' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Review: Gus Van Sant's film about John Callahan doesn't shy away from adoption theme

Friday, August 17, 2018

Review: Gus Van Sant's film about John Callahan doesn't shy away from adoption theme

John Callahan
Don't miss director and producer Gus Van Sant's new bio-pic about cartoonist John Callahan, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot. A story of loss and redemption. Callahan's witty and sardonic cartoons were an armor to protect himself from the pain of two immutable disabilities, adoption as an infant, and quadriplegia when he was 21. He told everyone who would listen: "Here's the four things I know about my mother: She was unmarried, she was Irish American, she was a teacher, and she didn't want me.

Born in 1951 in Portland, Oregon, he was placed in a convent home, adopted a few months later, and raised in The Dalles, a small town 80 miles east of Portland. He never fit in with his adoptive family.

At 12, he turned to alcohol. After an evening of heavy drinking, he was a passenger in a car driven by a drunken acquaintance who crashed the car leaving Callahan paralyzed from the chest down. He eventually conquered alcohol and became a successful cartoonist, using one hand to hold his pencil and the other to guide his hand. His cartoons appeared for many years in a hip Portland weekly, Willamette Week.

John was a well-known figure in Portland. I remember seeing him sitting in front of Powell's bookstore downtown, his carrot-topped head always moving as he chatted with passers-by. He searched for his mother, but was stymied by Oregon's sealed records laws until the records were opened in 2000. Callahan traced his parents but learned they were dead. Callahan died in 2010 from an infection related to his paralysis.

Van Sant's film is based based on Callahan's 1998 autobiographical Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up?: A Quasi Memoir?  The title of the film comes from a Callahan cartoon where a sheriff sees an abandoned wheelchair and tells his posse "Don't worry, he won't get far on foot." Joaquin Phoenix plays Callahan convincingly, both as an able-bodied man trying to quench his rage with alcohol and as a disable man serene in taking control of his life. Jonah Hill plays Donnie, Callahan's AA counselor, whose counseling moved from empathy to confrontation forcing Callahan to accept responsibility for his condition. It's a totally different role for Hill from the overweight wise guy in Moneyball and Wolf of Wall Street and he plays it well.

While the film covers Callahan's recovery from alcoholism and his career, it gives equal attention to his pain of being a man who believed his own mother did not want him. The film shows him fruitlessly trying to access his adoption records, but doesn't depict his eventual successful search and  disappointment when he learned of his parents' deaths. Callahan's recovery begins when he talks to a picture he drew of his mother as he imagined her to be, beautiful, young, and loving. He hears her telling him he is a good man and  later telling him she loves him.  

Don't Worry... is the second film this summer with a jarring picture of adoption. Three Identical Strangers, out last month and reviewed by Lorraine, is a documentary about triplets used by an adoption agency and social scientists for research on the effect of parenting styles. They placed the boys with separate adoptive families at six months without telling the parents about the other boys, in an effort to study nature/nurture question. The boys' pain at being separated manifested itself with head-banging and crying. With these films, I'd like to think that the era of media glamorization of adoption may be nearing an end. I've thought that before, but then along came the movies Juno and Then She Found Me. Angelina Jolie is still showcasing her adopted children in spite of her public fight with Brad Pitt over custody, and I have to accept that we're not even close.--jane

P.S. After I wrote this piece, I read Callahan's memoir Don't Worry, he won't get far on foot where he describes his search for his first parents. With the help of a searcher and the hounding of a worker at Catholic Charities, he learned parents' names and that both were dead. A friend of his mother's sent him her photograph. "A beautiful, re-haired women. ...Here at last was the unknown toward whom, for many years, I had directed conflicting emotions of tenderness and anger, hatred and love. She looked a lot like me!" He went to a cathedral and arranged for a priest to say a High Mass for both his parents.
Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up?: A Quasi Memoir
Bio and cartoons, Google
Movie Commentary: 'Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot' Oregonian
Why Angelina Jolie is Waging War over Custody with Brad Pitt

Analysis: Three Identical Strangers separated at birth for a social experiment now in theaters!
The Movie: Mother and Child packs a wallop
Why Ellen Page and the movie Juno bugs me--even years later
Why I'm not bullish on celebrity adoptions

Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up?: A Quasi Memoir
June 28, 2001
Humor beyond compare. This book belongs in every nursing home, living resources center, self-help library -- not to mention on the nightstand of anyone who's ailing and needs a good laugh. A prolific cartoonist, all of Callahan's books are excellent, and none of the cartoons repeat in any of his several volumes. The vision of John Callahan is monumental. Don't miss the laughter; it will make you well.


