Charity Lee occupies the center of one of those true-crime stories that’s so operatically atrocious it’s impossible to comprehend. In 2007, Charity’s 13-year-old son, Paris, savagely murdered her four-year-old daughter and his half-sister, Ella, strangling and beating the girl, stabbing her 17 times with a kitchen knife. Katie Green and Carlye Rubin’s documentary The Family I Had opens with Charity’s recollection of hearing of Ella’s death, which is initially presented as a terrifyingly arbitrary incident. We hear the recording of Paris’s call to 911, in which he sounds remorseful and panicked, as if he’s snapped out of a slumber and is describing an act committed by another person.
Green and Rubin begin with this incident so that we can process the shock of it, before doubling back to events that preceded the murder. Things aren’t as arbitrary as they seem, of course, and a shadow of ambiguity is cast upon that 911 call. The filmmakers have been granted considerable access to Charity and Paris, who’s incarcerated in a variety of Texas prisons over the course of the film. Charity is a memorable and poignant camera subject: Broad-shouldered and heavily tatted, with close-cropped hair and intelligent and tired eyes, she looks every bit like the warrior and survivor that she is. She’s a woman who’s struggled with a bad parent, bad men, a drug addiction, and the death of a daughter at the hands of a prodigiously intelligent son who meets the textbook definition of a psychopath.
Charity’s descriptions of her own life profoundly avert nihilistic and religious platitudes, illustrating the knack that humans have for acclimating to the most unmooring of circumstances, evolving, by necessity of survival, to find such events nearly ordinary as life grinds on. At one point, Charity makes a despairing and macabre joke about Ella’s murder to her mother, Kyla, who’s part of an overlapping murder controversy of her own. But this humor is a testament of strength rather than callousness, as Charity is weathering something that would break many people; she’s an advocate of prison reform, as Paris’s interviews offer chilling evidence of how incarceration warps, exacerbates, and rewards the antisocial behavior of its captors.
The Family I Had isn’t slick: Revelations are sprung messily, almost randomly, as they often are in life. The film alternates intimate home-movie recordings, which show that Paris was a bomb waiting to detonate, with contemporary footage of Charity working with people affected by severe crimes, taking care of her new child, resonantly named Phoenix, and maintaining some semblance of a relationship with Paris, whom she resents and fears but has, remarkably, appeared to have forgiven. The Family I Had documents the transferrable perversities inherent in familial life, offering evidence to both sides of the debate of nature versus nurture, while exploring the awesome durability of love, which can become its own kind of prison.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 19—30.