Ry Russo-Young: In Her Own Words
Ry Russo-Young has seen her family’s story told by others for a long time. After finally telling it herself, she reflects on what she learned along the way.
By Dana Froome
HBO documentary series Nuclear Family follows Ry Russo-Young as she explores the meaning of family through her personal story. Russo-Young spoke to HBO about her experience revisiting the lawsuit from a sperm donor that rocked her childhood, navigating the line between being both the subject and the filmmaker, and how she hopes this documentary helps other families.
HBO: How does it feel to have Nuclear Family out in the world?
Ry Russo-Young: It’s pretty amazing and rewarding to finally share it. I think the most remarkable thing is that the response now is so different from the response when we were doing press in the early ‘90s. The last time my family was in the public eye, the world was pretty hostile and didn’t recognize us as a family. It’s amazing to see how this story is written about now because we’re accepted as a family, and that’s such a beautiful thing. I think it all makes us feel recognized and it allows us to be less defensive.
HBO: Were your moms initially on board to be interviewed and rehash everything?
Ry Russo-Young: I’ve been interviewing my moms and filming them for various art projects basically since I was a teenager, and they did know that I was always trying to tell this story. I had interviewed them in the past in an attempt to get something down on film. So, they were not surprised when I said,“OK, now I'm really doing it. I’m making a documentary out of it.” It was just another leg of the process.
HBO: Did your moms get a chance to watch the documentary before it aired? If so, what was their immediate reaction to it?
Ry Russo-Young: They saw a rough cut. It was in a place where I hadn't completely figured out the movie or the series, so there was still room to give feedback. But it was also a pretty evolved cut. I think at first they were pretty mixed because they felt like the end was more confrontational. They certainly had reservations about their representation, and we talked about it a lot as a family. I took some of their thoughts into consideration and made some changes. The series also wasn’t there yet. It was still finding, specifically in the last episode, its voice.
HBO: What challenges did you face as you were creating this documentary?
Ry Russo-Young: There were many challenges in many different ways. One big challenge was that I didn’t want to put my family through more pain than they’d already been through in the lawsuit. And I didn’t want my moms to feel like they needed to relitigate the case in my filming.
It was hard to wear two hats at the same time. There was the subject Ry, who was on this wild, emotional journey. Then there was the filmmaker Ry who had a sense of the construction, what I needed from different interviews, the larger narrative, and all of those filmmaking aspects. And those were very different. There were times when we (my editors and I) had to refer to Ry, and would have whole conversations about Ry as a character. I had to see her as a separate character from myself in order to give her the right narrative arc balance.
HBO: Is this the first time you’re putting yourself in this position of being the subject and filmmaker? Did anyone give you tips about how to separate the two, or did you learn as you filmed?
Ry Russo-Young: My subjectivity was always something that I embraced, and it was always a part of the film. It was important to the whole DNA of the series that it was going to be my perspective because I’d been telling my story but seeing it in other people’s versions of the story for so many years. I really wanted to tell my own. So, that was one aspect of it. The other aspect was that I had to have that bigger, more objective perspective. I think I found that in my editors, Ben [Gold] and Pisie [Hochheim], who were very helpful in guiding that process. I was saying to them, “You tell me. Is this too much, or is this too little? Do we need to go in this direction?” There was a lot of calibrating for my character and for other people’s characters. I wanted to embrace [the donor] Tom’s perspective as much as I could. But sometimes we would go too far and it wouldn’t feel right. It wouldn’t feel honest to how I felt.
HBO: When you were interviewing the lawyers in Episode 2, what was the most interesting thing you learned about LGBTQ+ family rights while working on this project?
Ry Russo-Young: I knew this to a certain extent, but hearing it from the lawyers directly, it was very surprising just how [my moms] Robin and Russo had no standing in a court of law. It was shocking how unrecognized they were and how the court system viewed homosexuality as deviant. That was the underlying illness of what was going on, and it was horrific when we really took it apart and looked at it. As well as the history of how the courts had treated lesbians, specifically. To me, the history of lesbians having their children taken away from them was just shocking and horrific. And I knew it, but I didn't know it to that extent until we put together that montage. That montage for the first twenty times would make me cry.
HBO: As you were conducting interviews in general with your subjects, were there any events or details that they spoke to you about that was news to you?
Ry Russo-Young: I didn’t know, and it was very surprising that everyone who loved Tom, be it Cris Arguedas, Marylin Waller, Nanci Clarence, they all said that my moms cut Tom off prior to the lawsuit. That they refused to talk to him, and that’s why he sued, and that’s something my moms say is utterly not true. They were talking to him days before the lawsuit and begging him to come to New York and talk to them. I asked them about that at the end of the conversation, and I believe my mothers, I do, but it was tricky to hear and reconcile that the facts can be so far apart.
HBO: At what point in your life —or while creating this documentary —did you realize you wanted to focus more on the love you had for Tom instead of the pain that was caused?
Ry Russo-Young: It wasn’t until the very end. The doc is chronological for a reason, and the making of it was somewhat chronological in the sense that I really had everything figured out except for the very end or I had a lot figured out. Everything was pretty clear to me in terms of the narrative until the third part. And then the third part, because it catches up to modern day, was like the wild emotional west, and that took a lot of trial and error with Ben and Pisie about getting it right.
I remember I was sitting in my child’s room, and we were playing and lying around on pillows, and I was listening to Hannah Gadsby. It was her stand up comedy show, and she was talking about a trauma she had endured. I’m probably going to misquote it, but she said something like, “I’m gonna choose not to let this trauma define me.” I’m going to choose to live versus to die was sort of her version of it, and that resonated with me so much that I had the power to kind of steer this narrative. That part of telling your own story. You could sort of say, “What do I want this story to be?” I can make it what I want it to be, and I had been living in anger, betrayal and hate for so long for this person. That’s clearly not the only thing I felt. So, I didn’t want to be there anymore, emotionally or psychologically. I didn’t want that to infest my psyche. It was a choice to focus on the beautiful parts of our relationship and the love and to say goodbye. In a sense, the closure is that I’m taking all those negative feelings and acknowledging them, but I'm also sending them on a boat down the river.
HBO: What do you hope this film will help those who are born into a similar nuclear family?
Ry Russo-Young: My real hope is that this film will help people beyond ones that were born into a similar family. I think it will be helpful to people with any kind of family configuration because I think we tap into the universal themes of loyalty between a parent and child. Everyone has a parent of some kind. Many people have children, and that dynamic is filled so much with love and then with pain. I think we get into the mushiness and the gushiness of what those dynamics are. My hope has always been that by telling this really personal story, it makes the viewer reflect on their own lives and family dynamics. My hope is for people to try and empathize with someone that maybe they didn't necessarily empathize with or didn’t think they could empathize with prior. With the case of Tom, I still don’t think he did all the right things, but I can understand much more where he was coming from.
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This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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