Mini Post: Lessons From History For The Less Than Empathetic

This week my life is inundated with grading and dissertation writing. I do, however, have a weekly post in mind, but it’s not clear whether I’ll have the time to write it up and post it by Sunday evening. That said, the post has been roiling in my mind for over a week now. I’ve been wanting to talk about my brother. It’s been difficult to discuss because the story has so many layers of tragedy. And it’s not just a personal story, it’s a story about my family and how we not only survived years of sorrow and torment, but how tragedy strengthened our bonds of love for one another. Writing someone else’s story is always a delicate affair.

My brother is a functional psychopath. He wasn’t born that way. When he was 12 he had a very rare brain infection that resulted in brain damage. He was deathly ill for six months. In those days, there was very little neurological or psychological research on the long term effects of his illness, so there was no evidence-based, long term medical care put into place. The problem intensified over the years, but it took a while to reach an extremely dangerous point. By then, we were already too invested in the idea that his behavior was treatable to write him off as a lost cause, even though he obviously very dangerous to us.

Before my brother’s illness, we were close like twins. We are only 15 months apart in age and we think very much alike. It’s uncanny, to say the least. The flip side of the benefits that come with being able to “mind-meld” with another person is that a psychopath who has intimate access to your thoughts is the most dangerous kind. They can do unimaginable damage. I need to talk about how good my childhood was when the mind-meld between us resulted in extraordinary fun and creativity. It was every bit a life worth living. And I need to do this because its a way of holding onto the memories of the good. They are just as much a part of me as my recovery from death and always will be (in fact, the story that helped me creatively re-orient myself to living contains a long saga about the fight to the death with my brother).

My brother was the most important part of my life for most of my childhood. Losing him took time, and even after I realized that my very life depended on his absence from it (which was easy since he was confined in a maximum security prison at the time), I still felt an overwhelming sense of love and attachment to him that felt utterly irrational. Over time, I’ve learned to see this as an attachment to the brother who died, not the one who kept living. My sanity requires keeping these two brothers distinct. It took my parents longer to embrace the distinction, but they finally did. We all still grieve like you grieve for a loved one who died tragically. And we each still provide constant support to the others in dealing with the fact that we have no grave to visit, no memorial activities, no place to pay homage to the one we loved. It’s like he never actually existed. How do you keep the good one alive without experiencing excruciating pain of the bad one all over again? There is no closure. The hurt just keeps going, and going, and going…

Last week I had a conversation with a survivor of domestic violence about the reasons people stay in abusive relationships. Mere spectators typically engage in all manner of victim blaming, which puts victims constantly on the defensive (exactly what they DON’T need). People with good intentions (or selfish intentions disguised as helping) say horrible things, actually. And they do a lot of damage because they are utterly incapable of reading the situation. I understand what these victims go through; if for no other reason, my story is worth telling. Even if it means reliving the pain of losing someone I loved more than my own life. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do as soon as I have some time to write it all down, so stay tuned!