A Son’s Vows to Love, Honor, and Obey Go Awry

My brother’s troubles began with my parent’s marriage. They knew each other for only one week when they married. Mother told me that she only agreed because she was twenty-five, an old maid. Dad was financially established. It was during the Depression and he owned a record store.

Father was autistic. He was also a savant. He committed to memory 250,000 eleven (11) digit record catalog numbers without effort. His store was often filled with celebrities who delighted in picking a random number from a thick RCA Victor record catalog and witnessing my father display his unusual talent.

Our Father never knew what number was our age or our grade in school or our birthdate. He sometimes would burst into song in the midst of social gatherings which would embarrass my mother and cause a fight. Most likely my father had Asperger Syndrome , a disorder on the autism spectrum characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests; it was not widely recognized and understood until the early 1980’s, so mother spent a lot of energy trying to change him into a different person. Father was incapable of intimacy, expressions of warmth, and was oblivious to human interactions. My father married my mother when he was forty. His only encounters with women prior to their wedding night were with prostitutes. He had never been in a relationship, a fate my brother also repeated throughout his own life but for very different reasons.

According to my brother’s therapist and my therapist, our mother suffered from a borderline narcissistic personality disorder.

Our parents were quite a dissonant pair; Mom needing non-stop admiration, constant compliments, and total control of everyone and everything. Dad shut out the world, playing music and reciting numbers all inside of his head, while she pursued him continuously asking him if he loved her. His response was a taciturn, “I don’t love you, and I’m not a hypocrite.”

Mother became pregnant three years after I was born. Her mother, my grandmother, a loveless and unlovable person herself, told mom to have an illegal abortion. She gave as her reason, “Children are nothing but trouble and heartache. They are a burden which will rob you of your life.” Mother had the abortion, hemorrhaged, and was refused entry into a hospital because the admitting nurse told her she was, “a bad person who killed her baby and did not deserve medical treatment.” She almost died. Four years later according to her, “out of guilt” she became pregnant with my brother. She wished and prayed that the child would be a boy, that he would love her, and bring her glory.

For the first six years of my brother’s life, mother was thrilled with her boy child. At seven years old my brother became interested in puppetry. He refused to play sports. He cried often. Because of this mother began seeing a therapist whom she hoped would identify my brother’s problem, and come up with a solution to his “sissy” behavior. According to the therapist, because father was absent, mother overbearingly present and, because I was “fifteen and very sexy looking with big breasts and [my] brother loved being with” me, the therapist suggested my brother go to a residential school for emotionally disturbed boys. He was only seven years old. He spent six months at the school, just long enough to be sexually molested by an older boy. When he told his “counselor” about the sexual abuse, mother was called and told to pick him up and bring him home.

Mother tried to solve my brother’s sissiness herself. She pushed him into sports, curtailed his time with his puppets, his favorite toys. She often scornfully referred to the puppets as his “dolls.” She made efforts to shield my brother from looking at my breasts by insisting that I wear a bra at all times. When I would sometimes forget and come to the breakfast table in a robe without a bra underneath, she would scream at me right in front of him saying, “Your brother is looking at your body and it’s ruining him! Go upstairs and come down when you are decent!”

Luckily for me, I was defiant. Flunking out of high school and becoming a juvenile delinquent gave me boundless energy for rebellion. Unluckily for my brother, he was becoming more docile and frightened of mother’s erratic personality. He tried to please her by becoming the main source of her narcissistic supply.

My brother’s gender issues served mother well. They allowed my brother to fill the role of husband, companion, girlfriend, and cheerleader.

Mother bestowed privileges on my brother because he was a boy and because he met her emotional needs. He had his teeth straightened; ours remained crooked. He was given a religious education; my sister and I were told literacy in the synagogue was not for girls. He went to a private college. We went to state schools. At the time my sister and I did not object since her attention, when diverted to my brother, allowed us a momentary reprieve from her personality.

