This film is the story of a mother’s enduring love and a boy’s journey from the darkness of brain damage, coupled with what would eventually be diagnosed as autism to the light that is his life today as an acclaimed artist. It is also the story of mental illness in one Irish-American family, the devastating damage it caused, from one generation to the next, and ultimately the triumph of the human spirit. When Janice Murray first saw her newborn son, Christopher, in a New York City hospital in 1960, she knew immediately that something was wrong. “The whites of his eyes were completely scarlet,” she said. “That’s a sign of oxygen deprivation.”
The initial diagnosis confirmed her observations. It was only later that another battery of tests determined that he was also autistic. Virtually every medical expert that was consulted concluded that the prospects were bleak: Several even suggested putting Chris in an institution. But Janice refused to even consider the impossibility of reaching her son. There was something in his eyes that convinced her that there was hope for Chris, that he was more aware than he was letting on. “He never looked vacant or dull,” she said. “It was more a look of bewilderment or pain.” At the same time that Janice was embarking on that daunting challenge, her husband Tommy Sr. was beginning a long, sad slide into depression, debt and divorce that devastated his family. He died young, drowning off the Southampton, NY beach where he and all of his children grew up. He was 52. Like his father before him, he was bipolar and refused to even discuss being treated for it-never mind actually take the first step in that direction. Christopher was devastated by his father’s death, but couldn’t express his pain, confusion, grief and, yes, rage the way his mother, brothers and sisters could. He had to find another way-through his paintings, primarily of New York City’s urban landscape, work that is created, in the words of one critic, “with obsessive, fastidious draftsmanship.” The film is also about the beautiful irony that now exists in Chris’ relationship with his brother Tommy, one that obliterates a commonly held belief that people with a mental illness are so much “different” than we “normal” people are: In the early days, when he was just a little boy, Tommy nurtured and sheltered Chris from the cruelties of the world and those who didn’t understand or would mock him and his condition.