My Flesh & Blood
directed by Jonathan Karsh
(HBO, 2003)

Susan Tom works 24/7, but has "no Social Security, no retirement plan, no savings." Instead, this Fairfield, Calif., woman is mother to 11 special needs children by adoption -- and two more children by birth -- guiding, crying, laughing, struggling with them as they make their way into the world.

"I'm their mom," says Tom in the documentary My Flesh & Blood, "and that's enough."

Directed by Jonathan Karsh, My Flesh & Blood is no Hallmark tribute to a gauzy version of motherhood or what it means to be part of the extraordinary Tom family. And yet, it's a more powerful reminder of the good in people than virtually anything else you will watch this year.

For exactly one year, Karsh and his crew followed Susan and the kids to school, to church, with friends, as they celebrate what is unique about each child, and as they nearly become buried by the emotional wounds carried by one child in particular. Like real life, it whipsaws -- one moment a screaming battle, the next, a girl without legs giggling as fake legs get "cut off" during a Halloween magic act.

Because if you can't laugh through it all in the Tom family, you'll never make it. Their $600-plus grocery bill would be enough to make some parents weep, but it's not even close to a blip in Susan's daily routine.

There are children without limbs, mentally challenged children, a boy with cystic fibrosis, a child with a disease that is, literally, eating away at him. There also are children who fight each other -- and for each other -- fiercely, who are ecstatic when a boy says he'll look for them at the school dance, children who pitch in to help out around the house to the exclusion of their own social lives, kids who swim with joyous abandon.

Karsh's gift -- and therefore, ours -- is that he realizes these two groups of children, the disadvantaged and the breathtakingly fortunate, are one and the same.

At the center of it all is Susan Tom, a woman whose marriage broke up under the strain of the growing family. Now, admitting that she misses the companionship and support of an intimate relationship, she muses what her personal ad could say.

"Fat," she says promptly. "Lots of kids, uh, interesting. Sense of humor."

And this from a woman who, with unbearable tenderness, bathes her teenage son Anthony for hours as the skin peels from his body and he weeps in agony. Wrapped like a mummy to protect his raw skin, Anthony suffers from epidermolysis bullosa, a life-threatening condition that creates chronic sores all over his body.

Alone, the relationship between Anthony and Susan is spellbinding. But there's also Joe, whose rage at the world and fear of death engulf the whole family. And there's college-bound Margaret, 18, who spends all her time caring for her siblings, who admits "it's hard for me to relax sometimes" and whose absolute frustration at never feeling "heard" is compounded by guilt that her problems are nothing compared to her siblings' challenges.

And for all of us, who grouse at the traffic on the way to work, who complain about standing in line, who whine that life's not fair, My Flesh & Blood is a welcome reminder to just shut our mouths. Because rarely is so much pain, so much joy, so much triumph clustered so heartbreakingly close together.

by Jen Kopf
17 December 2005

Buy it from