Nothing Feels Better than Blood on Blood: The Black Sheep and the Brilliant One
My brother and me, Llansteffan, Wales, June 1999
Danielle, my therapist, studies me.
“You keep saying you’re the ‘Black Sheep’ of your family. You say it a lot. Do you remember when you first felt that was who you were?”
I’ve had a standard answer to this question for years: I first earned the label when I was kicked out of prep school at 13, for stealing. (And a D average). I got high for the first time a few weeks after my dismissal, and the rest is… you know. Black Sheepitude History.
There is a bit more to the story.
I am 11. I am nosy, a natural snoop, and I am going through my mother’s desk while she is out shopping. I am not looking for anything to steal. I want windows into the adult world, and each letter or bill I find gives me a little more understanding.
In one drawer, I find two identical envelopes from the school district, both addressed to my mother. I take out the letters inside. They are the results of IQ tests given to my brother and me the previous year, when I was in fifth grade and he in second..
I read mine first. I know nothing yet about IQ tests, so the number 126 means nothing to me. What does mean something is the praise. I am “well above average,” and “highly articulate.” I am an “MGM,” the report states; a “mentally gifted minor.”
I read my brother’s. After more than 40 years, I can still see the typed number: 160+++. There were exactly three pluses after the number, and then, handwritten, the words “off the scale.” The report is beyond effusive. Where I get comparatives, Pip gets superlatives. This phrase I will never forget: “The most gifted student we have ever tested.”
I put the letters back in the envelopes, tuck them away.
I do not talk to my mother about what I have found. First, I don’t want to be reprimanded for snooping. Second, and far more importantly, I want to spare us both what I know will be an awkward conversation, one in which she will try without success to reassure me that I have my own remarkable gifts.
160+++ and “most gifted we have tested” are worlds away from 126 and “above average.” Mom can’t explain away the math. Besides, by 11, we already know that I am bright and Pip is… incandescent. It is only my mother’s firmness that has kept the school from advancing him one or two grades.
Tale as old as time: one sibling is marked as extraordinary — for beauty or for brilliance. The other sibling, however attractive or bright in his or her own right they may be, looks for some other venue in which to truly excel. Something that’s theirs alone.
My brother and I both do theater. We both like to read. Neither of us is athletic (though I will discover those gifts later). I need something else.
I do not sit down and decide that I will become a black sheep. I don’t know what one is, not really. What I do know is that if Pip is to be the most excellent one, I am free somehow to be more reckless. And free to find attention some other way.
It starts with shoplifting gum and copies of Hustler magazine. Then comes getting kicked out of prep school in disgrace. Then comes the alcohol and the pot and the harder things.
At first I get caught a lot. Every time I’m caught, I learn from the mistake, and I adapt. I get caught less and less often.
More importantly, while my brother dazzles his teachers, I still do well enough. And I now have a story to explain the discrepancy between his near-perfection and my own solid above-averageness.
I listen to country music, and decide that trouble is my other job. In that light my B pluses are as impressive as Pip’s effortless As. Almost good enough to cover those 34+++ points on the IQ test.
My mental illness hasn’t shown up yet, not in any way I can recognize. When it comes at 19, it will be terrifying for me and for everyone around me — but to me, it will also be partly a relief. I had diagnoses, and at last, a concrete explanation for why I cannot match my brother’s gifts. I am touched by fire, and the fire burned up the parts that might have made me his equal.
Two of my grandparents went to Berkeley. Two of my great-grandfathers went to Berkeley. Both mom and dad went to Berkeley. Many cousins go to Berkeley. I go to Berkeley. My brother follows us all to Berkeley, except that in his case, he is such an exceptional student that he is recruited like an athlete, given a scholarship and preferential housing. He is a freshman the year that I am a senior.
We have lunch a few times this one year that we overlap, but we move in different worlds.
And then a month before I graduate, Erika and I run into Pip on the corner of Telegraph and Durant.
