My Brother, Myself
The Stranger in the Attic: Steven and Me
Although I have an older brother, I have always been an only child. We grew up in the same house, had the same parents and the same coloring. I spent my entire childhood with him, but I don’t remember one shared moment, one heart-to-heart conversation. I never looked up to him, never mentioned him in any of the voluminous diaries I’ve kept or in either of the books I’ve written. I own no photograph of him, no keepsake. Having a sibling has been an abstract, oddly detached concept for me rather than a real experience.
How desperately I’ve worked to keep it that way.
My brother Steven–even now it feels strange to call him that–was the classic problem child: obese, truculent, picked on by his peers, and troublesome to his teachers. He fought constantly with our parents, who could not conceal that he was an embarrassment and a burden; I was their darling and delight. He flunked out of college; I excelled. He barely made a living; I became Dr. Safer, like our father. His wretched marriage disintegrated; mine was profiled in Life. My innate superiority was as just and natural as slavery felt to slave owners. He seemed a changeling, an absence, or an inconvenience–a disruption to my family rather than a member of it. In reality he was a warning: my dark and dreaded opposite.
Only when I visited him in the hospital in 1999 after one of his legs was amputated because of advanced diabetes–he lost the other as well the following year–did I begin to reconsider our relationship or indeed realize that we had one. A man much more than seven years older than I, his eyes full of weariness, sat in a wheelchair, surprisingly glad to see me. The determination and courage in his demeanor, the urgency and undiminished joy with which he spoke of wanting to lead his dance band again (his musical ability was the one talent in which he had always clearly surpassed me), put me to shame. Although subsequent interactions proved far more problematic, and too much damage had been done for anything consistently positive to flourish, I finally knew I had a brother.
This encounter, the first after years of obliviousness broken only by occasional pro forma birthday cards and visits kept as short as decently possible by both of us, provoked what may have been my first dream about him, from which I awoke in terror: he was trying to rape me. I experienced his reappearance in my life as a violent invasion of my inner world from which I could no longer exclude him. It is the only nightmare I have ever welcomed.
* * *
In my subsequent search for any remnant of our shared history, I collected every shred of evidence of Steven’s presence I could retrieve, much of it from drawers in my parents’ house that had been unopened for decades. I scanned the snapshots, report cards, letters I had written, home movies, and my own minimal memories. Recovery is not the right word for this task; so much never registered to begin with. Seeing the paucity of images, the pitifully few mementos or even thoughts about him that I retain, shocks me now as it never did before. It used to feel so unremarkable to have nothing of him in my life; why would you have mementos of somebody who played so little part, who barely entered your consciousness? I always assumed that the gap in our ages and interests made us inhabit nonintersecting worlds, but that was the flimsiest of justifications. The lack of evidence is damning: I made my closest relative disappear. This grossly unfair, inhumane obliteration, which our parents covertly initiated and abetted, does not even qualify as disowning him–that would imply there had been a relationship, even if it were later repudiated. All my life it seemed the most natural thing in the world. Long before computers, I had a highly effective delete key in my psyche.
Steven and I grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Cincinnati, Ohio. We were both planned and were born seven years apart; World War II intervened. Our (using that inclusive plural pronoun makes us seem more related than I ever felt) father was a shy and diligent anesthesiologist, our mother the consummate suburban “homemaker” with an artistic flair. Our parents, generous children of immigrants, had the intellectual and economic aspirations of their generation and strove to give their own children the best of everything. Consequently, we had the music lessons, the birthday parties, the summer vacations complete with annual pilgrimages to New York City and its boutiques of children’s clothes that were the external trappings of successful family life.
There were minefields in this landscape that I discovered only later. My father had several bouts of serious illness–ulcerative colitis around the time of Steven’s birth, cardiac symptoms when I was a year old (he was told then that a faulty heart valve would kill him within the year, although he lived thirty-one more), and nearly fatal peritonitis that kept him hospitalized three months when I was ten and Steven was finishing high school. Our parents’ marriage, cozy and playful in my early years, fell apart spectacularly in my adolescence–not coincidentally, right after Steven left for college.
