The devil is in the details.
So is the truth. But everyone has their own truth.
Such is the story of the lead character from the movie and book, The Blind Side, Michael Oher.
A recap of the story. Michael Oher was a young black man from the wrong side of the tracks. His addicted mother had abandoned him, his father was never in the picture, and he ran away from a series of foster homes, attending 11 schools before moving in with his best friend’s family. His best friend’s father helped Oher get into a good private school.
An affluent, kind, white family (the Tuohy’s) whose children attended that private school discovered Oher’s circumstances and invited him to live with them. The Tuohy’s took care of him, gave him a bedroom, a tutor, helped him bring up his grades and test scores so that he would be able to get a football scholarship into a top college. He was drafted in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens and went on to have a successful career.
It was a heart warming story of a young black male who had been born into the most adverse circumstances and was lucky to be discovered and adopted by a generous white family of means.
The book by Michael Lewis was more nuanced as he described Oher’s life before the Tuohy’s. The movie focused solely on Oher when he met the Tuohy’s and how the Tuohy’s saved Oher from homelessness and poverty.
I was always a little surprised that Michael Oher did not participate in the publicity for the movie. His adopted family, the Tuohy’s, explained that he was too busy with his NFL career.
But then come the details.
While the book mentioned that there were a number of people from the African American community who helped Oher, the movie focused solely on the white, affluent family. Before the Tuohy’s adopted him, Michael Oher had performed poorly in school, repeating both the first and second grades. He had also lived with a number of foster families. Eventually, Oher’s best friend’s father took him in and got him into a private school where Oher would be discovered by the Tuohy’s.
Michael Oher was not the shy, quiet person that the movie portrayed. He was charismatic, well-liked, and already on the football team. He was recognized as a gifted athlete. The best friend’s father who was taking care of Oher recognized that the Tuohy’s, with their generosity, wealth and connections, could give Oher more and encouraged the relationship.
When Oher moved in with the Tuohy’s, it immediately clicked. Oher felt that he was part of the family even though he was a 6’5” 300-pound dark black man and they were a very white, well-groomed family. While the movie portrayed the daughter, Collins, having some difficulty with Oher being part of the family, in reality, she was a good friend of his before he was invited into the family.
Michael Oher hated the way that he was characterized. He was dogged by the movie’s image of him as a shy, slow witted, mild-mannered, nice guy who knew nothing about football and needed a family to help him. In fact, Oher was intelligent and had a particular gift for understanding the nuances of football. But we will never know if he could have succeeded without the Tuohy’s help in getting his grades and test scores high enough to be offered a college scholarship.
Oher believed that the movie’s portrayal of him caused the football establishment to conclude that he wouldn’t be aggressive enough or smart enough to understand football and the playbook.
That was untrue. Michael Oher was an ambitious, very hard working, gifted in football, and a fast, talented athlete. Many believed that he would be a top ten draft pick, but instead, he went lower than expected. He blamed his depiction in the movie as a dimwit, dependent on a white family to get by.
In the meantime, the Tuohy family benefited from the story. They received extensive publicity and Lee Anne (the mother) built a speaking career as she toured the United States encouraging others to do what they did.
As Oher got older, he began to chafe under the assumptions about him as well as the money that the Tuohy family was making on his story. But he was completely demoralized when he discovered that the Tuohy’s had not actually adopted him as he was told. Instead they put him in a conservator relationship. All this time, he believed that he was part of the family and called them Mom and Dad.
Why the Tuohy’s did this is uncertain, they claimed that it was because Oher was 18 and there were difficulties with adopting a someone that age (in fact, that is not true). Maybe they got bad legal advice, or maybe they never really intended for Oher to be a part of their family. When terminating the conservator agreement, the judge expressed surprise about this conservatorship, saying that this was an unusual choice. Oher now believed that he was never truly accepted into the family.
This had to sting. According to people who have gone through the foster care system, what they want most is to belong to a family. And Oher thought that he was part of a family, the Tuohy’s told everyone that he was.
Now Oher and the Tuohy’s have severed their relationship. Oher has a wife and children and is close with some members of his biological family. But not the family that he thought he had.
No one thinks that the Tuohy’s were anything but generous and kind in opening up their home to Oher. But what happened afterwards, well that is in the details. And it is sad, because I believe that but for the movie and the book, they would have been a happy family.
But it is also important that we look at ourselves when we think of this story. I loved this story, it fit in my narrative as a middle class white person. The movie version was about how the Tuohy’s rescued him. In fact, people in the African American community helped Oher, especially the father of the best friend. But they lacked the resources of a wealthy white family. They movie script also dismisses how hard Oher worked in his studies and at football to accomplish his goal.
And I didn’t see that. I saw it from the Tuohy perspective. I didn’t consider the village that tried to help him, social workers, some foster parents, some teachers, friends, and neighbors. The story told by the movie fit my narrative. But I realized that just because someone doesn’t have the resources, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t as kind and generous.
No one reached out to Oher to find out what he thought, especially about how he was portrayed. Not the book author, not the script writers, not even the actor who portrayed Oher in the film. (The actor has since apologized.) The story should have been about Oher, but instead it was about the Tuohy family. In Oher’s life story, he only played a supporting role.
Sometimes the devil really is in the details.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.