Aug 12

“I Know This Much Is True”: Family Issues

In I Know This Much Is True, the recent HBO adaptation of Wally Lamb‘s 1998 novel of the same name, Mark Ruffalo superbly portrays 40-year-old twin brothers, Dominick and Thomas Birdsey. Whereas the former has generally been a reasonably functional guy, the latter has paranoid schizophrenia and has been in and out of institutions since his early adulthood.

During the course of this six-part mini-series so much tragedy befalls the brothers that critic Lucy Mangan, The Guardian, opines that ” few will avoid compassion fatigue before the end.” I have to agree. Which isn’t to say it’s not worth seeing, if nothing else for the performances and a strong lesson in the theme that mental illness affects the whole family.

Perhaps if anyone in the family had ever received adequate help to guide them through Thomas’s diagnosis, things would have turned out different for the Birdseys—that is to say, better. At the start of I Know This Much Is True, Thomas, for example, may be getting by at his state-run facility known as Settle, but he is nonetheless dangerously symptomatic. Out in public he commits an act of extreme self-harm, which leads to an involuntary commitment to Hatch, a forensic facility notable for its cruelty.

Through many scenes that go back and forth in time we learn that Dominick, on the other hand, has struggled throughout their lives to act as Thomas’s guardian, at times appointed by others, e.g, a teacher or parent, at other times self-appointed. The extreme difficulty of this has raised all kinds of uncomfortable feelings and attitudes, including over-responsibility, confusion, guilt, and resentment. To his detriment, he has carried these mostly on his own shoulders.

Several years before Thomas’s commitment to Hatch the twins lose their mother (Melissa Leo) to cancer. Although their abusive stepfather cares about them he isn’t emotionally strong enough to be sufficiently supportive to either.

On top of all this, “Dominick’s mother never told him who his and Thomas’ biological father was, a mystery that eats away at him long after she’s gone. Her parting gift, a manuscript written by his Sicilian grandfather, dangles the possibility of answers” (Melanie McFarland, Salon).

Dominick, who married college sweetheart Dessa (Kathryn Hahn), a match that once had significant potential, is now divorced. His current girlfriend is more self-involved than attentive, which seems reciprocal on Dominick’s part.

In desperately hoping to have Thomas transferred back to Settle, where he at least had a job and a certain comfort level, Dominick grudgingly becomes acquainted with Hatch’s down-to-earth social worker Lisa Sheffer (Rosie O’Donnell) as well as Thomas’s caring new psychologist, Dr. Patel (Archie Panjabi). Both readily recognize that Dominick—angry, aggressive, and decreasingly healthy—needs professional assistance as much as Thomas does.

Whereas Sheffer tries to prepare Dominick for Thomas’s upcoming commitment hearing, Patel wants this therapy-resistant but desperately lost man to talk to her about his issues. (Shades of Nick Nolte‘s character seeing his suicidal sister’s psychiatrist in The Prince of Tidessans the poor therapist boundaries.) Quality professional help arriving so late in the game, however, fails to prevent mishap after tragedy after trauma in the brothers’ lives.

Ultimately, Dominick feels his life has been “cursed”—a notion reinforced by reading his maternal grandfather’s bio—and that he’s a victim of his various tragic circumstances rather than a participant. By the very end of I Know This Much Is True, though, we do know he’s learned a thing or two about such things as self-care and forgiveness.

Feb 27

“When We Rise”: Must-Know LGBTQ History

Jeff Jensen,, calls this new program “a beautifully queer thing in a very square package.” Starting tonight on ABC and also ending this week is a four-part, eight-hour mini-series, Dustin Lance Black‘s When We Rise, about the decades-long struggle for gay rights in the U.S.

Stars include Michael Kenneth Williams, Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker, Rosie O’Donnell, David Hyde Pierce, T.R. Knight, Matthew Del Negro, Whoopi Goldberg, and Rachel Griffiths.

Although many reviewers find it “too dense” (Dominic Patten, Deadline) and “overly ambitious” in scope (Robert Bianco, USA Today), most also say it’s well worth the watch, especially for those who are relatively unfamiliar with the subject matter.

Sonia Saraiya, Variety, sets up the main (and, of course, true) story: “…three activists in San Francisco, who variously devoted their lives to (and were ravaged by) the cause. One is Roma Guy (Emily Skeggs in her youth, and Parker as an adult), a feminist activist who discovers her own sexuality in the process of agitating for the rights of her friends who are lesbians….Roma ends up making a fragile alliance with Cleve Jones (youth, Austin P. McKenzie; adult, Pearce), a gay teenager barely surviving on the streets of San Francisco. Jones would go on to become one of the gay rights’ movement’s biggest figures.”

Then there’s the third: “…Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors and Williams), a black Vietnam navy veteran who is both the most tragic figure in the story and the most alienated — from the movement and from the other ‘characters.’ His race cuts him off from the mainstream gay movement brewing in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco; his sexuality cuts him off from other veterans and the black community.”

If for some of us watching this series is bound to feel nostalgically we’ve-been-powerful-in-our-united-struggle, it’s also likely to raise emotional triggers regarding current events in the Trumpism era. Although Trump had promoted LGBTQ rights in his campaign, he chose a Vice President and Cabinet appointees who’ve clearly shown anti-LGBTQ stances.

A few related and compelling concluding thoughts from critic Jeff Jensen,

It’s a story that needs to be told and needs to be heard here at a time when the new conservative administration threatens to roll back the gains of too many years and too much suffering. (In a weirdly fitting and perhaps calculated scheduling choice, [the series] will be interrupted by President Donald Trump’s speech addressing Congress on Tuesday, Feb. 28)…

It’s a story of a marginalized people who deserve to be recognized, a history we all need to know and own, presented as potent mainstream television. At one point, a neglectful president flies above and over an exhibit of the AIDS Quilt on the National Mall in what plays as a willful spurning and taunt, and Pearce’s Cleve leads the crowd in a rebuke: ‘Shame! Shame! Shame!’ Some people, including yours truly, can barely begin to understand and feel everything encoded in that furious shout. When We Rise illuminates, moves us to empathy, and challenges us to join the battle.

Below you can watch the When We Rise trailer: