August 11, 2018 10:52 PM   Subscribe

An educator's take on her brother and boys like him. First person essay. [CW: DV, animal cruelty]
posted by k8t (22 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
this was really hard to read. thanks for posting.
posted by es_de_bah at 12:06 AM on August 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Hard to read but very moving. I wanted to rescue the author's childhood self.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:23 AM on August 12, 2018 [8 favorites]

That one hurts.
posted by daq at 12:43 AM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I place my notebook, books, laptop, and handouts on a table. I write on the board in blue marker, WELCOME TO POETRY! With my back to the students, I add more exclamation points. I draw a smiley face.

That's what I do too! Just delete "to poetry" and every new class gets this from Meatbomb.
posted by Meatbomb at 2:12 AM on August 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Wow. Her mother’s motivation here is a real puzzle to me.
posted by eirias at 3:05 AM on August 12, 2018 [8 favorites]

I didn't realize how much I was hoping for some kind of resolution at the end of that until I didn't get it.

I have a friend who has a brother kind of like this. She calls him a sociopath. But she uses the word "sociopath" as if it meant "a malevolent alien who lives among us and looks just like a human being." Like in "The Thing."

She speculates on whether people we both know are sociopaths. She talks about how good sociopaths are at disguising themselves. Her mother also protected her brother. She says it's because he was very good at manipulating people, and manipulated his mother everywhere and always. She thinks sociopaths can be very friendly and personable, so it's not like someone being nice is proof that they aren't one. She half suspects almost everyone, even people who are nice to her. She sometimes shocks me, just saying in a matter of fact way about someone we work with "I think he might be a sociopath" as if she were saying "I think he might be from Ohio." It makes me a little uncomfortable when she does it. It seems like such a drastic accusation to level against someone. Usually someone who just seems a little too good at schmoozing, and a little insincere.

But by the end of "The Thing," everyone thinks everyone else is an alien. Everyone is paranoid. Everyone is afraid of each other. Because they have seen how good the alien is at disguising itself, at disguising the danger... They never quite feel safe.

I never really got it before, but I guess that is what it is like for my friend. It seems like that's what it's like for this author. I guess if you've grown up with someone like that, that's how you'd feel. Like you'd been in a horror movie. Like anyone might be a threat -- an alien in disguise.
posted by OnceUponATime at 3:14 AM on August 12, 2018 [76 favorites]

Honestly the first thought I had when I got the the end of this was - most of the kids she describes don't really sound like her brother? But I think the comment above mine has it. I thought it was going to be about the kids, but it's ultimately more about the impact growing up with her brother had on her.
posted by atoxyl at 3:23 AM on August 12, 2018 [20 favorites]

One other thought ... There's this book called "Far From the Tree" which is pretty harrowing, but really gets at something... It's about what it is like to be a parent of a child who is profoundly different from yourself. Some of the stories are about what it's like to love someone who is very hard to love. Anyway there is an extended profile of Dylan Klebold's parents, if you are maybe wondering what this is like from the mother's point of view.
I think the other parents believed they had experienced loss, and I had not, because their children were of value, and mine was not. My child died too. He died after making a terrible decision and doing a terrible thing, but he was still my child, and he still died." —Sue Klebold on her son, Dylan

When I asked the Klebolds what they would want to ask Dylan if he were in the room with us, Tom said, "I'd ask him what the hell he was thinking and what the hell he thought he was doing!" Sue looked down at the floor for a minute before saying quietly, "I would ask him to forgive me, for being his mother and never knowing what was going on inside his head."