Erika and I are three months into a stormy affair, one we’re trying to hide from our respective fiancées.
My brother and I hug, a little awkwardly, and I introduce Erika. I am proud of Pip, my brilliant boo boy, and I want to show him off to my girlfriend. She is pretty and funny, and I want to show her off to Pip too, even if he will ask me questions later that I don’t wish to answer.
I buy us all pizza and beer at LuVal’s, and we talk for 45 minutes before he needs to go. Pip kisses Erika on the cheek and me on the forehead and dashes out the door.
“He’s amazing,” Erika says. “You were right.”
“I told you,” I say. The truth is I am desperately proud of him, I have always been proud of him, I have never for a moment wanted him to be other than the perfect thing he is. I just… I just have always wanted to know what was left for me.
Erika smiles encouragingly. “Even if he’s smarter, you need to know, I think you’re better-looking.”
I stare out the window, and chug the rest of my beer.
I am snooping again, this time in my brother’s room.
This is the first summer since my diagnosis and my first hospitalization. I am heavily medicated, and I sleep a lot and cry every day. I am not so drugged, tired, or tearful that I’m going to stop searching for the truth in other people’s private possessions.
I find Pip’s diary. I flip to April; I know the exact date I’m looking for. On April 13, 1987, I was placed on a locked ward for the first time. That evening, my brother wrote an anguished tirade. He was furious with me, terrified for me. My dazzlingly eloquent little brother littered the pages with misspellings and crossed out words. How could he do this? What is going to happen?
There are few rules more basic than this: older siblings take care of younger siblings. Hurting myself hurts him. The shame is enormous.
I don’t know how to stop.
I fly to Britain to spend a month with my brother. Pip is living in rural Wales with his girlfriend, working on his doctoral dissertation. He’s on a full ride from Berkeley but somehow also has a fellowship from Lincoln College, Oxford.
I have just finished my PhD at UCLA, and though mine will not immediately be turned into a book as his will, I too am happy and proud. Better still, I have nearly a year sober.
Leaving his girlfriend behind, Pip and I rent a Fiat Punto, and spend ten days exploring Wales. We’ve never been alone together as adults for any length of time, and it is marvelous. “Nothing feels better than blood on blood,” Springsteen sang, and he was right. We clamber up Snowdon, hoist each other through the windows of little locked country churches, and welcome the challenge of staying both fed and vegetarian in the most remote villages.
As always, we avoid the topic of my mental health. I’m wary of frightening him, and I presume he doesn’t want to know what he doesn’t want to know.
Twice, I try picking up young Welsh women in pubs, to my brother’s great amusement. Whatever “game” I have that works back home in L.A. does not work in on Celtic lasses. I’m having too good a time on the trip to care that I’m shot down.
Pip never pays attention to pop, but I insist he listen to Radio One in the car with me. Britney’s “ Baby, One More Time” comes on one day, and we listen in silence as I drive. When it’s finished, he pats my arm.
“Jeepers,” he says. “That was really outstanding,” he says. “I hope we hear it again.”
“Stick with me, boo boy. Plenty more where that came from.”
On our last night before driving back to his place, we stay in Dolgellau. Over daal in an Indian restaurant — we eat so many lentils on this trip — I let down my guard, and decide to tell Pip the story of a threesome I had the weekend before I flew over. I’m not graphic, but I’m sure my eyes sparkle in the telling. I do love to tell stories.
Pip gazes out the window, sips his beer. I’m suddenly embarrassed, and rush to the end of the anecdote. Without looking at me, my brother says softly, “I’ve never gone to bed with someone I didn’t know and care about.”
Of course he hasn’t.
Pip is mapping the distance between how he and I live our lives. It’s not meant to be a rebuke, but I hear it as one. I flush, and splutter something about how I also care for the people I sleep with. Pip nods, and we change the subject, but the exchange haunts me for the rest of the trip.