  1. Jane you say, "I'd like to think the era of media glamorization of adoption may be nearing an end." It would be nice if that were so.

    Then there is the story; 'Who gets to raise "Baby J"? Court issues heart breaking ruling in adoption case', on nj.com.

    The court's ruling and the majority of the comments show that even if "media glamorization" stopped tomorrow, they have done their job efficiently and thoroughly.

    I do not understand how so many people got so fired up about the separation of mother's/parents and children at the border (which they should), but then can turn around and not see any humanity in mother's and their infants. I. just. don't. get it!

  2. As an older adoptee born 6 years before Callahan and adopted the year before he was born, I can empathize with is feelings about the mother he never knew and the adopters and thier family with whom he never felt that he fitted with. They are common themes with adoptees, whether or not the adopters were supporting of him, me or others. I can also sympathize with the discovery of the deaths of parents for whom one has spent a life time in search , only to be denied just like the courts deny access to documents in violation of Constitutional law. Like Callahan, I will never know why I and my sister were abandoned; but unlike him, I have a better idea because I have been able to do research and, in consequence, know something of my parents and what may have triggered the abandoning of their daughters. By an eye witness account of a cousin years ago, I knw that my mother did not like me, but why that was so, I will now never know. The so-called (court-appointed) parent who allowed a 12 year old to become intoxicated is an appalling example of the laisser faire example of the courts' and society's disdain of adoptees and their realities, realities which are just recently being studied and understood as the
    trauma(s) suffered by most adoptees to a lesser or greater extent dependent upon the child and is/her individual situations. The alcoholism was more likely genetic in nature-and not due to his mother's ethnicity.

    As for Hollywood, it is for entertainment,not for accuracy. As adoptees are only about 2% of the global population, with adoption being common and usual within western society, and with too many adoptees preferring to hide in the corner and complaining in closed spaces with others of like-mind, nothing is changed. 2% of billions cannot find support amongst the greater majority because hey don't speak out nor are they activists in the best way or for their own interests. In order to have change, others need to know what the problems are and society needs to see the harm it perpetuates in allowing adoptions to continue.

    And by the way, separation anxiety is worse for an abandoned child who is old enough to know what is happening. That, coupled with being also separated from sibling, is far more sever than the infant relinquished at birth.

    Only in the west is adoption and identity theft acceptable. In Islam it is prohibited, as it is in other non-western societies. We each get one set of parents -the woman and man who conceived us. It is thru them and the DNA they passed on from their ancestors that make us who and what we are. Neither court or individual or society can change our DNA or our heritage, not matter what. Children need to be kept within their own DNA families, given a guardian if need be until the parents are able to adequately care for the child. for the single parent, proper education and support for her situation and for her child should be the rule so that the mother-infant bond is cemented and the child secure within his mother's arms. Until this is understood, the harm of adoption will continue ad infinitum. the same advice is true for foster children.

    1. Islam does not outlaw adoption but it does have laws concerning it. As you imply, the child's identity is paramount and preserved whenever possible, and attempts to find biological relatives to adopt the child are made first. Children are to retain the last name they were 'born' with (but not necessarily the same first name.) There are certain limits on how members of the opposite sex can interact with an adopted child (including hugs and kisses) that are more strict than the limits placed on direct mother and father relations. Adult adoptees can be married into their adoptive families according to Islam, but not necessarily according to secular laws of the country. And Islam permits that an adoptive child can inherit no more than 1/3 of the adoptive parents' estate.