"When it first happened, I used to wish that I had never had children, that I had never married. If Tom and I hadn't crossed paths at Ohio State, Dylan wouldn't have existed and this terrible thing wouldn't have happened. But over time, I've come to feel that, for myself, I am glad I had kids and glad I had the kids I did, because the love for them—even at the price of this pain—has been the single greatest joy of my life. When I say that, I am speaking of my own pain, and not of the pain of other people. But I accept my own pain; life is full of suffering, and this is mine. I know it would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born. But I believe it would not have been better for me." —Sue Klebold
There is a whole chapter on crime, and what it is like to be parent of a criminal, with interviews of other parents whose children have done terrible things. It seems like the way the author's mother (in the FPP link) handled her brother was wrong, but it's hard to say what is the right way to handle such a child. Because whatever else they are, they are still children.
posted by OnceUponATime at 3:36 AM on August 12, 2018 [37 favorites]

I have had several students who I was afraid of. One, the scariest, who would interrupt my class with talk of magnetic fields and conspiracies and guns, withdrew at midterm, and I nearly cried with relief when I checked my roster and saw that I wouldn't have to see him again.

My childhood was long before school spree shooting were a thing, but I remember that there were always scary kids who ruled by whisper and grope and shove and torment and who were always excused by the powers that be. Not the trenchcoat kids, the powerful kids, who were "liked" by everyone, where liked meant feared.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:47 AM on August 12, 2018 [13 favorites]

Depressingly familiar. I have cousins that remind me of the author's brother, and had schoolmates who seemed to be, as well.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:08 AM on August 12, 2018

I have a brother kind of like this. Not like this, but like this. Mine went in for tormenting people rather than animals, but I recognize the malovelent joy in making other people miserable, the disregard for other people's belongings, let alone their feelings, the ability to twist things until I'd find myself wondering if maybe somehow I had destroyed my own things, maybe I was lying about how he had hurt me. I recognize the way that he was my mother's favorite because he needed her more than the rest of us--he needed her to believe him.

The mother's response doesn't surprise me, really. Men like this, and boys like this, are good at what they do. They're manipulative and charming--her brother had friends. Her brother had their mother on his side. They have patriarchy on their side--the idea that men are logical, that men are reasonable, that men need people to help them, that men need extra support, that men aren't responsible for their own emotions and actions. That "tortured" men like this are uniquely brilliant and special--that they're the ones who are tortured, despite the pain they inflict on their mothers, their sisters, their partners.

Brothers like this grow up to be the boyfriends who split your lip and spend all the money in your joint checking on who knows what, but who are great guys who you're lucky to be with. He was such a sweet kid, say the neighbors after that guy does something terrible, something that can't be denied, this time. He's had such a hard life, your mother says when you tell her you're thinking about finally leaving that guy. Oh, he didn't mean it like that, says that guy's boss when his coworkers complain. If you didn't make me so angry, I wouldn't be like this, says that guy. If you were just a little more accommodating, if you were just nicer, if you were just more patient, if you were more giving, if--

And like many abusive relationships, there are honeymoon periods. You say that you know it wasn't his fault, that he must have been aggravated into doing whatever he did. You go for ice cream, and he makes you laugh, and he smiles at you, and you think, this is who he truly is; this is who he wants to be. He shows up and gives you a necklace that he bought for you; he hopes you like it. He comes into your office and he's sorry, he's really sorry, he's trying, he wants to be better. He brings you flowers after you fall--because you fell, right, you fell, you fell--because he hates to see you in pain.

I'm not saying that all these men are the same. I'm not saying that every abusive boyfriend is a mass shooter in the making; I'm not saying that every bullying brother or rude and aggressive student is a sociopath when you're not watching. But I'm saying it's a spectrum, and that the people who fall onto this spectrum tend to be very good, at least some of the time, at least with some people, at seeming like they fall on the other side--even at very young ages. They can convince people they're just misunderstood. That they're good guys, if only people would give them a chance.

The last time I talked to my brother on the phone, I didn't feel well. He was hundreds of miles away, making supper, but he stopped and got out his guitar and played it quietly, humming softly, until I was almost asleep. The last time I saw him, I left the room in tears while he laughed about it, because he'd gotten me to break, mocking me and twisting my words and yelling, and that was a fun game for him, the same way it has been since we were children. But I hung up the phone that night, and felt like I was loved.

