When A Lesbian Family Went Nuclear
In Ry Russo-Young's "Nuclear Family," a legendary twentieth century paternity suit explores early lesbian motherhood--but leaves as many questions on the table as it answers
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Back in the 1980s, my then-girlfriend and I hung out with a large group of lesbian professionals who had summer places on the North Fork of Long Island. There were lots of attorneys, a judge, and artists—it was a fun scene at a moment when coming out was becoming socially realistic. A Really Famous Lesbian—often a politician—was there for the weekend as a guest and played in the Sunday softball game every once in a while. Yet, everyone tacitly understood that lesbians were still vulnerable: by an unspoken agreement, celebrity dykes, and a few regulars who were also closeted would not be exposed by anyone present.
It was in this milieu, one in which lesbians were both free and still in tacit need of protection, that I met, ever so slightly, Sandy Russo, Robin Young, and their daughters—the subjects of HBO’s three-part series Nuclear Family (2021). Known as “Russo and Robin,” Robin raised the children, while Russo made the big bucks that supported everyone’s life in the West Village. The pair was actually one of two “out” couples with daughters in our extended network: the other, whose names I forget, shared custody with one partner’s ex-husband.
But the Russo-Young household, as their daughter Ry, the director, narrator, and co-producer of Nuclear Family notes, was a kind of breakthrough family because the children were born in the relationship. Russo had a daughter, Cade, with a gay man named Jack, and Robin conceived Ry with sperm from a second gay man, a prominent attorney named Tom Steel. Both men lived in San Francisco. As Nuclear Family clarifies, it was not an accident that the Russo-Youngs chose donors who lived across the country. Russo and Robin did not want either of these men to be recognized by their daughters, or anyone else, as fathers, and they became increasingly determined to enforce that as the children grew up.
This strikes me, even now, as understandable, given the moment. Of course, many lesbians still make this choice, often by using an anonymous sperm bank, an important fact that goes unmentioned in Nuclear Family. But back in the late 1970s, when Russo and Robin started down this path, they had more urgent reasons to marginalize the men who had co-created their daughters. At the end of the twentieth century, lesbians, gay men, and transgender people routinely lost custody of their children when vengeful spouses invoked anti-sodomy laws and social homophobia to punish them. Perhaps the most famous of these cases occurred right before Russo conceived their daughter Cade when poet and activist Minnie Bruce Pratt lost custody of her sons to her husband in a North Carolina court.
Which makes it confusing that Sandy Russo, a New York City attorney, asked neither sperm donor to relinquish parental rights formally from the get-go. And why were there just, as Young puts it, verbal “promises” that she claims Steel “forgot”? Of course, cross-adoption, which now protects lesbian families against unwanted interference from a sperm donor or custody claims from his family, would have been far more difficult to accomplish even in a more liberal New York City family court. But voluntarily relinquishing parental rights is a relatively simple matter that parents can accomplish easily and without attracting attention: heterosexual adoptive families have employed this method for decades—and still do.
Why did Russo imagine that verbal promises would do?
This is an issue that Nuclear Family never addresses, and it’s a question Ry Russo-Young never appears to have asked in the extensive interviews she did with her mothers. And the lack of a legal agreement with the donors suggests that both women were not grappling with the mixed realities of the traditional family that they were trying, as lesbians, to reproduce. On the one hand, they wanted a family where they were the sole authority and influence over their children, as many or most straight parents do. But, on the other, they may have been initially more ambivalent about their daughters not having actual fathers than they later became. Finally, however, when they realized that introducing their daughters to their biological fathers inevitably made their “traditional” family into a permeable kin network, fathering became disposable.
But Ry never explores these questions about her mothers’ decision-making, and they e become overwhelmed in the film by a legal struggle that became a national drama and came to define her life. In 1990, Steel, who was refused permission to see Ry and Cade on his own terms and then excommunicated from the Russo-Young family, filed a lawsuit in New York Family Court demanding visitation rights as Ry’s father.
Ry’s need to cling to the correctness of her mothers’ decision to refuse Steel’s requests for more contact, even as her confidence in that decision and the questionable facts and assumptions on which it relies unravel, makes her an unreliable narrator, to say the least.
But that makes her like everyone else in the family: as Russo and Robin describe their part of the story, Cade describes hers, and Ry discovers new truths (and rediscovers old ones). Contradictory accounts are never resolved. Cade never expresses any regrets about the loss of her own biological father, or Steel, even as it is clear that the struggle for ownership of Ry was a complex source of sisterly pain. Furthermore, Ry includes factual evidence that undoes the myth of the Russo-Young family that she has been raised with but seems unable to ask questions about or acknowledge. Instead, the viewer is left to decode these inconsistencies—thinking and saying what Ry can’t.
Perhaps the most crucial question is why Russo and Robin ejected Steel from their family in the first place after seven years of visits, letters, and phone calls. Of course, the Russo-Youngs would argue he was never in their family and that those things never occurred. This is the case they made to the court and in the press. But it wasn’t true and may have something to do with why the Russo-Youngs original victory in the case was overturned on appeal.
