Must Read After My Death
Familial dysfunction is rarely poetic, but archival footage can be visually stunning, especially paired with painfully honest audio recordings of diaries, intimate correspondence, and therapy sessions. After his grandmother Allis’ death in 2001, filmmaker Morgan Dews stumbled upon more than 200 home movies and fifty hours of tape-recorded diaries and Dictaphone correspondence which revealed a complicated story previously unknown to Dews. Until his discovery, despite his close relationship with his grandmother, Dews had no detailed knowledge of his grandparents’ fitful years together and the damage it caused his mother and uncles.
Allis and Charley’s union was unique for their time. After meeting in the 1940's while married to other people, they decided to have an open marriage, complicated further by Charley’s frequent and extended work-related travel, alcoholism, and stronger penchant for affairs than his wife. Allis, who had previously lived in Europe, began staying home in Connecticut to raise the children. The couple had their share of peculiarly imbalanced disagreements—Allis wished Charley would restrict his affairs to unpaid women, while Charley berated Allis for not keeping a tidier, more organized house—and at one point, physical violence erupted in front of the children. Looking for help navigating their unconventional marriage and the ways their idiosyncrasies affect their children, Allis and Charley hauled their family into psychotherapy in the mid-1960's.
A surprisingly feminist film, it quickly becomes obvious how much of the family’s suffering is unfairly attributed to Allis’ supposed shortcomings. Various psychotherapists repeatedly tell her to be more submissive, but not to abandon the family because while she is supposedly the one at fault, the family needs a mother figure. She is alternately praised for giving her children freedom while mothering them too much. These contradictory assessments create immense guilt for Allis, whose self-blame and sadness nearly engulfs her at times. She goes between wishing she could take the children somewhere remote to raise them alone and wanting to end it all—literally. Throughout the course of the film, narrated almost entirely by recordings of Allis’ innermost feelings, it is possible to hear her sanity slowly devolving.
Must Read After My Death is also often an indictment against the harmful early days of experimental psychiatry. Allis’ brutal doctors blame her for “damaging the whole family.” Much of the family’s communication ends up being filtered through doctors and therapists, and eventually, one son is institutionalized for unsubstantial reasons. Perhaps most revealing, after Charley suddenly passes away, the family abruptly ends all therapy and treatment. Allis’ subsequent silence, which lasts until after her own death, speaks volumes about her desire to bury the agony and trauma of those years.
At times reminiscent of Capturing the Friedmans for its intimate view into the personal lives of other families’ disturbing secrets, this film is captivating, depressing, and hauntingly voyeuristic.