Tolstoy wrote that happy families are all alike, but Tolstoy never met the Currys.
A new documentary by local filmmaker May May Tchao that gets its national broadcast premiere Tuesday, November 23, profiles former Evanston residents Elizabeth and Jud Curry along with their 12 children, five of whom were adopted from overseas. The movie is called “Hayden & Her Family,” but there is no single star in this ensemble film offering an unvarnished look at a clan as colorful and complicated as a vintage crazy quilt.
Although the Currys currently reside in Elburn, Illinois, the documentary was shot in Evanston, much of it in their old house on Hinman Avenue. Filmed from 2014 to 2017, the movie captures not only the peeling paint and imperfect faces that are part of the Curry home, but also the transcendent beauty of unconditional familial love. Hayden, adopted at age 9 from China, has a cranial facial deformity caused by linear nevus sebaceous syndrome. She becomes the thread of the story as we watch the family grow and transform through the years.
The idea for the project was born several years ago when Tchao met Hayden at First Presbyterian Church of Evanston. “I saw this little girl with a facial difference,” she said. “She [was] very self-assured and very sweet and very confident and I’m wondering, ‘Who does this girl belong to?’”
The director explained that she had spent time in China for an earlier film and had seen firsthand the effects of that country’s one-child policy which resulted in the widespread abandonment of baby girls, particularly those with special needs.
“It piqued my curiosity,” said Tchao of the encounter with Hayden. Tchao wanted to know more about the people who had opened their home and their hearts to this child. She soon discovered that the Currys were a unique family in many ways.
Before their adoption journey began, Elizabeth and Jud Curry’s house was already brimming with five biological children: Archer, Blaine, Alice, Phoebe and Duncan. In the film Elizabeth Curry recalls that while nursing Duncan, she became inexplicably saddened thinking about all the children who lacked parental love and she began to consider adoption as a real possibility. “It’s not something we went into out of a sense of duty,” she said during a recent interview. “Frankly, we like being parents.”
The couple went on to adopt two boys from Vietnam. Minh came first and a few years later, Kiet. Shortly after the second adoption, Elizabeth Curry learned she was pregnant. “That was a surprise,” Jud Curry said with a chuckle. “And then the second surprise was that it was twins.” After Lena and Gigi arrived, the Currys said they both felt “done.”
Then, on an adoption website Elizabeth learned about Hayden, who had been abandoned on a train in China at age 5. “I came across a picture of a little girl who I knew desperately needed parents because she didn’t fit the typical mold of a child who would be chosen to be adopted.” Hayden joined the family, and a few years later the Currys adopted two more girls from China, Ting Ting, who has the same medical syndrome as Hayden, and Yu Ting (Tilly).
The film offers a fascinating fly-on-the-wall glimpse of what daily life is like for these 12 children and their parents. Inside a rambling old Victorian home, there is a beehive of activity with siblings practicing karate kicks, arm wrestling, sliding down stairs and slurping freeze pops, but the chaos is countered with order during home-school sessions calmly led by Elizabeth Curry and peaceful nightly dinners at an impossibly long kitchen table.
In one scene, the oldest Curry child explains what it feels like to be a part of such a sprawling family unit. “People look at our family from the outside and think ‘How do you do that?’ We look at their families where both parents are working and there’s like one or two kids and think, ‘How do you do that?’ It seems so quiet and sad and lonely,” Archer says.
From the viewer’s vantage point it is impossible not to wonder how it can all be done. How can the Currys feed, educate, love and nurture so many children? Elizabeth Curry stands at the stove stirring a pot as big as a kettledrum and we worry, “What if it’s not enough?” But somehow it always is. Dinner magically appears, and when the Currys sit down for their evening meal it is not the simple fare, but the sheer number of diners that seems to transform every gathering into a lavish celebratory banquet.
Still, we learn that life with the Currys is not all sunshine and roses. Even in the midst of a bustling household, Elizabeth Curry admits to feelings of loneliness and isolation. Forming friendships can be challenging, she explains, when you have chosen a path so different from many of your peers.
There is guilt over removing her adopted children from their native countries. In the film, Elizabeth Curry muses, “I can’t give them what they would most desire. I am their third-best choice. The first would be to stay in [their] family of origin. The second would be to be adopted by a family in their own country. I am the third best.”
Jud Curry reflects on the challenges of building a relationship with an adopted child. Affection is not always a given at the onset. “Love is not an emotion,” he says. “It’s an act of will. Over time that bond is formed. The child you weren’t sure you even liked becomes the child you can’t imagine living without.”
By the end of the movie, viewers may realize that the Currys do have much in common with ordinary families. Though brave and determined, Elizabeth and Jud Curry are not superheroes. They are two loving people who wrestle with the same demons of fear and self-doubt that plague all parents. What sets them apart is old-fashioned gumption and their willingness to take the dramatic leap of faith that is adoption.
“It’s not extraordinary people who adopt children,” said Jud Curry. “It’s just regular people. It doesn’t take something different. It doesn’t take a special calling or gift. The process changes you in good ways and in hard ways.”
“There’s nothing extraordinary about us,” agreed Elizabeth Curry, “except that we have more than your typical number of children.”
“Hayden & Her Family” premieres nationwide at 7 p.m. Tuesday, November 23 on World Channel as part of the documentary series “America ReFramed.” Locally it will air on WTTW Channel 11. The program also will be available for streaming free of charge at worldchannel.org.