Obligatory disclaimer: I know that men can be abused, and that women can be abusive, but I feel that this specific behavioral pattern is a gendered phenomenom in that it's both more common in and more acceptable from men.
posted by mishafletch at 4:11 AM on August 12, 2018 [88 favorites]

If we believe in determinism, we have to ask, what makes someone be that way (like her brother)? Bad chemicals? Bad genes causing bad chemicals? His mother? His father? All of the above? We don't (yet) know?

And what's it like to be him? He wasn't always like that. It started at some point. Was it gradual? All at once? Did he go back and forth, spending time at both poles until this one won out? How did this feel to him? Could he imagine changing back?

And what was different with his sister that she teaches poetry and submits this to The Sun?
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:10 AM on August 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

She said, You’re your father’s favorite. She had to make up for that special treatment.

It was true. My father, a pilot who was frequently away from home, was much kinder to me. He’d take me to the park or to lunch and ask me what was wrong with my brother. I didn’t think anything was wrong with my brother. My father hollered at my brother and hit him.

but sure, it's the mother's motivation and parenting failures and denial of reality that's the bewildering puzzle here.

abuse can't make a sadistic monster out of a child if there's no pre-existing material there to work with. but boy it's a great accelerant if there is.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:46 AM on August 12, 2018 [15 favorites]

queenofbithynia: "abuse can't make a sadistic monster out of a child if there's no pre-existing material there to work with"

Don't know. I used to think they *could* make monsters that way. Not so sure nowadays.
posted by aleph at 12:08 PM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I taught boys for twenty five years and never had one like that, oddly enough. I had one kid who was a bitter mess and manipulative, but one of his parents shot the other one part way through the year and he withdrew from the school. Although I think of most shooters as representative of toxic masculinity, I also know that most of the boys I taught were decent kids who were not, all things considered, much different from girls, though they tended to be more direct.
posted by Peach at 7:20 PM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I did a double take at that passage you quoted too, queenofbythnia. I do wonder why this is mentioned but not focused on. But a parent disliking and mistreating a really screwed up kid doesn’t surprise me, because it hangs together in a familiar way. A parent essentially helping a screwed up kid bury all the bodies invites more speculation. Are you helping him because you are like him? Or because his horribleness highlights your own failures, and so you conspire with him to keep it hidden? Or something else?
posted by eirias at 8:03 PM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

The kid had two legs of the MacDonald triad, anyway, he tortured animals and was a pyromaniac, but we don't know anything about persistent bed wetting.
posted by jamjam at 10:06 PM on August 12, 2018

I read this last night and wanted to comment but the emotional response was to much to get a coherent response out. There is the novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin which, being a novel is both more dramatic than most peoples experience but is incapable of conveying the full wear and seemingly unbreakable damage of dealing with the non-homicidal sociopath. This American Life's episode, Bad Baby, presented me with the idea that for whatever the reason these dangerous and destructive individuals are people whose moral/ethical development is stuck at the age of two. Selfish, needy, with little concept of other people actually mattering except in as much as they have something you want. Just like a two year old there are flashes of tenderness. Unlike a two year old these are not promises of what might be to come, only what might have been. They crave a response, proof of attention from their desired audience. This is often done in the most self serving manner. Steal the things they want and make their family members confront them about it. Hell getting in a fist fight with them just reinforces that you are paying attention to them. And that they have all the power and control to make you do things just to entertain them. Your tears are sweet because they are not real. They are the act a manipulator sees as being a manipulation. You are just like them, all you have to do is admit it.

