Blue Genes: A Memoir of Loss and Survival

Blue Genes: A Memoir of Loss and Survival

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by Christopher Lukas

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Christopher (Kit) Lukas’s mother committed suicide when he was a boy. He and his brother, Tony, were not told how she died. No one spoke of the family’s history of depression and bipolar disorder. The brothers grew up to achieve remarkable success; Tony as a gifted journalist (and author of the classic book, Common Ground), Kit as an accomplishedSee more details below


Christopher (Kit) Lukas’s mother committed suicide when he was a boy. He and his brother, Tony, were not told how she died. No one spoke of the family’s history of depression and bipolar disorder. The brothers grew up to achieve remarkable success; Tony as a gifted journalist (and author of the classic book, Common Ground), Kit as an accomplished television producer and director. After suffering bouts of depression, Kit was able to confront his family’s troubled past, but Tony never seemed to find the contentment Kit had attained–he killed himself in 1997. Written with heartrending honesty, Blue Genes captures the devastation of this family legacy of depression and details the strength and hope that can provide a way of escaping its grasp.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Reeve Lindbergh
…a compassionate but clear-eyed view of his family history…With candor and courage Lukas writes that even now—10 years after his brother's death and more than 60 years after his mother's—he still has more questions than answers…But he speaks powerfully to survivors anyway
—The Washington Post
Roy Blount Jr.
I have never thought much of Holden Caulfield's notion that a good book makes you want to call the author on the phone, but this is a book that makes you feel you should call the author and ask him to reassure you that he is O.K. It is with great relief, then, that I can in all candor recommend Blue Genes (its title aside), on its merits. Its unusual merits. In a memoir these days we have come to expect a great read, a gripping yarn and profound doubt (sometimes even on the memoirist's part) as to how much of it is true. ("True" being defined as what the memoirist genuinely believes did happen.) Blue Genes, on the contrary, is oddly jointed and frequently goofy, and I believed every word of it.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In a supremely brave effort literally to save his own life, Lukas shatters the silence surrounding the long history of suicide in his Hungarian-German-Jewish family, especially that of his older brother, J. Anthony Lukas ("Tony"). Depression and what is now diagnosed as bipolar disorder hounded various family members, most notably the brothers' beautiful college-educated actress mother, Elizabeth, whose deepening depression, exacerbated no doubt by the sense of guilt and inadequacy in her marriage, led her to cut her own throat in 1941, when the boys were just six and eight. Lukas writes with the reassuring sagacity of hindsight, knowing the negative long-term effects of his mother's mental illness on his brother especially, but at the time her death was mysterious and devastating, and the brothers' relationship grew mutually needy and protective, on the one hand, and fractious and competitive, on the other. Feelings of betrayal, guilt and rage erupted at points during the successful careers for both brothers-Tony as a driven journalist with the New York Times and author (Common Ground) who won two Pulitzer prizes; and Christopher ("Kit"), an Emmy Award-winning TV producer, author and actor. For Tony, however, who married late, remained childless and took antidepressants, his illness was debilitating, leading him to suicide in 1997. In clear, forceful prose, the author attempts to make sense of these calamities and assert a life-affirming purpose. (Sept.)

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Library Journal

Christopher and Tony Lukas's mother committed suicide when they were very young, but the boys were never told how she died-silence was the family's policy on its legacy of mental illness. Regardless, both brothers achieved great success in their fields (the author is a TV producer and director), and their bond was loving but fraught. Sadly, Tony, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his journalism, committed suicide in 1997. Those interested in how mental illness afflicts generations and how to find strength and hope in the face of it will find this remarkably honest memoir resonant. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/08.]-Elizabeth Brinkley

Kirkus Reviews
Elegant account of a family's persistent melancholy and the damage it wrought. When Lukas (Silent Grief, 1988) was six, his brilliant, mercurial and horribly depressed mother Elizabeth killed herself. When he was 62, his older brother, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tony, committed suicide on the eve of the publication of his second book (Big Trouble, 1997). The author's uncle killed himself in his early 70s; Lukas's grandmother did the same in her 80s. After years of trying to make sense of his mother's death, which her sons didn't know was a suicide until years later, the author was faced with another mystery to unravel. In their childhood, he and his brother had never been close, or even similar. Tony took after their mother in temperament and coloring, inheriting the "blue genes"; Christopher (Kit) was known as "Master Sunshine." After Elizabeth's death, the boys were raised by their domineering but adoring grandmother and their elegant, but largely absent father Edwin. As they aged, Kit and Tony grew farther apart, until at times the damage to their relationship seemed irreparable. Lukas's recital of the family's depressed history includes an account of his mother's affair with an older, married man, which began when she was 13 and ended just before her marriage to Edwin. It provides a child's-eye view of Elizabeth's death and moves into the brothers' adulthood, when Tony became increasingly successful and unmoored. The more celebrated he was, his brother writes, the greater his need for admiration: "Tony's prizes and the thousands of plaudits for his work didn't fill up the hole in his soul." As Kit achieved his own success, he too realized how ultimately unsatisfying itcould be. Lukas movingly chronicles his own struggle to understand the darkness he suspects inside himself as well as the suicides of loved ones unable to cope with that darkness. Sweet, sad and sobering. Agent: Christine Tomasino/The Tomasino Agency
From the Publisher
“A compassionate but clear-eyed view of his family history. . . . With candor and courage Lukas writes that even now . . . he still has more questions than answers.” —Washington Post

