Siblings: Adoration & Abuse
Note to Reader: As a licensed psychologist, I strictly adhere to the ethics of confidentiality; therefore, I do not use/make reference to any patient/client information in the pieces I write. The only data I use to explore these psychological issues is my own. The Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust Series will include several pieces related to the effects of early relationships on the development of trust and intimacy.
My older brother S was the first of us to leave home. Not in body (none of us did that until we married) but he bought a motorcycle—a Harley Davidson. He was eighteen. When Dad and Mom refused to give their permission, he got our older sister to sign for it. He needed someone over twenty-one to sign the papers and though Mom and Dad were furious at C for doing it, they knew she could do what she wanted, and they couldn’t stop her. So S got his bike. That was the first thing C did to openly defy Mom and Dad. Before that she’d gotten caught smoking in her high school bathroom and hung out with some kids Mom didn’t approve of, but generally speaking, she kept a low profile. But when she signed for the bike, she openly lined up beside S against Mom and Dad. The alliance that was created in childhood with C and S sneaking cigarettes and sharing secrets were solidified pretty much for life with that move. S trusted C like he trusted no other person in the family.
So S got his Harley. That was a turning point for our family. S was making his statement—in a very loud and public way completely violating what Mom and Dad wanted and getting C to help him. The huge noise of the bike shook the house and our small untouched town and lots of unsavory looking bikers with long DA (duck’s ass) hair appeared at our house. No one had a motorcycle in our town. Guys there got boats when they were 18—some even cars, but none motorcycles. Only the Hell’s Angels had Harleys. And more than Mom, it drove Dad crazy. (But for the young girl in me, it was very exciting having an older brother with a Harley—black and gleaming silver – that made a huge commotion when he got home or started her up. And surprisingly, his rocky friends were always nice to me – dark mysterious guys in black leather jackets and heavy unwashed jeans who spoke in monosyllables and had black frames around their fingernails. They scared and intrigued me).
S had always been rebellious. He did poorly in school, refused to go to college and barely finished high school (a major slap to my mother who’d been so committed to saving money to put each of us through college that she actually took a job – full time! Like most immigrants nothing was more important to her than us completing college and having professions). S’s only interest was drawing, so Mom and Dad enrolled him in a local art school where he excelled. But that didn’t offer opportunities for employment. There was no option for him but to try for the plumbers union with Dad. Proud of how naturally Sonny took to the work, Dad got him a job in his shop, and S became Dad’s helper. It was clear to all of us, how proud they were to be working together. But Dad’s pride, as always, was tainted by his fury at S’s rough and hard look—his long uncut hair reminiscent of James Dean and Marlon Brando infuriated Dad; then the motorcycle pretty much completed the picture of the son disappointing and embarrassing the father. Once he got the bike, S stopped riding to work with Dad and took the bike instead. Everyone on the job talked about it. Dad hated it, but as was his way, said nothing and smoldered instead. The bike announced to the world that S wasn’t and didn’t want to be like anyone else. Even Dad. (Especially Dad?) No one would stop him. And no one ever did. Not Dad. Not Mom. Not even his wife and children. S has done exactly what he wanted for his entire life. And sadly, rather than that continuing to be a statement of independence and confidence, it’s often been fueled by rage.
Shortly after buying the bike, S rode it to New Orleans with his biker friends, and coming home, was involved in a major accident that nearly killed him. (A woman going the wrong way somewhere in Virginia, suddenly – without signaling – crossed the road in front of him. He flew 75 feet over the hood of the car into a ravine on the side of the road). When doctors removed his clothes, they found his rosary beads had left a permanent imprint in the leather of his jacket pocket. Mom and Dad were very proud and assumed that that was why he was alive. That was also the reason, they believed, that he incurred no head injuries. (According to the doctors, it was miraculous that his skull was not also fractured given that he wore no helmet. They weren’t required in the early sixties and neither S nor any of his friends would be caught dead wearing one). He was rushed to South Boston Hospital in Virginia where he was confined for 6 months, then to NYC’s Joint Diseases Hospital for another 3 before they sent him home in a full body cast to be taken care of by Mom for the next year.
