works tirelessly to support.

“Flesh” is a difficult watch that inspires conflicting emotions. There’s a nagging suspicion that Tom could be milking the system or neglecting her own deep-seeded demons and the grey motives lurking behind her selflessness.  Indeed, Tom’s mother speaks of her daughter’s lifelong loneliness, of a void that has never been filled. But the fact Tom is diligently caring for a group of human beings whose lives would implode without her intervention is evidence conclusive enough to dispel the doubts.

This riveting real-life drama chronicles the most tumultuous year of the Toms’ life, running the gamut of puppy love to profanity-laced tantrums and the perpetual prospect of excruciating death. Tom’s on-camera monologues about losing herself in the turmoil are raw and riveting. Her ability to cope with this fractious day-to-day existence shows a remarkable resilience that must be shared and admired.