March 11, 2009
Director takes personal story of unplanned pregnancy to SXSW
By Charles Ealy
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Karen Skloss says she never meant to tell her own story when she started making her new documentary, "Sunshine," which will have its world premiere Saturday at the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival.
"I wanted to deal creatively with my experiences," Skloss says over a recent coffee at Progress Coffee in East Austin, "but I initially wanted the documentary to be about the evolution of people's notions of the nuclear family, and to show that what's happened isn't all bad."
As time went on, however, Skloss realized her own story kept creeping into the documentary, so she gave in and decided to address broader social changes by making her movie personal.
It was a good decision, leading to a poignant meditation on unplanned pregnancy that contrasts the choices of two Texas mothers at two different times in history, including Skloss herself.
Although the documentary goes back and forth in time and artfully reveals tidbits as the story progresses, the rough chronology is as follows:
Skloss was born in Austin 33 years ago at the Home of the Holy Infancy, more commonly known as Marywood, near the University of Texas. The Catholic institution is where women went when they became pregnant and decided to go ahead and have the baby and put it up for adoption.
That's what happened to Skloss' birth mother, then known as Mary Williams, a UT student who was the daughter of a prominent Victoria family headed by Kemper Williams Jr., a longtime mayor.
Raised in the Catholic faith, the young woman decided to keep her pregnancy a secret from her parents and took up residence at Marywood, at 510 W. 26th St., to prepare for the birth and eventual adoption.
Fast-forward 23 years, and Skloss, who was adopted and raised in a middle-class family by Jerry and Patricia Skloss, is studying at UT, where she'll earn her master's degree in studio art and video. Just like her birth mother in the 1970s, she discovers that she, too, is pregnant and single.
"I used to look down on people in my position," Skloss says, "And why was that?"
Those kinds of questions are gradually answered as Skloss turns the camera on her contemporaries, such as those participating in the "Radical Mother's Voice" show on KOOP-FM in Austin, and on her forebears — her birth family in Victoria.
As the documentary explains, Skloss, unlike some children born at Marywood, eventually discovered her birth mother's identity.
When Skloss was 19, she says, she was riding her bicycle to the university and decided to stop at Marywood, which was on the way. "Out of curiosity, I went in and asked if there was any communication in my file," Skloss says. "And about two weeks later, I was notified that my mother had written me when I was 15 and that the letter had been sitting there, waiting for me, for four years."
The letter was simple but heartfelt, Skloss says. "She was torn up about her choice and wanted to know that things had turned out well."
After getting the letter, Skloss contacted her mother and began building a relationship, with the blessing of her adoptive parents.
And when Skloss discovered that she was pregnant four years after reading the letter, "Mary was the first one I called," she says.
At the time, Skloss says, she felt trapped by the pregnancy. But when she finally made the decision to go ahead and raise the child, whom she would name Jasmine, she said it began to feel "empowering," mainly because she had the option to do so.
It also helped that Jasmine's birth father agreed to split the parental duties with Skloss and help raise the child.
The father was also a university student, and he explains in the documentary that the turning point in their relationship came when he and Skloss agreed not to end up in court, fighting about finances and visitations.
He still participates in Jasmine's parenting today.
The most emotionally wrenching parts of "Sunshine," however, deal with Skloss' visits with her birth family in Victoria.
The South Texas town remains staunchly conservative, with Confederate flags featured in the stained-glass windows of a local Catholic church.
And Kemper Williams Jr., Skloss' birth grandfather, is one of the biggest conservatives in town. The former mayor uses such phrases such as "The People's Republic of Austin," and, during his days as a talk-radio host, made Hillary Rodham Clinton one of his favorite targets of derision.
When on camera, Williams is more than willing to express his viewpoints on politics, but he gets noticeably quieter — or changes the subject — when questioned directly about the family situation when Skloss was born in Austin.
Skloss' mother, meanwhile, also is reluctant to be entirely forthcoming about the past, at least on camera.
"There was the general idea of 'Can't we just keep private things private?' " Skloss says, when she first told the Williams family about the documentary.
But in "Sunshine," Skloss and her birth mother eventually go back to Marywood and discuss the events surrounding her birth.
Both the birth grandmother and the adoptive grandparents also attend a tap recital featuring Jasmine, who is now 10. "I think that was a special moment," Skloss says, "having both of the grandmothers there for the recital."
Throughout it all, Skloss never betrays any anger or resentment about her birth family. Quite the contrary, she seems to be grateful.
"I didn't have a hard time getting Kemper to agree to talk to me on camera about some things," Skloss says. "He is used to expressing his viewpoints, and I think he was kind of proud of me that I had raised the money to make a documentary."
(Skloss received grants to make "Sunshine" from the Independent Television Service and KUHT-TV in Houston.)
Her birth mother also came to view the documentary as a "cathartic letting-go of guilt," Skloss says.
"There was a generosity on their part," Skloss says. "They just wanted to help me. That was a great gift."
And as Skloss says in her documentary, society is gradually becoming more accepting of single parents — and broadening the notion of family.
"I'd never want to turn back the clock," she says. "Would you?"
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