Dad’s in Heaven with Nixon was a touching documentary about the history of the director’s family. It center’s around the director, Tom Murray, and his brother, Chris. More poignantly, it centers on the two brothers and their family as they travel life, maneuvering the ups and downs that come with Chris’ autism diagnosis (Murray, 2010). Today, as an adult living with autism, Chris is not what many would consider the “typical” story. He paints glorious cityscapes, which were first widely promoted by the Murray’s family friend and art connoisseur, Gloria Vanderbilt (Genzlinger, 2010). The documentary covers three generations of Murrays, many of whom struggle with their own internal battles, but the main character, the beacon of hope, is Chris.
The title of the documentary stems from Chris’ memories of his late father. Chris understands his father is in heaven. He remembers his father’s seething rage for a man named Nixon, but now believes that, because heaven is such a beautiful happy place, they must be friends there (Genzlinger, 2010). At the time of his father’s death, Chris’ mother and siblings rallied around Chris, giving him the support that was so evidently available throughout his entire life. It is clear from day one Chris has had support from his family unit, especially when his mother begins speaking about his diagnosis. While she accepts his autism, she was not willing to accept there was not more to her son than what doctors promised. She and her entire family worked with Chris through a variety of different occupational and behavioral therapy techniques until Chris could walk, talk, and was potty-trained. It is likely Chris’ family, and later his art, was instrumental in his success.
Unfortunately, while Chris’ father was alive, having suffered from bipolar disorder and depression, his feelings hindered Chris’ progress. Chris had oxygen deprivation at birth and was eventually diagonized with autism. Having a “neurologically damaged child” was more than he could bear in his age (Genzlinger, 2010). He was not as instrumental in Chris progress, primarily because he refused to see Chris for the magnificent child he was. He did not help as often, and was unable to engage with Chris in the way that he was with his other children. It created a resentful relationship within the family. Chris’ mother, however, did everything she could for Chris. Instead of giving up when many others would, she maintained her part behind the scenes in order to ensure that just because he was different, did not mean that Chris would not have a full and decent life.
Today Chris is a successful artist who is often sought after (Murray, 2010). His career allowed him to make meaningful connections within his community, while also spreading awareness about autism. Individuals who were not familiar with him, his family, or autism prior to his being involved in the community now have access to him, and are able to understand that he is no different from anybody else. Furthermore, he is provided with extra support throughout the community. Such support was evidenced by the promotion of his cityscapes by Gloria Vanderbilt, a family friend. While community support has been helpful to Chris, his mother still outshines everybody featured in the documentary. She was instrumental in the life that he has today. As she aged, Chris siblings also began to help Chris, both with understanding his father’s death, and coping with the different issues related to his autism.
While the documentary shows Chris had insurmountable resources at his disposal,(the kind of healthcare he received for the diagnosis and the remedial actions was classy) and as much love as any child or adult could ever want, he also revealed himself to be a very resourceful and self-determined child and young man. For example, as a child it was suggested that his arms and legs be worked for a certain amount of time each day for a variety of reasons. At this point in his life he was stationary, and mute. His family would lay him on the kitchen table to do the recommended therapy until one day he got off the table walked away and said his first words. His mother was overjoyed by the achievement of what she had struggled to achieve for her son in what she termed as “early intervention”. The advancement in his health was however not spoken about by the family since his father was still in denial about the condition. There was no need for that particular therapy anymore, as he made it known it was not necessary and he did not like it. From there, progress continued. Later in life, he continued to be successful in his art, using it to not only express himself, but also to calm himself (Murray, 2010). He did not only rely on his family to help him, but instead created a life for himself using his own talents and ambition. In doing so, he was also able to make better sense of the world around him. As a result, there is a lot of hope in Chris’ life. He has a successful art career and has managed to maintain an independent and lucrative life apart from his family. Moreover, he overcame every obstacle medical professionals placed in his way based on his diagnosis. He is an internal source of hope for people diagnosed with autism, since he rose from a condition that had earned him unmatched stigma even from his own biological father to beat the odds and prove that a disability of health condition is not a disability. He acts as a proof that the ability to be successful in life is an aspect of humanity that is not dictated nor depended on physical conditions. His attitude stood first and he overcame his challenge.
In sum, the documentary showed Chris first and his autism second. Its purpose appears to be showing how autism effects the individuals diagnosed with it, as well as the families of the individuals who have the diagnosis. Chris’ brother did an excellent job interweaving the stories of each family member together, while showing Chris’ story from birth until now. While we may never know what it is like to struggle in an effort to understand the world as Chris once did, or still does, Murray helped remove much of the stigma involved with autism, while simultaneously revealing some of the stigma surrounding bipolar disorder, depression, and alcoholism, as well. It is an emotional and moving story about a family, rallying around a young boy, demanding he has the same chance at a life that is given to anybody else.
Genzlinger, N. (2010). Autism Is Another Thing That Families Share. The New York Times, 23-24.
Murray, T. (Director). (2010). Dad Is in Heaven With Nixon [Motion Picture].