(Sad to say, we never spoke about how any of the three of them—S, Mom or Dad or for that matter me and my other two siblings—felt about the crash that shattered their/our lives. Worse than not talking about it, I believe we were all so emotionally defended that we didn’t fully feel it—not deeply, not in a connected, loving way. To start with, we’d always lived our lives alone putting one foot in front of the other in life and in trauma, feelings buried, our own and each other’s. If we were in pain, we lived with it. But despite our silence and emotional disconnection from each other (so typical of us), we rallied to tend to the business of S’s recovery—me asking a cousin to lend us the money for a new car so that our parents could visit him throughout, Mom and Dad traveling back and forth each weekend and conferring with doctors, C and I tending to our younger brother and the house in their absence. Ironically, we banded together and were finally a family).
Clearly the accident itself and all that came from it marked a major turning point in S’s life both physical and psychological, but it resulted in perhaps the greatest emotional trauma as well – not the accident or his broken body, but the year in bed at home with Mom taking care of him. He was 21 years old, and his Mom had to bring him the urinal and bedpan and give him a bath. He didn’t talk much during that time or any as a matter of fact, but knowing Mom, she must have ridden him quite a bit about the bike, not to mention his being first hand witness to her tirades over the rest of us. And he was powerless to respond. He had always used his body (as well as his mouth) to escape and express his anger (most of which amounted to teasing and tormenting me and our younger brother), and now he was completely imprisoned neck to toe in a cast. He was also used to being alone and leaving when he got mad; in fact, from the time he was a teenager, he had lived (hid out!) in the cellar most of the time. Now he lived in the dining room! The table was moved out, and a hospital bed was brought in. He was captive. He could not get away from any of us. Especially Mom. The ever-present fracture between them that began when he was a young adolescent and refused to do her bidding intensified a hundred fold when he had to lie there completely dependent on her— a frozen white mummy naked in all the places he most needed to remain private. It was the worst type of paralysis/impotence for him. He was never the same. His meanness took on a life of its own. No one escaped it. Anger had always been at the fore; now rage became the dominant emotion of his life. It was boundless and eventually bordered on psychotic.
To occupy himself and escape his prison, he decided to read the Bible – The Old and New Testaments. During that time, periodically, I’d bring him a pad and paper and try to get him to draw; he’d given it up sometime in high school and showed no interest in it despite his considerable talent. That changed when he discovered that his body would never regain the physical strength needed for plumbing work. He decided to put the accident insurance money toward a career in painting. He started at the Art Students League and when he very quickly graduated to painting murals for the League entry foyer, we ‘knew’ the reason for all of it—the accident, his survival, his mission from God. ART. He’d been chosen for genius! He decided to use what money was left to study on his own in Mexico. Revered as the most gifted painter in San Miguel de Allende, a painter’s oasis; artists and critics alike remarked on how similar his style was to that of Rembrandt. However, though he was treated like royalty and referred to as El Padron, after a few years he grew tired of working there and came back to Brooklyn and started to paint the family.
We dedicated ourselves to his work. Dad retired from plumbing, bought an electric saw and started to make all of S’s frames as well as furniture for his apartment, including beds and dressers for his daughters. And he, Mom and I all posed. Our younger brother became his business manager and represented him at the various gallery shows that resulted. His career was burgeoning and the New York art world attested to his fineness. The portraits of Dad, all entitled The Framemaker, featured Dad’s quiet stoicism and strength and focused on his hands—masterfully roped and capable. Though the motorcycle and many of his tirades seemed to suggest otherwise, S’s paintings of Dad revealed his great respect and admiration of him. The paintings of me and Mom were equally revealing. In these, his anger was unleashed. Though I was barely thirty years old and quite thin, he painted me middle aged, fleshy and puffy faced like our aunt, a nun and at least fifty years older than I. I just paint what I see, he shrugged. A passive – aggressive bullseye! I was a very tall girl in a pink dress and he was laughing again and calling me an ‘Overgrown Alice in Wonderland’.
(Of all the family, S expressed his anger with me most openly—never forgiving me for following him from school and reporting to Mom so many years before. Like C, he believed that I was Mom’s favorite. On the other hand, his resentment toward me probably started shortly after I was born—11 months after him—when he was dethroned by the new baby—an age appropriate crisis and the route of sibling rivalry. Though I have no memory of it at all [attesting to how traumatic an event it was], the rest of the family recalls him taking me into a closet and cutting my waist length hair. Anger has always been the third partner in the room where S and I have been. Painting me old and swollen was just further reflection of that).