In examining the photographs I unearthed, I was struck by how few, other than the class pictures everybody bought, depicted Steven after age two. This is telling because my father was a skilled and prolific amateur photographer; there were plenty of shots of me. In the only portrait of us together, I am less than a year old, and it was obviously posed. He seems to have morphed from an unusually beautiful blond toddler with a winning smile and an exquisite outfit into a downcast, already overweight seven-year-old. The pictures confirm my memory: I never saw him laugh. There was but one happy Polaroid, added to the collection within the last twenty years, of Steven in middle age, decked out in a bow tie and red-striped vest, leading his band and playing his trumpet with gusto, for an audience of strangers.
Judging from the data, my brother was in trouble before I was born, but my arrival exacerbated it spectacularly. There are families where it is an advantage to be born one sex or the other, and female was definitely the right option in mine; my father could not tolerate a rival, my mother needed a mirror, and I filled the bill for both. Qualities that must have seemed defiant or difficult in him seemed fetching, even inspiring, in me.
The name I was given epitomized my role in the family, which virtually guaranteed a rift between us. My mother called me “Gene,” on the theory that, since she expected me to become a writer, I should have a mannish pen name at the ready; her daughter was going to be unusual and had to make it in a man’s world. My father sensibly suggested I might prefer the feminine form, “Jeanne,” and as in most things, his will prevailed. The original name she chose, even with modifications, presaged my destiny. I was enshrined as the replacement son, the shiny new female version of the hopelessly inadequate boy, whom both my parents unconsciously considered damaged goods to be discarded. Here was a second chance, a child who would not–who dared not–disappoint, whose cleverness and determination were no threat but rather the compensatory source of pride and joy and promise. I was dressed for success in a masculine name, and all their dreams were transferred to me.
My mission was assigned to me along with my name, and I chose to accept it. In their eyes Steven was already a lost cause who represented their shortcomings as parents. I was to be the anti-Steven and learned early to define myself as his opposite. My becoming a star would make them stars, and my precocity was lovingly nurtured toward that end. The three of us constituted the perfect family unit, even if achieving it took editing out one member.
Steven was a convenient receptacle for all negativity and strife. We had no problems; he was the problem, and there was no solution. Using a child for this purpose, a popular strategy, is undetectable from within a family. My parents could not see that Steven was starving for their love or that he hated himself for disappointing them. To them he was primarily a hardship to be endured. They were acutely aware that he was abnormal, but they could not bear to think that they had anything to do with it; they rendered themselves as helpless and hopeless as he was. Making someone the embodiment of self-inflicted failure precludes any possibility of growth or healing, even as it absolves you of responsibility. The fault had to be his. To think otherwise would have disrupted their carefully constructed, fragile equilibrium, their sense that they were good people and good parents; it would have brought trouble squarely into paradise.
I don’t know what, if anything, was really the matter with Steven, other than having the wrong parents. Although he had no intellectual deficit, the school problems apparent in even his earliest report cards–the low grades in conduct, the repeated Steven-could-try-harders–would suggest a learning disability or attention deficit disorder today. He got in no terrible trouble and tended to get beaten up rather than to beat up others, although he did fight physically with his girlfriends later. Depression, obesity, and isolation, never drugs or criminality, plagued him.
At home his misery was manifested in constant turmoil; sullen and surly best describe his predominant moods. He fought with my parents all the time, about nothing in particular, although his grades, his weight, his “laziness,” and his choice of companions were reasons for dispute. At the dinner table, from childhood through adolescence, silence alternated with fits of rage, and spectacular exits were the norm. He seemed at a continual simmer and would strike out for no apparent reason. My mother counterattacked; my father withdrew or pleaded for peace that never came. On one vacation when he was a teenager (I always shared their room and he stayed alone), he became so furious–again I have no idea why–that he insisted on getting a train ticket home. There was relief all around when he left.
One of the ways my parents demonstrated that they had given up on Steven was by making no concerted or effective efforts to discipline him when he sulked or raged. They treated him as though he were a force of nature whose outbursts could only be weathered. This sent him the message that he was exempt from basic rules of conduct, which reinforced his conviction that he was unsocializable. I was expected to back them up by sitting quietly through the storms and the quiet-before-the-storms that ruined every family occasion. They felt unable to control him, so they never taught him to control himself.