Published on December 21st, 2017 | by Meg Lemke1
How to Be the Good Mother of a Murderer: An Interview with the Filmmakers Behind THE FAMILY I HAD
“To be a good mom to Paris, I felt like I was betraying Ella and to be a good mom to Ella…I felt like I would have had to have been a bad mom to Paris,” says Charity, in The Family I Had, a gut punch of a documentary by directors Katie Green and Carlye Rubin (of Dead Mothers Club).
That’s because her son, Paris, violently murdered her daughter, Ella, when he was thirteen years old, and the little girl was aged four.
How does a mother go on at all, after such an event? How does she, as she says in the film (and repeated in responding to press about the film), forgive?
Charity Lee is a character and a human like few others captured onscreen. Authentic, vibrant, she’s fascinating to watch. She looks straight at you. The filmmakers frame her cropped hair and muscular postures; she reads from old news clippings in a cool-headed tone, funny and frank. She talks about her love for the daughter she lost and conflicted, warring feelings about the son who “saved her” when she was pregnant and an addict. The son she lost as well, to prison and to his actions. After such devastation, she resolves to dedicate her life to helping other women who’ve experienced intra-familial violence, and those have come to sobriety (often the same).
I’ll just say, if you think you’ve been judged for your parenting, imagine what this parent lives with daily, and the courage required to open up further for an investigative narrative—to trust, the filmmakers and the viewers. To trust to forgive.
After opening with the death of a child, the film does move along a kind of plot, unraveling a complex history of family, trauma, mental illness, and personalities…there are some shockers, but which don’t lead in any straight line to the tragedy that opens this story, which closes Ella’s. Paris has a future release date ahead of him, despite both his mother and he acknowledging the lack of support in prison, her fears that the state has not offered a way to “rehabilitate” her now grown-up child. Will his mother be safe? Can she keep him safe? Nothing neatly explains a child’s murder; nothing explains being the mother of a murderer.
To say the obvious: It’s a hard film to watch. It debuted in New York at the Tribeca Festival, where I was rocked leaving the theater, listening to the other reporter-types exclaiming on the escalator about story-twists while I tried to stop shaking.
Tonight, 9pm EST, marks The Family I Had launching on Investigation Discovery. I envy new viewers, as it would be nice to get to pause this story, a rare and sensitive piece of “True Crime.” With all the trigger and content warnings I can offer, if you are able to push play, support these filmmakers who took on a most difficult story, and gave Charity and her family the space to speak their truths behind lurid headlines. Green and Rubin say they did not go in looking for this particularly dark vein; they wanted to make an advocacy film about sentencing reform and juvenile delinquents. That film is still in progress. Paris’s case deserved a whole arc to itself.
I will say, mother to mother, that I’ve been thinking of Charity often since I left that dark auditorium last spring at Tribeca…. Thank you to the filmmakers for talking to me about their intentions and process in making this film, continuing the honest dialogue of The Family I Had.
MUTHA: You were in post-production right up to when you debuted the film at Tribeca?
KATIE: We literally finished a week before.
MUTHA: How long were you working on the film? Charity and her family weren’t your original focus, correct?
CARLYE: We were investigating the impact that extreme sentencing had on families, focusing on juveniles, but when we found Paris and Charity, we realized we were making a different film. We are still making the original film, but we separated out this story.
MUTHA: Charity criticizes the prison system, which is in no way helping Paris, but this film does make it hard to understand how else to protect his family. Does this story make the conversation about prison reform harder?
KATIE: That’s the point—it’s not easy. We believe society has a responsibility to do more than just drop these children in jail. We hope that the film pushes that conversation to be more complex. The prison system is an inappropriate place for Paris, but we sympathize with his mother and victim. Somewhere in there is a missing link, where we’ve failed this family. He does have a release date, and his mother is trying to negotiate questions about what is appropriate punishment, how she can keep herself safe. But the prison system is not asking these questions about rehabilitation.
MUTHA: That’s the trap that Charity is in: she fears her son’s release date, but she doesn’t believe he’s in an appropriate situation. As a mother, what can she do to reconcile these contradictions?
This is a difficult film to process, for me to grapple with, as a parent. I usually come out of documentaries and into interviews with so many questions, but I found myself searching for how to even start to talk about it. I know your film work has approached “family” from many angles, but do you personally have kids?
MUTHA: Opening with the death of a child makes it hard to get your mind around the rest of the work as art. I was left with a strong fascination with Charity “as a character.” Many family secrets are revealed over the course of the film. Did you go in knowing this history, or did it unfold as you followed her on camera?
