Every family has a story. Some are more complicated than others. In Tom Murray’s documentary, Dad’s in Heaven With Nixon, narrative threads are woven together to create impressions and nuances. Patterns are revealed, facts emerge, truths are laid bare.
When I interviewed Murray by telephone, he related that when he began his film the focus was on his mother and his brother, Christopher. It was tentatively titled, A Light in His Eyes, and recounted the story of how Janice Murray had refused to accept the diagnostic doomsday verdicts put forth by the Park Avenue doctors and psychiatrists she had visited in search for answers about her son.
The film is being featured on Showtime during April, Autism Awareness month. Currently, an average of 1 in 110 children in the United States present with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. When Chris was born in 1960, the whites of his eyes were totally red – a sign of oxygen deprivation. Recent laboratory studies have shown that oxygen deprivation is a cause leading to autism. In 1964, years before mothers felt they had the right to question medical authority, Janice Murray rejected the directive to place her son in an institution. Instead, she embarked on a regimen of what is now termed “early intervention.” She engaged her son in exercises involving “creeping and patterning,” utilized vitamin therapy, and fed Chris “wheat germ cookies and Tigers milk powder.” She involved all the siblings in “a campaign to pull out” all of Chris’s potential. The only person she couldn’t get on board was her husband, Thomas E. Murray II, who was in denial about his son’s issues. They were too difficult for him to acknowledge or accept.
That’s where the story veers off from the director’s initially intended narrative. As Murray explained, “I discovered a cache of films and realized that there were a couple of stories going on.” He had already planned to incorporate home movies from the 50s and 60s, which captured his seemingly happy and affluent childhood in Southampton. However, the found footage added a new and complex dimension to the history.
The director sets up the family lineage, beginning with great-grandfather Thomas E. Murray, whose inventions and patents would be the source of the clan’s wealth. Captured on the recovered reels are images of his grandfather, John F. Murray, a commissioner of the Port Authority under Franklin Roosevelt. We learn that he hobnobbed with Al Smith and Jimmy Walker, and was a bipolar alcoholic who died at 37. He also hated his youngest son, Tom and Chris’s father.
From this grandfather came a legacy, in the form of bipolar illness, which would impact the subsequent generations. As Murray recounts through interviews with his family, their father was incapable of any real intimacy and had an explosive temper that “could come out of nowhere.” Yet, part of the film evidences itself as a love letter from the filmmaker to his father. Murray acknowledged when we spoke, “I idolized and adored my father, to a fault. I had a driving need and desire to try to compensate for the void that was left by his dad.” Murray admits that his life was shaped by the “fix the parent” role that he took upon himself. Now in his fifties, he has concluded that, “It’s not my job to fix anybody.”
His father fell into a downward spiral that included the end of his marriage, and financial ruin that led to the loss of the family’s homes in Southampton and Manhattan. He steadfastly refused to acknowledge his problems. Increasingly delusional behavior had him insisting, “It’s all going to be fine.” He died in an accident in 1979, when he was 52. Tom narrates how, by serendipity, he saw his father on the last day of his life. It was just hours before he drowned in the ocean, near the beach where he had taught his children to swim.
In drawing the parallels between his father’s dysfunctionality and Chris’s challenges, Murray ties the disparate strands together. When the viewer is introduced to Chris Murray at the beginning of the film, they see a pleasant looking middle-age man with speech patterns similar to Raymond Babbitt from Rain Man. We learn about his early years from his indomitable mother, and about his current life from him. Chris has lived independently for twenty-five years in New Haven, where he works at a health food store and at Yale New Haven Hospital. He gets a haircut on Saturdays, visits his mother in Manhattan, and is “hoping to get a girlfriend.” He maintains relationships with other graduates from Chapel Haven, the facility where he learned his independence skills. A counselor checks in on him. At 82, his mother – ever the parent – is emotionally preparing Chris for the time when she will no longer be “here.”
Through what Murray qualifies as his brother’s “guilelessness,” we get ironic insights. Chris believes that the reason for vacating the family’s apartment was because the residence had “become too big.” Yet, as his mother explains, he is aware “in his own way that the father, who was a loving man, was unstable.” Reflecting on their father’s death, Chris tell his brother, “He’s in no pain anymore.”
After the loss of his father, Chris began painting. He started portraying New York City buildings in drawings, using a ruler and pencils. “The buildings are big,” he says. His brother notes, “It’s always a beautiful day in your paintings.” In 1999, Gloria Vanderbilt saw one of his works at a friend’s home. Through her introduction to a gallery, Chris has been exhibiting his art. Paintings have been placed in private and public collections.
Thirty years later, Chris still holds his father close to him. He reiterates how his father is proud of him and his painting, and is watching over him. In a dialogue, from which the movie takes its name, Chris explains that his father, who harbored an intense dislike of Richard Nixon, is now up in heaven with the President. They have become friends and “are playing poker.”
Murray sees his brother as “a shining example of what the future of autism might be.” Discussing the extensive information available to families now, he believes that Chris’s story provides a window into hope for those who have just started their journey into dealing with the autistic spectrum. Murray said, “We knew our family was different, but it made us more sensitive and aware of those with differences.”
It is with justification that the movie is dedicated to Janice Murray with the words:
“To Mom – Who Never Stopped Believing”
Photos: Courtesy of Showtime