My brother’s privileged status came with a heavy price. He was expected to defend her in the many fights she had with my father, me, my sister, relatives, friends, and business associates. Taking my mother’s side in all the many disputes alienated him from her enemies — virtually everyone else.

My father was very homophobic. He had a season seat at the opera and when we went with him to the performances he would point out all the “fags” and “fairies” with disdain. My mother once told me that she was afraid that my father was a “latent homosexual” because he hated women and when they had sex he never kissed her. Mother also believed that if a man had shoulders narrower than his hips, it was a sure sign he was gay. Both my brother and father fit this description. She shared her theory with my brother when he was just a teenager, giving him the message that my father did not love her because he might only be able to love another man. How could my brother admit to himself that he was a homosexual when it might mean he could not fill her veracious need for love if he was one also?

When my brother was thirty-four, after my dad died, he began to cautiously face his sexuality. Through therapy he was encouraged to come out. He chose to tell the love of his life, our mother. When he phoned her, before he could get out one syllable, she began screaming at him about some issue concerning money and hung up the phone.

Shortly after that, my brother attempted to “break off” with her. This is when his demise began. His therapist, not having any group to place him in, decided to put him in a therapy group for male incest survivors, citing the extreme emotional incest my brother had endured at the hands of mother. I can only imagine what damaging effect that exposure to numerous stories from male victims, most often victimized by other men, did to his fledgling attempts to embrace his own sexual preference with pride.

He became severely depressed and wrote in his journals about “suicidal thoughts.” He gained one hundred and thirty pounds, the exact weight of mother’s body. It was as if he was growing her internally. He quit his job teaching elementary school and had no means of support. His downward spiral served his real agenda very well. He needed an excuse to reunite with mother and money was a good one.

The consequences of separating from our mother to become independent and mentally well would have cost him our mother’s strange conditional love. All her relationships were contentious, especially when the other person had a stronger commitment to anyone else. Loving another was a betrayal. She could not have endured his having an intimacy with anyone else, man, woman, or child. Being my mother’s beloved kept him from taking the terrifying risk of rejection. He was afraid he was not good-looking enough to join the gay community. Acceptance of his homosexuality and getting beyond my father’s disapproval would have been scary; competing with handsome men terrifying. He didn’t like his body. He would have had to face his life-long fluctuating weight problem, and take better care of his health. Throughout my brother’s journals he claims that puppetry saved his life. Without my mother’s money he would have had to give up puppetry, get a job and support himself.

After they reconciled, he told my mother that he was gay. Her response was that it was alright with her since she knew he would never “act on it.”

From his journals, I found out he did act on it, exclusively with casual hookups from the internet, anonymous phone sex, and gay pornography. For a time, after he read Paul Monettes book, Becoming a Man, he talked about looking for love. He lost all the weight, stopped taking anti-depressants and fulfilled his most cherished dream. Bankrolled with mother’s money, he opened up a puppet theater. Some tentative forays into the gay community came soon after and he was accepted into the prestigious Gay’s Men’s Choir of Los Angeles.

During this time Mother got a face-lift and took on a new persona in hopes of finding another husband. She did, which distracted her for a while, since plenty of dramas and conflicts happened with her new husband’s friends and relatives.

My brother was living in California, mother in Florida and me in New York. Although every contact with mother remained volatile, the distance allowed for short periods between phone calls and occasional visits of relative calm, until her second husband died.

Mother moved to California to be with “her son” and the enmeshment rekindled at full force. My brother quit the Choir, stopped looking for love, voted for Ronald Reagan, stated he was “against gay marriage” and expressed his displeasure with being labeled “gay” when that was such a small part of his identity.

His puppetry theater was a complete financial failure, but mother subsidized all his personal and business expenses, albeit begrudgingly. The more money she gave him, the more she wanted in return.