“Lukas movingly describes what it was like to grow up the child of a suicide. . . . His story will resonate with readers who have lost friends or family members.” —USA Today

“Fascinating.” —Harper’s

“Poignant.” —New York Observer

“A harrowing tale, told with some restraint and sorrow.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“This is a book that makes you feel you should call the author and ask him to reassure you that he is O.K. . . . [Lukas] has held on to life and to the story of a lifetime.” —The New York Times Book Review

“A harrowing tale, told with some restraint and sorrow. . . . [Lukas] coped for better or worse with the sense of abandonment all his life, including the disappearance of his brilliant older brother, lost to demons of his own.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Christopher Lukas’ mother killed herself when he was 6. His brother, journalist J. Anthony Lukas, committed suicide 56 years later—but only after the author's grandmother, aunt, and uncle took their lives as well. . . . For fans of William Styron’s Darkness Visible.” —Entertainment Weekly

“This gentle story is a reminder that stopping such family legacies requires candor and courage. . . . [Suicide] is an accusation of all we did not do and a loss of all that was there. Lukas attempts to remedy both in this book, by bringing his family story into the light.” —Portland Oregonian

“In his searingly candid memoir, [Lukas] provides an anatomy of melancholy, examining the mysteries of bipolar disorder, acknowledging a lifelong fight with his own demons, and grieving over those who could not emerge from the dark night of the soul. . . . Blue Genes is more than an apt title; for those who are no strangers to the heritage of sadness, it’s an invaluable survivor’s manual.” —Stefan Kanfer, City Journal

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

SOME PEOPLE ARE DISTURBED MOST by events that are unexpected.
For me, it has always been the half-awaited ones that carry the blow: the semiconscious fears that lurk behind closed eyes, the half-dropped pair of shoes, the what-ifs.


JUNE 5, 1997, 11:00 P.M.
Susan and I return home from a party. In an unusual show of activity, our answering machine has had eleven hang-ups and one message--from Linda, my sister-in-law.

"Christopher," she says, "can you call me, please."

Usually, no one calls me Christopher except strangers, but maybe Linda is echoing my brother, who sometimes calls me by my full name as a joke.

I make a mental note to call her tomorrow; it's too late tonight. I figure that she's probably planning a publication party for Tony, who has just finished his latest book, nine years in the writing.

The book before this one--Common Ground--resulted in his second Pulitzer Prize and dozens of other awards. One reporter called my brother "the best journalist of our generation." Another said he was "the patron saint of contemporary reporters." He has won numerous accolades for his reporting for the New York Times, has received honorary degrees for his deep analysis of crucial episodes in recent American history, and has been wined and dined by literati and academics alike. He is, in short, one of those remarkable men whose work received enormous respect and attention.

But Tony is not sure that the new book, a huge volume called Big Trouble, is up to his previous works. It's due out in a month or so, and we'll all have to wait.

While I'm at the closet, taking off my shoes, the phone rings again. Susan is near and she answers.
"Hello." A pause. "How?" Her voice is electric, alarmed. I recognize a disaster in the making.

I come around the corner of the closet, a shoe in one hand, the other still on my foot.
She looks at me, the phone to her ear, shaking her head, a look of terror on her face.

"What is it?" I ask, already feeling the pain begin.

"Tony killed himself," she says.

I scream and throw the undropped shoe at the far wall.

MOST BROTHERS HAVE SIBLING-RIVALRY PROBLEMS, interrupted by close bonding, but Tony and I always seemed to have great difficulty in finding common ground. The history of our family is partly responsible, a history full of self-destructive events.

In the wake of a family suicide, there is sorrow, guilt, despair--and anger. My reaction to my brother's death was no different; in fact, because of the difficult relationship we had had, it may have been worse.

During the first months after Tony's death, I viewed my life with him through the prism of anger. Why did he do this to me and to his family? If there had been good times in our years together, I didn't allow myself to remember them.