CARLYE: Charity is an open book; we knew everything about her from the get-go. If you google her name, you’ll get the full story. She always says “secrets make you sick.” She uses her story to advocate for people who have relatives in the system, both victim’s families and families of the incarcerated, since she walks that line herself. She uses her story to help others.
MUTHA: But were you surprised as filmmakers at different points in the film, for example in the interviews with Paris’ grandmother, Charity’s mother, Kyla?
KATIE: We only interviewed Kyla once; though the audience sees that over different stages. At the time, she and Charity were not speaking. They all live in this gray area, the way they relate to each other is ambiguous. We weren’t surprised as we did know the facts of their histories, but we wanted to ask ourselves, how do you make a film where there’s slow reveals so the audience feels like they’re on a journey?
MUTHA: I saw it in the daytime screenings for press, which is a weird experience because the theaters are mostly empty and these various strange characters show up (with like huge ziplock bags of stale popcorn). People were talking about it on the escalators “can you believe….?” The true crime/drama did create a reaction.
But at the same time, the film is not about the mystery, not about the causes. It’s about Charity’s ability to hold these truths, about both her children. Does the film have a message you are leaving the audience, about redemption?
CARLYE: We saw Charity as an archetype you don’t typically see. A strong woman, independent, unapologetic. We met her when she was pregnant with Phoenix [her third child]. It may sound cliché, but she was choosing love. She was choosing to open herself up to love and the idea of loss again, with another child. The film is about resilience and also forgiveness, and we hope that’s not lost in the plotting. We found Charity incredibly inspiring.
MUTHA: You express in the press notes some concern about the risk that she puts herself in by making this film. How did she and Paris put themselves in some risk by undertaking the exposure of this film?
KATIE: There is a risk, yes. We see all the characters in this film as whole people, complex, all deserving of redemption in some way. We were conscious of wanting to edit in a way that was nuanced and also fair. We did not exploit them. Charity has been defined by this trauma and this tragedy. She has used it as a way to identify herself, so while we’ve been conscious of the responsibility like as any complicated story, I think we feel proud and lucky that the family was so open with us. Charity believes there is good from being open, that beyond shocking it can teach people and have meaning and relevance.
We know the film leaves people conflicted. That’s the point. Art should have impact.
MUTHA: She’s a sober drug addict, and her philosophies feel informed by that recovery process. Like that line, “secrets make you sick,” and the statements she makes about regrets—that the only action she specifically regrets is her relapse. Coming from the world of parenting writing, the fear I had for her is how cruel and judgmental the world is about the choices that mothers make. She says all the fingers pointed at her in her small community after her daughter’s murder, but she makes a conscious stand not to unpack actions she could have taken differently. I noticed you didn’t go into the psychological diagnoses of Paris, which Charity reports in one scene, but you don’t in the film comment on them or provide say an “outside expert.” Was that about privacy or an editorial decision you made, and why?
CARLYE: The film is not about slapping a label on anyone. We’re not sitting in judgment, and as you say, it’s easy to do—society does with mothers all the time. We’re telling their story. Maybe that sounds like an unsatisfying answer, but we really saw a family that’s broken apart and trying to put the pieces back together, and we wanted them all to have a space to tell their story.
Our prior film together was about daughters who’ve lost their mothers, a club we are a part of ourselves. What we learned in making that film, was that while we all experienced the same thing, our ways to move through it, varied. There needs to be a respect and understanding within families, that even when everyone experiences a loss, it is different for each member.
That’s true also for Charity’s family, and we brought that sympathy to the story for the unique experience of each member of her family in their shared loss.
MUTHA: Because they are a family, perhaps, they all do diagnose each other and speak about it explicitly. Charity talks often in the film about how she’s tried to get help for Paris and where those doctor’s have stopped evaluations at different points. It made me think about how psychological evaluations of a child are always mediated by a parent or caregiver in a system, within the questioning of a child.
How do you go about, as filmmakers, working with incarcerated minors, to be sure they’re fully informed and consenting in this process?
KATIE: Paris is no longer a minor—he’s now 23, and we started filming when he was 19. But we were conscious and clear with him, that he was in a position where he didn’t get much of a say of what goes on “out here.” He was open and gracious and we used his artwork, animated throughout the film, including from letters he sent to Charity while he was in prison, and he consented to that use.
But yes, we’ve been asked in coverage of the film if any professionals who did the psych evaluations on Paris would speak to us. But he was a minor when they were performed, and that information is kept confidential. We really respect that, it comes with the responsibility of telling this story.
MUTHA: Where is the family, now?
KATIE: Paris is eligible for parole in 10 years. Charity has moved to Savannah, Georgia, to be close to her mother. She’s still trying to start a new life; to rebuild their family.