My Brother’s Demons

I lost my brother decades ago. I don’t mean that in any conventional sense; he’s alive, if not well, inhabiting the same 350-square-foot studio apartment he has called home for the past 30 years. But he’s been lost to me for a long time, as lost as if he disappeared into a deep forest, one where the branches overhead meet and link to blot out the sky, and the roots below erupt from the ground in tumorous, dark swells.

He has spent the last 40 years in the grip of crippling mental illness that came upon him when he was about 20. He was a bright kid who underperformed in school, couldn’t maintain friendships, and who was always, in my inchoate but prescient view, a little out of sync. He was different from the other long-haired, peace-sign-waving, rock-grooving older brothers of my friends. When we fought, there was something more rancorous than the anger that fuels most sibling battles. I was afraid of him, and not just physically. I secretly feared that whatever was wrong with him would rub off on me.

After high school he briefly attended Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts, but soon dropped out, spending his days on the sofa instead. The real break in the fragile arc of his life came when our parents decided to divorce. Our father left in the spring of 1974, and by that August he had remarried. My brother was 21; I was 16.

My brother moved out and took a job as a night watchman. He lived alone by day; he worked alone by night. The isolation nudged him over the edge, right into eight months in the psychiatric ward at Hillside hospital in Queens. He emerged not a different person but a more sharply delineated version of himself. And that is where his life seems to have frozen, in some terrible spot where he is condemned to move ever in place, never forward.

For more than three decades he has not worked, had a significant romantic relationship, or functioned as an adult in the world. The list of experiences he has not savored — a college graduation, a wedding, a promotion, a vacation, the birth of a child — is long and sorrowful. He did not even have a bar mitzvah, because our father, despite his own fierce attachment to his Jewish identity, deemed it inessential to make him one.

Supported by disability benefits, my brother leads a life defined by his phobias. He washes his hands obsessively, and is plagued by “contamination” attacks, during which he believes that either he or an object he cares about has been tainted by some toxic substance. He is unable to tolerate anything sharp or heavy; even a hardcover book can trigger an attack. Fire terrifies him, so cooking is out of the question. He won’t insert a plug into a socket, and he has a deathly fear of heights and of crowds. He has gotten treatment sporadically and without success; he has tried prescription drugs, but can’t stand the side effects.

He will not see me, and while I’m relieved to be spared the evidence of his pain, I feel rejected too, as if somehow I have been deemed insufficient or wanting. We do speak on the phone, long rambling conversations in which very little of substance is ever revealed or discussed. His defenses are strong; he doesn’t want to talk about our shared past: Israel, the country in which we were born but only he remembers, or what it is like to be the children of our particular parents.

So here we are, a pair of fifty-something siblings, unable to really know or reach each other. I’m aware that this is true for many siblings. But when mental illness figures into the picture, the reconciliations for which one always continues to long are even more elusive. So I shoulder the disappointment, deprived of a potential ally, friend and confidant.

His primary relationship is with our mother. He allows her to visit, and she is deeply enmeshed in his life, making his few appointments, shopping for his clothes and household supplies. I do not want this role; the thought is unendurable. But one day I will inherit it anyway, and I will become my brother’s keeper, forced to have a more intimate awareness of what it feels like to live in his skin. Our father is dead and we have no ties with extended family. Sometimes this responsibility feels like a burden, at other times, like a strange and enigmatic gift.

What will our future as sister and brother be like? The screen grows murky when I try to imagine it, and for this I’m grateful; I’ll deal with the reality when I must.

For now I lead my life, while my shadow brother remains deep in the forest, a lonely wanderer among the dense and suffocating trees.

Yona Zeldis McDonough is Lilith’s fiction editor. Her fourth novel, A Wedding in Great Neck, is forthcoming, and her latest children’s book, The Cats in the Doll Shop, will be out in November.