      So there are upsides and downsides. It is also a myth that adoption is uncommon in middle eastern societies. There is an excess of women who haven't married in the middle east - because many men who would marry them have died in wars or are currently away fighting, and because many educated women there find it hard to give up the comforts and rights, liberties they may have in their parents' homes (even well into middle age) or as independently living women. Many kids are born out of wedlock as a result and sometimes those pregnancies are hidden, and suddenly a child surfaces as a 'refugee' - in addition to the many refugee children that do exist because of the constant unrest in the area. In more stable areas, unmarried women are often given a stipend by the government to adopt and raise these kids as their own. I do not have stats to back up these claims, all i have are descriptions from my friends there; and the situation in non-middle eastern Islamic countries probably differs yet again.

  3. If you think Juno and Then She Found Me were glamorous portrayals of adoption then you were not paying attention at all.

  4. Thanks for the review. It pains me to think of my own child thinking I did not care...my situation and the results are one of a kind so far - I've never heard a story similar to mine...but worse I knowing that there are still people out there telling the story of the wisdom of King Solomon who suggests cutting a child in two to ferret out who the real mother is. If you love your child, you'll let some other woman raise him or her? Sick.

    1. Unfortunately the story of Solomon and the two women IS the principle infant/child procurer's DO work from of, 'threaten the child's life/welfare' so the mother will give the child up.

      They don't use a sword but they DO USE the, "you can't provide this, this, and that for the baby, it will suffer and all kinds of horrible scenarios --might-- happen IF you don't give this baby to "better" (married, supported, 'approved', can provide this, this and that moneyed) people". Yes, it is sick.

      After finding out who the real mother was, Solomon did not say to her, "If you love your baby you will give the baby to this nice married couple I know". He gave the baby back to it's real mother. Using the wisdom of God, he ferreted out who the liar was.

      It is true that a loving mother will surrender their child to save it's life. Moses was surrendered to save his life as all the male Hebrew children were supposed to be killed at birth, mom couldn't change her situation, she was a slave, so she gave him up to save his life. This too provides the perfect method for the adoption industry; keep the mother helpless and unsupported (or convince her she will be) and "threaten" the life/welfare of her child (if the child stays in her care). How in the world do you think so many succeed in getting very reluctant, heartbroken mothers to relinquish?

      It's not right, and they totally miss the point, but they do use this method to acquire infants. Leaving out and completely ignoring God and HIS wisdom of keeping that loving mother and her child TOGETHER, they use it for their own selfish purposes. They then create monstrous lies, one being the Amended Birth Certificate, to cover it all up.

  5. The casual way Juno treated making the arrangements and the giving up of the child were preposterous. Then she found me seemed way more simplistic than reality. If you have more to say on how they affected you, please tell us.

  6. Lo.
    I have watched "Juno" 3 or 4 times. Each time it disturbs me, but there are some things that ring true, if one knows something about the situation.
    For one thing, there is no real follow-up at the end of the movie...just Juno and her boyfriend seemingly happy, playing guitar, and going on with teenage life. But, that is what a lot of us did, as teenagers/students/young women etc and no one ever checked to see how we were really feeling inside.
    We went on because we had to. We kept a lot inside.

    I know I was dying/dead inside. So, would, Juno be, and it would be truthful to show that. But would the writer/producer explore that? hahaha...noooooooo....
    I recall that my cousin, who knew me better than anyone said that I looked "haunted" when she saw me after I lost my son. She had known me my whole life. She could tell ow it had affected me.
    There is nothing cheerful, light-hearted or "fun" about giving up one's child. The whole movie is an insult. To mothers and children...it makes me cringe.

    1. "...no one ever checked to see how we were really feeling inside. We went on because we had to. We kept a lot inside." Well said! Thank you!

  7. I have a hard time viewing or reading about fictional adoption. Books, movies, and TV shows seem to reach some emotional part of me that is just devastating to me. Real stories are tough to read; but for some reason, they don't tap into my emotional pain. Weird.

  8. YES. I watched it at home on video with lots of tears and outrage. I hated when it won "Best Original Screenplay:" for Daiblo Cody who said, she imagined it would be like that for her if she had gotten pregnant in high school. I thought, bull. You have no idea.



COMMENTS ARE MODERATED. Our blog, our decision whether to publish.

We cannot edit or change the comment in any way. Entire comment published is in full as written. If you wish to change a comment afterward, you must rewrite the entire comment.

We DO NOT post comments that consist of nothing more than a link and the admonition to go there.