I can only theorize on why my mother hated me since I was eleven years old. Other family members suggested it could have been my strong spirit, rebelliousness, the free hippie life, embracing the 60’s, having a good marriage, having successful careers in multiple arts, and three daughters who loved me as she wished her daughters had. Once my therapist got on his knees, held both my hands in his and told me, “Your mother wants you dead!”

It took until I was 60 years old, in therapy, and dealing with my own crisis that I finally got his message: it was my soul she wanted to kill.

I made the decision on my mother’s 88th birthday. When I wished her a “Happy Birthday,” there was silence on the other end of the line. I asked if she was OK. She told me it was a bad time to call. I asked when would be a good time to call her back with birthday greetings and she replied, “I don’t know. Figure it out,” and she hung up. Compared with other mistreatments this was nothing, but I was ready. It was done; all over.

I called my brother and told him my decision and I loved him, and hoped we could still be friends. He replied, “This creates serious loyalty issues for me.” It ended our relationship just as mother would have demanded.

Six calm years went by without either of them in my life except for one email I received from my brother in the middle of the night filled with four letter words, curses, and vitriol.

After much fighting and wrangling, mother finally pulled the plug on supporting my brother’s puppetry theater. Coincidentally, or maybe passively aggressive, my brother had a stroke, with my mother front row center, the night of his final puppet show which presented as a brain tumor, when diagnosed, it was stage four melanoma already spread to his brain.

He called from the hospital crying and begging me to visit. The doctor told me the portion of his brain that was damaged caused “emotional incontinence.” As a result, my brother was crying and begging my sister, nieces, nephew and his acquaintances from the puppetry theater, also. I was the first visitor from our family besides mother. My brother’s hair was all askew. He had a thick cross-hatch scar with heavy black stitches imbedded on the top of his partially shaved head. I thought he looked crazed, reminding me of Jack Nicholson’s look in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

My mother left the room as soon as I entered. With tears rolling down his face, my brother mouthed the words “I’m sorry” so that my mother could not hear. At one point she came running down the hospital corridor when she saw me talking to my brother’s doctors yelling, “Don’t tell her anything! She abandoned her brother and hasn’t bothered to see him in years!” That was only the first of a series of events in the hospital, one after another, of hysteria directed at me.

On the last night of my second visit, after my brother was already receiving hospice care, I asked him if he would like to go with his dog, in his wheel chair to view the ocean at sunset one last time. Against mother’s loud objections he said, “Yes.”

These were the last few moments I spent with my brother. We only had a small window of time to dress him, get the dog ready, hoist him into the wheel chair, and roll the two blocks to the Pacific Ocean before sunset. Mother began to vigorously give my brother a full body massage intentionally halting the process. My brother looked at her and quietly, almost lovingly said, “What’s going on mom? Are you trying to sabotage the plans?” A moment of eye contact passed between them and she stepped aside.

We saw the sunset minutes later. When we returned, my brother fell on the bed exhausted by the effort. Mother loudly said to us, “He’s going to die tonight and it’s because you took him out.”

A week later he died.

After several months of the usual treatment from mother, I went “no contact” again. A loyal friend of my brothers, a fellow puppeteer who stood by him during his illness helped mother “get rid” of all my brother’s possessions. He had seen her attacks on me. Out of compassion, he took it upon himself to give me my brother’s prolific journals spanning from 6th grade to the day of his cancer diagnosis. Although my brother was gone, I did get to know him intimately after all.

Mother died a year later. I never saw her again. After her death it was revealed she had given my brother most of her savings, $300,000, with no regard for her children’s, grandchildren’s, and great-grandchildren’s future. Since she had anticipated she would die first, she left the remainder of her money to my brother. With my brother dead, she changed her will for the 8th time including all the family members she had previously left out. Myself, my children, and my grandchild were excluded.

I have frozen in memory my brother’s face when he asked Mother if she was “trying to sabotage the plans.” That was his last chance to see the sunset. She tried to stop it. He knew it, but loved her anyway. Neither one of them ever loved anyone else. As twisted as that love was, I came, over time, to accept its mystery.