I have an uncle who is one of these individuals. He caused damage as a teenager, went to Vietnam as a draftee, and came back just as damaging but now with military training. He liked to toy with the emotions of his niece and nephews. He did it because it was fun. He did it because getting a twelve year girl to cry while she was trying to help with her aunt's birthday party by calling her mother, his sister, a slut was so much fun he laughed, more like giggled, between his bouts of yelling degradation to a child. I was seven her brother was eight, and he and I were hiding behind the couch. My uncle was supposed to be taking care of us while my mother and father were at work.

My uncle had lost his job, he needed a place to stay. My father had thought he could help his older brother. That he could get his brother to behave out of gratitude and a need for a roof. He stayed with us for almost year. My cousins had come to visit for a week in the Summer. He had been slow grinding my psyche down but with three defenseless people I guess he found the opportunity to, 'play,' irresistible. By the time my father got home my uncle had lost track of time and was still going at it. My father came in the house and this is the point where my memory goes pretty blank. My father threw my uncle out of the house and told him that he had a day or two to leave the town we lived in. If my father ever learned that my uncle was within a twelve hour drive he would kill him. I have never doubted this. To my knowledge neither has my uncle, who to my knowledge has never crossed West of the Continental Divide in over thirty years. My father's guilt over letting his brother stay in our home has never really faded.

Due to circumstances I care to keep private I was put in therapy shortly afterwards. Much of my childhood of that time is, and has been very difficult to recall. I am convinced that the therapist did her best to repair or block access to the memories of the most damaging events of that time period. Still I keep with me a deep distrust of anyone who thinks that, 'breaking balls,' is an acceptable way to treat a friend or family member. I feel domestic abusers are among those we should simply kill, though I rationally understand that that is a poor choice.

I was relatively lucky, J. Mays grew up with such a sibling and with a mother who protected him from consequences. Presumably because her baby-boy could never be Satan's Little Helper while her daughter, who, in her mother's mind, was no doubt her father's favorite, must just be doing things to impugn the sweet boy out of jealousy. It is tragic, almost to the point of farce. Except it never reaches farce. It too often seems that in real life tragedy is all that remains.
posted by Ignorantsavage at 10:21 PM on August 12, 2018 [10 favorites]

I do wonder why this is mentioned but not focused on.

people often resent the mother who stays and fucks up more than the father who walks out & abandons you to your fate. people don't often bother explaining it, it's assumed. and if the author wished she could just walk out the door and never see her abusive family again, it's natural to identify with the father who, being adult, had the freedom to do exactly that, and did.

I don't mean that in a superior way, she lays out what her father was like; she's aware, she recorded it, we only know it because she disclosed it and she's under no obligation to dwell on it. but it seems so clear, in families like this, that the mother favors and defends the cruel child because admitting he isn't right is necessarily admitting she herself isn't right. whereas for the father, no such sense of identification and responsibility exists. so he can just say That kid's got something wrong with him and I want no part of it, and disappear, without being troubled by the crushing guilt of knowing it is, or could be, his fault. without believing that it means something is also wrong with him. like even from the few scant lines about him it's hard to imagine him eaten up all these years later wondering what it was he did wrong in the early years.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:30 PM on August 12, 2018 [7 favorites]

there's a book called The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling, the author is ghastly and I do NOT recommend or endorse the vile and condescending things she wrote therein regarding her own brother, who is not like this brother. her self-awareness does not match her credentials. but it's still very much worth reading as a sort of sourcebook & compendium of stories from people assigned the 'normal' role -- even if they they themselves were exceptional or troubled in some way -- with siblings who sucked up all the parental excuse-making and caretaking, for all sorts of reasons both good and bad. lots of it is just a compilation of other people's stories, and if you skip the blatantly offensive parts by the author, the part of it that's assorted personal testimonies is interesting and relevant.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:37 PM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Hope the author put mom in the bad nursing home so she could know what neglect is, SMH.
posted by greatalleycat at 11:17 PM on August 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Just chiming in to say how much I *adore* The Sun and love seeing it linked to here. They publish so many good, challenging works.
posted by Twicketface at 7:39 AM on August 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

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