But there is a pattern here. Intriguingly, Steel’s excision from Ry’s life was preceded by first initiating, and then cutting off, communication and visits with Cade’s donor, Jack. We see one document—a letter chiding Jack for showing up for a visit drunk—and in the interview that follows, Russo and Robin both assert that he was an alcoholic. But Ry never bothers to talk to Jack’s friends, as she does in the case of Steel, to find out whether this was true and whether his alcoholism was so severe as to create an obvious barrier to a relationship with a child. Or if she did, those conversations ended up on the cutting room floor.
Why is this important? Because it is clear that the Russo-Youngs were repeatedly untruthful about Ry and Steel’s relationship. They did so in ways designed to erase seven years of history and portray Steel as a liar. Steel’s claims seem factual: with the encouragement of her mothers, he developed a relationship with his biological daughter that was at least familial, and even paternal, in its implications. He spent seven years visiting both children and played by the rules the Russo-Youngs set, including their insistence that Steel’s partner Marvin and Marvin’s son be excluded from Ry’s extended family. He taught Ry how to make little films, a gift that—strangely—she never fully acknowledges in Nuclear Family. Ry wrote Steele letters in which she called him Daddy and said she loved him.
In 1994, New York Times reporter David Dunlap described the court case as turning on
the notion that Mr. Steel's role for almost the first 10 years of Ry's life "was that of a close family friend or fond surrogate uncle who, while acknowledging that he was her biological sperm donor, fully recognized that her family unit consisted of her two mothers and her sister, Cade." Cade is Ms. Russo's daughter, also by a sperm donor.
Mr. Steel said that when he agreed in 1981 to be the donor, "there weren't that many role models, and we didn't have a good or clear understanding of what everyone's role would be."
Regular visits by Mr. Steel, 26 in all, began when Ry was 3. When they were apart, Ry would send notes and cards expressing her love, said Emily M. Olshansky, who represents Mr. Steel. "This was not a figment of his imagination," Ms. Olshansky said. "This was a real relationship."
That contact stopped shortly before Ry's 10th birthday, however, when Mr. Steel asked Ms. Young and Ms. Russo if he could bring Ry and Cade out to California -- without their mothers -- to meet his family.
"We weren't able to work it out," he said. "I suggested mediation or going to a counselor. They refused all of that. So I filed this paternity and visitation action."
We also know that the Russo-Youngs first put his visits to their family on hold when Steel requested that he be permitted to introduce Ry, and her sister, to his family of birth.
Why were they so threatened by his request?
This is where things got “truthy” on the Russo-Young side. First, let me say that, even when it seems pretty clear that the Russo-Youngs are lying, it isn’t clear to me that they know that: their fear that Ry might be taken from them, and their family invaded, seems genuine. Second, in the final episode, the closest she gets to a confrontation about the holes in her mothers’ story, Ry nevertheless seems incapable of directly pointing out where her mothers’ account diverges from facts or what those gaps mean.
My theory? The Russo-Youngs were less afraid of Steel himself than that the Steel family might try to claim Ry after Steel’s death. That was what they really feared, not Steel himself.
This, I think, is the key to the sketchy story that the Russo-Youngs are still telling about why they cut Steel out of Ry’s life. One of the things that I remember from that time was the suspicion among some members of my network that Steel’s AIDS diagnosis freaked the Russo-Youngs out because they were worried he might infect the children. When HIV wasn’t even raised as an issue in the first two episodes, I assumed I had misremembered this.
But I hadn’t—at least not entirely. The Russo-Youngs’ early attempts to put Steel off coincided with his diagnosis. In an act of what may have been mistaken trust, he communicated his HIV status to Russo and Robin when he was not sharing the information publicly. Steel’s friends admit that imminent mortality was a motivating factor, both in his urgency to introduce Ry to his own family and better define his intimate relationship with the child. But significantly, Russo and Robin never mention Tom’s illness at all—or, at least, if they did, Ry left it on the cutting room floor.
Nor does either woman express an ounce of compassion for a man who was literally dying as they turned their child against him, fought him in court, and erased him from her life. Moreover, there was no cure for AIDS at the time of Steel’s diagnosis: the protease inhibitors that might have saved his life became available shortly after his death. In other words, there was no imminent danger that Steel posed to the Russo-Young family at all—he was a dead man walking. But his family might have, which was why it was imperative that they never meet Ry. The Russo-Youngs also needed a clear legal ruling that Steel had no parental rights so that his survivors would have no claim.
They got it, but, as I noted above, the judge reversed that ruling on appeal, and then the appeal was temporarily stayed by a judge. Steel, whose health was failing, dropped the suit, making a video for Ry to explain his side of the story. He never saw Ry again. Although the Russo-Youngs permitted a deathbed telephone call, Ry instead used it as an opportunity to berate Steel, tell him that she hated him, and accuse him of trying to hurt her and her family.
