When he was little, Paris drew crayon pictures of dinosaurs and dreamed of being a paleontologist. When he came home from his school in Abilene, Texas, he’d play with his baby sister, playing silly games and making even sillier home movies. He was the apple of his mother’s eye—a recovered heroin addict, he gave her a reason to live as she pieced her life back together. It was a damaged family, but a loving one. But that all changed on Super Bowl Sunday 2007 when Paris, the sweet little boy who charmed friends and neighbors with his kindness, savagely stabbed his sister Ella to death with a knife. She was four, he was thirteen. On the 911 call, a hyperventilating Paris claimed he’d hallucinated that she was a demon. But nearly a decade after Paris was convicted of murder and sentenced to almost forty years in prison, his mother Charity sits quietly and listens to the recording of the call. “It’s amazing that he was able to pull that story together so quickly,” she sighs in resignation. “That’s not what he sounds like when he actually cries.”
It only takes a few minutes to realize that Katie Green and Carlye Rubin’s documentary The Family I Had is something special. In 77 minutes, they create one the most harrowing portrayals of the self-destruction and tentative self-restoration of a southern American family this side of a William Faulkner novel. The story of Charity, Paris, and Ella—their last names are never given—stretches our capacity to empathize and understand a family riddled by generations of drug abuse, mental illness, and murder.
Key to the film’s success is Green and Rubin’s masterly control of their narrative. At no point do they feel like the standard omniscient narrators of so many mediocre documentaries. As they slowly unspool the tragedy, we feel like they’re figuring things out for the first time right alongside us. What follows is a deliberate construction and deconstruction of our assumptions concerning the crime. At first, we believe theirs was a happy family rocked by an inconceivable crime: the film opens with happy home videos of Paris and Ella playing together. Then we learn about the murder and its grisly details. Then the family’s dirty secrets slowly emerge: not only was Charity a recovered addict, she was a single mother whose partner skipped town when she got pregnant only to return later with a serious case of schizophrenia. Charity’s cherubic mother, shown in the first part of the film as a calming force within the family, is also revealed as a recovered addict whose destructive behavior led to her estrangement from the rest of the family. What’s more, there’s a very good chance she murdered Charity’s father and got away with it. And the coup de grace: we discover that Paris—shown in several prison interviews as being repentant and remorseful; a young boy driven to an uncontrollable psychotic episode—had been diagnosed about a year before the murder as having homicidal tendencies by a doctor.
This may all sound manipulative, but Green and Rubin are not interested in twisting the story around for maximum shock value. They do not seek to titillate or sensationalize the tragedy. Instead, they make us empathize with these wounded people, showing us their human sides before delving into the darkness within them. By the end I was consumed with an aching love and sorrow for this family; I wanted to bring wholeness to their brokenness. I was even angry at the indignities facing Paris in prison. Partway through filming, Paris was relocated from one Texas prison to another, one renowned for its cruelty, terrible conditions, and corrupt staff. As Charity is quick to point out, Paris must now rely on the same violent compulsions that led to Ella’s murder just so he can survive his new environment. The state of Texas has damned Paris to become an even worse monster than he was on the outside. If Charity and Paris can’t be a family again, it’s Texas’ fault. And by extension, it’s the fault of society itself. What a cruel final indignity.
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