September 9, 2013
I am being discharged from still another stay on the psychiatric ward of Community Hospital in Monterey. It is my fourth hospitalization in as many weeks. I am unstable and delusional. For the first time in my life, I’ve heard voices and seen things that aren’t real. My diagnosis has been changed to schizoaffective disorder. There are new, still heavier meds.
I cannot go back to Los Angeles and my soon to be ex-wife. My 76 year-old mother is at her wit’s end, and feels unsafe having me in her house. I live in a motel for a while by myself, but I’m too suicidal to be trusted alone with meds. I have accepted that I will never teach again, and am haunted by visions of angry mentees, who come as apparitions in the night to hover over my bed and demand I explain myself.
My mother and ex-wife are exploring putting me on a conservatorship. The lawyers say that given my parlous state, a judge will grant it in a hot minute.
And then Pip comes to the rescue, flying all the way from England to comfort his mom and to collect — in every sense of the word — his older brother.
Mother is too exhausted to come to the hospital for this latest discharge. I am sitting on a couch with my eye on the door when my brother, fresh off the plane from London, strides onto the ward.
We wave. “Hello, Huggledy,” he calls, using our late father’s nickname for me.
I rise with difficulty. The meds have thrown my balance off. “Hello, Poodums,” I respond.
The staff chuckle at the names. I sign myself out, getting back my iPhone and wallet. My brother stands near. I realize we haven’t hugged yet, so I lean against him. His arm pulls me close.
They ask me if I want a wheelchair, and it is Pip who waves them off. “We’re fine.”
We stroll slowly, arm in arm, to the parking lot. It is wonderful to be outside after a lockup, and I inhale the sweet air, tangy with the smell of the ocean. It is nearly dusk, and the sky is pink. It is good to be with him. Blood on blood.
I climb into the passenger seat of my brother’s rental. I try to buckle myself in, and I can’t. I try again. Somehow, the buckle won’t fit. I get frustrated, start banging the metal; tears coming to my eyes.
My brother’s hand covers mine.
“May I try?”
He buckles me in. I let the tears flow. I cry out of self-pity, I cry out of shame, I cry that I’m so useless that I need my baby brother to do the most basic of tasks.
I cry because this is where black sheep always end up, in jails or hospitals or cemeteries, depending on either the kindness of strangers, or the infinite patience of overtaxed and worried siblings.
My brother holds my hand the whole way home. He hums Bach, Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. I hum too.
Mondays, my mother teaches a night class at Monterey Peninsula College.
I’m 12 and Pip is 9, and we’re too old for a babysitter. Mom puts me in charge, and leaves me a little list of things to do: preheat the oven for the TV dinners, turn the oven off after the trays are cooked, clean up, make sure Pip takes a bath, and so on.
Pip chafes a little at my overly enthusiastic regime, but for the most part, Monday nights go smoothly. Until the night Pip pushes back from the table, stares in horror at his Swanson Salisbury steak dinner, covers his mouth with his hand, and begins to gag. As he runs to the bathroom, vomit spews out between his fingers.
He throws up and throws up and throws up. Mom has left an emergency number, but I know this isn’t quite an emergency. I know he isn’t bleeding or dying.
So I clean up the vomit in the hallway and check on him as he lies, miserable, by the toilet.
Pip wants water. I bring him water. I try to get him up to go to bed, but he won’t budge. Soon, he gets the chills and begins to cry and tremble. I grab all the blankets I can from the linen closet and pile them on, wrapping them underneath him so the linoleum won’t be so hard.
He throws up again on the floor. Again, I wipe it up.
He may be 160+++ to my 126, but I am forever the big brother. No matter what, if it lies within my power to prevent it, I will never allow Pip to be hungry or cold.
Exhausted but warm, my brother falls asleep. I bring a book and a pillow and lie beside him, reading. When my mother finally gets home, she finds both her sons asleep by the toilet, a dachshund curled at their feet.