It’s heartbreaking when you realize how deeply damaging it might be to a child to know that she can never retract this moment and that she may well have been gaslighted into behaving this way. Well, of course, Ry could retract these sentiments—in the film—but she doesn’t. Worse, Ry never comes to terms with her own participation in the numerous falsehoods that depicted Steel as a casual family friend when she knew she was so much more to him and he to her. And while she includes film from afternoon TV talk shows that she participated in as part of the Russo-Young PR blitz that show her lying—the claim, for example, that she had only encountered Steel once or twice—she never expresses regret about supporting her mothers’ version of events.
The talk shows provoke a not insignificant aside: how does exposing your child to afternoon tabloid television audiences and forcing her to renounce her biological father publicly count as good mothering? But the Russo-Youngs express no regret for this in Nuclear Family either, presenting—as many parents do—a corporate front in which every action they took was necessary. They never disagree about a single memory and become affronted if Ry tries to. They are united in the view that Steel was an existential threat to their family, even though he was not seeking custody of any kind.
Ry never comments on any of this, but she does give the viewer some clues. In episode one, for example, we learn that Russo’s single mother was initially too poor to raise her and that her father died of alcoholism. As a result, in the crucial first five years of her life, Sandy Russo was shuttled around to foster homes before learning that she had a family at all. That trauma could easily drive a parent, particularly one whose claim to motherhood over one of her children would be voided by a legal father, to take desperate measures.
But why not explain how fragile Russo’s sense of security might have been, so fragile that the emerging relationship between the Russo-Young daughters and their biological fathers might have been so threatening that adding the Steel family as a factor might have pushed her over the edge? Much as several of Steel’s friends agree that the lawsuit was a strategic and personal error on his part, they also agree that Steel and Ry genuinely loved each other and that the Russo-Youngs should have found a way to accommodate it. Yet, again, this is something that Ry—despite having miles of video footage and her own memory to reinforce this reality—seems to have forgotten and can only barely acknowledge in episode three.
That Ry Russo-Young can present some of her own misdeeds for public scrutiny is undoubtedly important. But like her mothers, she never expresses regret or dissent from the family theology, only an ongoing desire to be at peace with her troubled and disputatious past. And she also never allows for an important possibility: that her mothers were equally at fault for, and may have instigated, a situation that not only plunged her into a psychologically turbulent young adulthood but stole happy memories and replaced them with falsehoods. She never asks why she was repeatedly taken on national television to lie, why she lied to the court, and why she treated Steel so cruelly when she had one opportunity to do otherwise.
These are clearly questions that are on Ry’s mind—in episode three. We watch her struggle, tears slipping down her face—as her mothers attempt to prop up the false story that has glued the family together in a defensive unit for decades. By offering evidence of her own lies, and never speaking about them; by failing to pursue the story of Jack’s early exclusion from the family; and, most importantly, by confining Steel’s HIV status to the final episode—rendering his illness into a footnote, when it might be a central fact of the case—Ry is still collaborating in a false history of what became a legal turning point for lesbian-headed families.
Nuclear Family is a fascinating movie—but it isn’t an honest one, and the story of this pioneering couple has yet to be told. More importantly, the film is not about a queer family that reimagines relationships to bring more adults into a child’s life. Instead, it is about two lesbians who made a very traditional family at a time when that was a difficult task to navigate—and then got scared about what letting biological fathers into their life might portend.
Along the way, the Russo-Youngs made troubling decisions that no one can confront fully even now. It is, indeed, a nuclear family—one perhaps still waiting to explode.
Because the GOP has no shame and never has. Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin’s closing ad in the Virginia gubernatorial campaign, again trying to mobilize white voters’ panic about the critical race theory that is not being taught in their schools, is completely false. The ad steals a slide used by a Florida education scholar in a seminar intended to address the disproportionate suspensions of African American boys by asking adults to read critical race theory. It is being portrayed in the ad as instructions from McAuliffe about how students should be taught CRT. (Popular Information, October 31, 2021)
Because clothes do matter. It is generally a no-brainer to say that discussing a female politician’s appearance is sexist. But Tressie MacMillan Cottom asks us to rethink that since women's clothing is part of a performance, and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s eclectic outfits speak volumes. “Her sartorial choices,” Cottom writes, “the denim vest, the bared arms, the chunky costume jewelry, the bright colors — are how she performs that ideology of independence and maverick-ness. (New York Times, October 29, 2021)
Because Joe Manchin is too corrupt for his own good. At The Washington Post, Helaine Olen speculates that Manchin may have just thrown Democrats into the Republican briar patch by torpedoing paid family leave. Why? “life difficult for federal workers in many ways,” Olen writes, “but he did one good thing for them: signing legislation granting federal workers access to 12 weeks of paid parental leave.” (October 28, 2021)