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Stories to Live With

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Ask anyone who’s acquainted with a suicide: we all have a “what-if” story. The impulse to craft a counterfactual narrative is impossible to resist. For years the thought that shadowed me was that with a properly timed phone call I might have saved him. On the day of his death, I called and spoke to our mother to let her know I was in New York safely. She said she’d spoken to Dan earlier in the day, and he confessed that his girlfriend, the older married woman, had broken up with him. She said I ought to give him a call; it might cheer him up to hear from me. I told her I’d call him when everything settled down for me in New York, when I felt more at home. After I hung up the phone I put it out of my mind and thought instead of my starting work the next day. When the phone rang again, it was my father.

The proximity of these phone calls haunted me. I couldn’t help but think that if I’d just called him that night, like my mother suggested, I might have prevented his death by speaking a few simple words to him over the telephone like a decent brother. But then I’d never thought of myself as my brother’s keeper while he was alive. He was tough and reticent, self-assured and seemingly unflappable. He didn’t need me looking out for him. He could look out for himself.

Now he no longer had any such choice, and neither did I. Our mother and father could barely speak of him. To become the guardian of his memory suddenly seemed the most pressing business of my life. Who besides me would assume the role of curator of his story? I undertook the task with compulsive rigor. I wore the flannel shirts he’d left behind until they hung on me like rags. I went to the police for a look at their reports. I went to the office of the state medical examiner for copies of the autopsy findings. I ordered duplicates of the photos taken by the cops and the doctors, photos of him dead in situ, clinical close-ups of his wounds. I stared at these pictures, trying to penetrate the mystery of him, the mystery of how he’d arrived at this place, sprawled on the couch, gun at his side, his head exploded from the force of the bullets. I read and reread the reports, trying to find some hidden significance in phrases such as “portions of cerebral hemisphere are submitted in a separate plastic bag.”

Suicide turned him into something of a cipher. People saw him one way or the other: sufferer or coward, victim or murderer. He either succumbed to outside forces or succumbed to the darkest forces within. In the days and weeks after his death, when people’s explanations were forming and then soon calcifying—little stories they thought they could live with—I often thought I must be the only one who vacillated between the two extremes, pitying him one hour and hating him the next. Everyone else, it seemed, had chosen a fixed version of his story. The gunshot was a sudden impulse, the gunshot was a calculated rebuke. He slipped over the edge, he was pushed over the edge. He was broken by a battle with depression, he was broken by the sudden loss of love. He was afraid of failure, he was too accustomed to it. He clung too tightly to other people, he didn’t know how to reach out for help. The list of explanations was as long as the list of people who’d known him, and each was a simplification, perhaps even a lie.

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  • Not to deflate this writer's balloon, but why did he think his work was done? The perp admitted his guilt -- no guiltless person would stop at lack of memory; he had said that because he didn't know what proof the writer had and feared violence or public exposure too much to deny it outright. So why did the writer not look into what access the perp had to any small children at this point? Even if the perp were childless and worked in a corporation, was he a youth pastor, a scout master, a peewee ball coach? The writer has no reason to blame himself for his brother's death, but if what he wanted was justice, there is plenty left to be wrung out.

    Posted by Mike on Sat 24 Dec 2011

  • Agree with Mike's comment.

    The writer's brother would have truly died in vain if the pedophile is not brought to justice. The same "reliable sources" proves that pedophiles have a pattern of doing this not on just one but many children. For the writer to protect the identity of the abuser and bring a touch of bad taste to his brother for being an unwilling victim shows everything that is wrong with our society today.

    It just so seems, after reading this article, that perhaps it is better for our male (the females have far much more help: a mere accusation instantly brings legal circus around the male abusers) victims simply turn over and die than be empowered against their abusers.

    Posted by Ben on Sun 25 Dec 2011

  • Reminds me of Anne Enricht's "Gathering", except for the ending that takes the story in a different direction.

    Posted by Michal on Mon 26 Dec 2011

  • Mike and Ben: to report what else he did with the information he had is another essay, another purpose than this essay serves. The author is not writing a 'coming to justice' nor an education piece for victims of abusers. What you both say, that abusers should be reported, even decades after the fact, is all true. What the author did or didn't do in those terms are not part of this narrative.

    Posted by Grant on Mon 16 Jan 2012

  • Of course what the author did/didn't do is part of this narrative. Did you not read to the end? He spends the ultimate paragraph discussing his feeling of release after looking at the perpetrator; clearly the author's impression that "[his] work was done" is meant to operate as the cathartic moment of the essay.

    Posted by Mike on Thu 2 Feb 2012

  • There is room for compassion here, there is room to embrace this grieving man and point him toward groups waiting to give him solace and power to handle this unspeakable thing left only to him. As a group we are charged to want justice and I am convinced it will come more quickly when we lend the man a hand rather than piling on with recriminations. He did not owe us a Chapter Two. I am certain we all encourage him to find the group that will take him through the next steps because he is not alone. I leave it to readers to do their own web search, it will not take long to find the appropriate and welcoming sites. RSD

    Posted by Roberta on Fri 10 Feb 2012

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About the Author

Philip Connors is currently at work on a memoir about his brother, to be published by W. W. Norton. His book Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout will appear in paperback from Ecco Press in February 2012. His last essay for Lapham’s Quarterly appeared in the Spring 2011 issue, Lines of Work.

You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. He’s more particular. The father is always a Republican towards his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat.
Robert Frost, 1960
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