But his portraits of me paled next to those of Mom. They were ruthless, characterizing her as a cruel woman with searing red eyes. She was menacing. Diabolical. We were all horrified at what he put on canvas, capturing her most evil self, and offering these portraits for public view at his many shows. Yet she appeared undaunted, laughed and made sarcastic comments about them but continued to pose – as if she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing he had gotten to her. But to me, and I imagine most onlookers, it was bizarre. The level of rage in him and apparent denial in her were out there for the world to see.
During that time we also supported him financially. He made it clear, and all of us agreed, that such a gifted artist as he could not waste his talent working at a regular desk job—his talent warranted him support from others just as the painters of old. We weren’t giving him anything, he rationalized (explaining away his dependency on us and negating our generosity), rather he was letting us share in his remarkable art. And remarkable it was. It moved us as the transubstantiation of the Host had and the parting of the waters. Clearly, S had been visited by God and his art was extraordinary. He was another Rembrandt, Da Vinci, perhaps Michelangelo.
Remarkably, he had replaced Mom as the center of our family. And we were ripe for it—we’d already had one person (Mom) next to whom the rest of us paled. One person who believed that she was entitled to our complete devotion. He was her reincarnation. Now we had two narcissistic personalities dictating what was expected of us. Despite that fact that there was no greater force nor personality than they/theirs, she seemed to step aside after the accident to do the holy work of tending to her son. (Years later she reclaimed her focal position, but for a good twenty years each of us dedicated our lives to his work). It had become a religion for us. Though our family hadn’t been blessed by one of us entering the priesthood or sisterhood, we had been anointed with the next best thing and equally important. And we were grateful. S’s art was our religious vocation and legacy. There was no holier work in our eyes. Nor in his.
One wonders how such obsession comes to be. Frankly, I still do. What can possibly account for the fact that my family followed S so faithfully, so exclusively for so long. Some otherworldly force held us firmly in its hand. Looking at it 40 years later, I believe that much of the obsession stems from the times—it was the 1950s and early 60s; all authority was absolute – government, clergy, police. There was no questioning, no rebellion, no expectation of a voice. We were told what the truth was, and we believed it. Educationwas academic and dogmatic, and thinking was not part of the process – even when my younger brother and I went to college —our schooling was parochial. Add to that the fact that we lived in a tiny untouched hamlet (in the northeast corner of the Bronx); our parents were uneducated farmers from an utterly Catholic country; and our family (under my father’s leadership) was overly involved with the Catholic Church. In school, there were no field trips to museums, no library, no classes in music (except glee club) nor art. We knew the names of artists through the church—the greats whose work we saw in our Catechism or in the art on the walls of the Church. Particularly important to all of this is that it was a strong Church teaching that great responsibility came with a gift for art or music. It was a sin to waste it. God had given it and one had to accept it. And the way to accept it was to make it the center of one’s life. There was really no choice. S had given himself over to God through his Art. And we admired and respected him for it. How could we not devote our own lives to further that mission? It was holy work. Not to have participated would have been a sin for us as well.
But that too had to end. As we grew older and more conscious of how ‘common’ great talent is—one only has to look at the museums and concert halls to know how many gifted people there are in the world, S became less exceptional, less anointed in our eyes. He also continued to rage at Mom—they were out and out warriors finally—and be abusive to the rest of us. Though he moved back in with Mom and Dad each time he returned from his latest flight from the US (he’d become very militant politically—strongly supporting the Black panther movement – and vitriolic in his attacks on us and the world), either he or she would instigate a battle and S would move out with his family. That happened several times, until such time that we all grew tired. He couldn’t tolerate the fact that we didn’t abandon his daughter after she left home—it was her or us—and we had finally grown tired of the years of abuse we’d been subject to. The ritual was always the same, he returned to his boyhood in Edgewater and the mistreatment and betrayal he’d experienced at the hands of our family—particularly from Mom and me—and rage would escalate and fly untethered at us. We became frightened. He broke off all ties and disappeared. The only contact we’ve had in the last 25 years was his appearance at our Dad’s wake, our attendance at his wife’s funeral and three separate phone calls to me inquiring about C’s health when he’d heard that she’d been sick. But for the daughter he’d forbidden us to see years before, to this day, C is the only one he has any contact with—a phone call every few months to check in. She was his only friend in the family from boyhood and so she remains. She may well be the one person he’s trusted in his lifetime—except for his devoted wife who remained committed to him through all the many moods, separations and abuses of his life. He continues to live alone.
Previously: “Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust IV” by Joan Cusack Handler