But gradually the truth seeped in: there was a whole store of other memories that I was hiding. I needed to make an effort to dredge up those experiences--the ones that had provided pleasure and comfort. To put a picture of our relationship in some kind of balance, if I could.

So, what would happen if I stopped thinking about all the rage I had for the way Tony had died and for the slights I had felt? What might occur if I recalled how much we had shared, what burdens we had lifted together, how we had supported each other? What then? I began writing about my family two weeks after my brother's death. At first, I could put down only a few thoughts about him, mostly about my anger and sorrow, but as the weeks and months went by, memories came--long-ago events that had been forgotten. Time passed; I would come back to the computer, put down new recollections. About us. About our relationship. I found memories of other family members, of the distant past, of things I thought had been obliterated forever. The mind is tricky: it brings back even the most distant feelings and events just when you think they have left you alone, left you in peace.

Today, more than a decade after Tony's death, I am still writing. But my idea of who my family and my brother were has changed over these years. The perception of who I was--and who I am--has also changed. So I keep writing. Trying to get it right.

A week after the suicide, when Susan, our daughters, Megan and Gabriela, and I attended a memorial gathering, Linda gave me a copy of Big Trouble, fresh off the presses. I turned the first few pages. In the dedication Tony had written, "To Christopher William Lukas. My brother, my friend."

That was an extraordinarily moving moment. I turned from the group around me and shielded my eyes, in tears. I had not had the slightest inkling Tony was dedicating the book to me. Nor could I have guessed that he would add "friend" to such a line. We were brothers--no doubt. But when all was said and done, were we really friends?

I decided I would start from there, from that emotional moment when it occurred to me that he really did care about me, that all the battles and absences and slights did not, in the end, seem to be as important as the fact that we were brothers--and friends. He had thought about me when he wrote that dedication. And perhaps he had thought about me even as he ended his own life.

CONFLATING THE PRESENT with the past is an old theme of philosophers. The idea of all chairs, said the philosopher William James, is present in the image of any particular chair. So any particular friend's essence is distilled by all the friends one has had.

And so it is with brothers. They are never what they appear to be to others, or even to oneself. Tony is a combination of past and present, of what he was and how I see him today.
But that is true of me as well. I am not merely the bald head in the mirror, the tired knees, and the naps in the afternoon. I am the sixteen-year-old with an enormous appetite, the twenty-two-year-old having his first real love affair, the thirty-three-year-old looking down at his first child.

Sister to sister, brother to brother, siblings can never be 100 percent fair about love and parental sharing and other sharp facets of the bright and painful lives they have together--even when much of that time is spent apart, even when they can communicate well and take the burdens of their relationship with good grace. I could not pretend that my brother and I were pals. Friends, perhaps, but not buddies.

Tony and I are brothers across the stroboscopic echoes of the past: dissolving across black interludes into the next image, and the next, and the next, until all vestige of pure vision is destroyed. All that is left is memory, and we know how faulty that can be. Who Tony was is forever blurred by who I was and how I remember who I thought Tony was. Yes, we are brothers in fact, in memory, and in wish, but he is dead, and I am alive--left to dwell on the questions, and to seek the answers.

There were questions of great importance to me: Would I, too, end up killing myself? Was the legacy of self-destruction I would discover in my family too great for me to survive? If so, when would the pendulum swing? And if it never did, why not? How could I--almost alone among my family--escape?
To answer these questions, I needed to go back and delve more deeply into my family and explore my relationship with Tony.

This is a story of two brothers in a particular family at a particular time in the history of that family. If the tale often appears to be as much about my parents and grandparents--and my emotions, my life, and my memories--as it is about my brother, it is because it is very much a story about relationships. The relationship my father had with my mother, the relationship of my mother to her parents. Mine with Tony, Tony's with those other people.

Beyond that, it is also a book about coming to terms with the suicide of a brother--an event I had written about previously when it happened to other people, but never before experienced for myself.


THE LETTERS, autobiographies, and other written notes have lain for decades in cubbyholes in an old rolltop desk that Susan and I bought on a trip to my uncle Ira's house near Philadelphia. The desk cost $40. At the time, I thought it was too much money to pay for an "old piece of furniture," but as usual Susan was right: you can always use a schoolmaster's rolltop.

Today, I love that desk. This is where the detritus of our lives lies. With nineteenth-century wisdom, its makers built it with myriad slots in which to stow important pieces of their complex lives. Into those compartments I have put the passports used for various family trips--their photographs attesting to the passage of time, change of hairstyles, even emotional states. I see Susan in early years, with downcast aspect, her hair tightly wrapped around her slender head, a strained smile on her face. I see her later, lovely brown tresses surrounding a confident, smiling countenance. And later still, the strands and flecks of gray shining in the sunlight of a photo I took myself. My own visages: young and shaven, a boy on the go; leather shirt from the 1960s; sideburns in the 1970s; finally, balding pate--"aging criminal on the go," the family said, jokingly.

Here in this desk went the birth certificates of our daughters, Megan and Gabriela, audiotapes of graduations and memorial services. Old keys. Legal documents. Currency from trips abroad. Broken pens. Broken promises.

It is through that desk, and from long-hidden events, that my memory is awakened. I take comfort that I can substantiate there the fact that Tony was not just a brother worth thinking about and arguing over on a personal basis but a complex, world-class character whose contributions to journalism and to his friends were valuable and whose death by his own hand is made all the more heartbreaking because it was not preordained.

Or was it?

What do I really know about the past? What do any of us know? Who were these characters? What led up to the deaths in my family? In truth, I was woefully ignorant--and, to be honest, fearful of finding out.

Chapter Two

MY PATERNAL GRANDFATHER, Samuel William Lukacs (or Lukacs Samu, as the Hungarians say), was a character to be reckoned with. He died crossing the Bowery in New York in 1927, well before I was born. I discovered this fact early one afternoon when Susan and I took Dad to the Nam Wah tea parlor in Chinatown. Nam Wah is the oldest dim sum restaurant in New York.

Leaving the tea parlor, where Dad had gagged on the food ("Don't they have orange juice and eggs, for Christ's sake?"), we started to cross the Bowery, that broad avenue that used to be known for its bums and drunkards. Suddenly Dad stopped in the middle and looked up and down the street. It was hot, he had eaten little, had had too much to drink the night before, and was in a foul mood, hungover. But at that moment, a strange, reflective, almost nostalgic look came over him.
"I think it was about here," he said.


"The bus hit my father."

I had never heard about this accident. In fact, my father had never talked about his father, and while I found this strange--even baffling--having no guidelines about such matters, I never questioned him about his family past. Now Dad looked around, checked landmarks, nodded his head. We went on to catch a taxi so he could get uptown and have a "real breakfast."

Dad's younger sister, Aunt Judy (Julia), surprised Tony and me when we were in our forties by relating how she had spent time at a Hearst paper in New York, writing advice to the lovelorn, when she was only nineteen. She had signed on to the paper in 1925 to do typing, but the woman who wrote the advice column was a friend of Mrs. Hearst's, and the two decided to take a world cruise. The editor told my aunt to write the column. Forget the fact that Judy was a naive young woman with no experience in the world of love or the lovelorn. Perhaps it explains her behavior in later life (she knew Tolstoy and Melville, but nothing about sex and love affairs). She agreed to take on the assignment.

Jump forward fifty years. Aunt Judy, horrified to hear how little I knew about my roots, takes to the typewriter again and writes me a long letter about the Lukas clan. Past--and present. It is very evocative.

Here is some of what I learned from her about the foreigners called Lukacs (the c was dropped when they emigrated to the United States).

Before World War I, Nagyvarad was the biggest city in eastern Hungary. That's where Samuel was born in 1865. Nagyvarad is in Transylvania--Dracula country--and was tossed back and forth between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Romania for decades, depending on who won which war.
Like most Hungarian Jews, Samuel's family were Reform Jews, which meant occasional attendance at synagogue. At the turn of the century, Hungary had a fast-growing economy, and Jews were to be found in every aspect of business and commerce. In Budapest, every fourth person was a Jew.

Hungarian Jews were preeminent in math and fencing, but in Nagyvarad they were famous in other arenas as well. They taught, they discussed politics, they thought about the big picture. Samuel's family owned a cafeŽ, so it was natural that he, even at a young age, joined his elders and sat in cafes, talking big talk. Aunt Judy said, "Father belonged in a cafeŽ. He had all the qualities to make him popular there: he drank, he smoked, he laughed, he sang, he told endless stories with dramatic flair, he played cards; he teased the girls--young and old--and the girls, young and old, liked to flirt with him."

One of Samuel Lukacs's nephews was Paul Lukas, who became a famous actor, playing Shakespeare in Budapest when he was in his early twenties and later migrating to the United States. He, too, was popular with women, and in the 1920s barnstormed in small planes across the United States as he took work in both Hollywood and New York. Cousin Paul won an Academy Award for his portrayal of an anti-Nazi hero in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine and was on Broadway in numerous plays, including Call Me Madam with Ethel Merman. Tony and I used to go see him and have dinner afterward. There was some dissent about him in the family, since he had converted to Catholicism back in Hungary, but he was too talented to ignore. Besides, it was thrilling to have a famous person in our family.

From the Hardcover edition.

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