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My Brother’s Keeper

Mental illness, with all its many ripples as it winds its destructive way through our families and communities, is a regular and growing topic in Mendocino County, including within the pages of this newspaper. Less written about, perhaps even less considered, are the effects of the disturbed person on the “normal” sibling who is caught frequently in the crosshairs of the unsettling rolling drama that is the afflicted person as he or she destabilizes everybody in the family. The problem is commonly seen as one between the mentally ill person and the parents — who are either legally in charge in the case of a youthful dependent or in charge by choice because, sadly, there’s just no one or nowhere else. 

We need look no further than our own extended families or just down the street to see the struggling, befuddled parents of mentally ill adult children still bunking with mom and dad, though it’s increasingly just mom who picks up the yoke of this dependency and carries it as best she can into an uncertain and largely unsupported future. 

I’m one of those siblings. It’s not that I don’t love my brother, two years younger than I am. It’s just that the chaos and catastrophes of his life sucked the air out of everything else. Worst, since a sibling has a less primal connection than a parent, there’s the guilt of running the compassion well dry while the parents are wringing their hands in despair and running themselves ragged between emergency rooms, courts, lawyers, and jails. Not every person with a mental illness ends up on this illicit path, of course, but that’s the path my brother took, liberally paved with drugs and the free-and-easy Bay Area 60s lifestyle that encouraged their copious use – though the fact that California laws still went after users back in those days accounts for the courts, lawyers, and jails portion of the equation of my brother’s life. 

His psychiatrists for decades have pondered the foundational but ultimately unanswerable question: Did being stoned since the age of 12 either cause or hasten my brother’s mental decline? 

After all, others who spent their teen years in similar pharmaceutical fogs somehow managed to come out on the other side. One of his stonier stoner buddies from back then became a corporate VP, which presumably required that he at least show up regularly at the office with some degree of mental acuity. Liberal parents like ours often viewed being stoned as a passing phase – remember when weed was supposed to be so much healthier than booze? The irony of that bit of ‘60s wisdom was that the majority of my brother’s hospitalizations were preceded by several days of cozying up to half-gallons of vodka after the funds for the sexier drugs ran out.

So as the one-and-only sib in this Tolstoyan unhappy family, what was daily life like? It was all about the problem kid. Did he make it to school today? Maybe we should check. (They barely glanced at my straight-A report cards.) Did we do the right thing in letting him paint his room black? (He’s creative and just needs to express himself.) Maybe, at 15, we shouldn’t let him have his girlfriends stay overnight, every night. (I often took them breakfast in bed – remember Make Love Not War?) When I went out on a date my dad stood waiting for me on the inside of the front door, a reminder not to tarry, no boyfriends allowed in the house. My brother even got our mom stoned. One night when she got the munchies she gorged on Campbell’s tomato soup, which she would never be able to face again for the rest of her life.

As his daily drug use stretched into his later teens, my brother’s obsessive-compulsive disorder intensified. The chicken-and-egg debate continued unabated while, by his late teens, he had a hard time leaving the house as he checked and rechecked whether he had forgotten anything. 

His OCD treatment now became my mom’s full-time job. She even flew up to British Columbia to buy a drug not yet approved by the FDA here in the U.S. 

We all have blind spots when it comes to our children, but in my mother’s case you could have driven a semi through hers for my brother. The older he got, the worse his problems became. For instance, when against all odds he managed to graduate from high school (where he was dropping acid and having sex with a couple of his teachers), my parents bought him a nearby condo. He didn’t work, of course, so I took him a box of food as a housewarming gift. He was and is a strict organic-only vegetarian. 

I hadn’t even set the box down on his kitchen table before he began pestering me with a familiar whiney refrain. “Sister Darling, I don’t need this, I need money. Take this back and give me money, instead.” I left the food but wasn’t stupid enough to give him money, despite his increasingly frantic entreaties as he followed me out to my car. This was just one of thousands of examples of my brother’s first “independent living” phase. 

Much worse, my parents moved out of their house around this time after it was burglarized. My mom said she didn’t feel safe there anymore. It wasn’t until almost 40 years later, at my high school reunion, where a conscience-stricken buddy of my brother’s back in the day came up to me and confessed that he and my brother were the ones who robbed my parents. I thought I’d seen everything by this time but was profoundly shocked by this bit of ancient family history. My brother actually watched my parents despair over the safety of their neighborhood as they reluctantly moved away knowing all the while that he was the source of their pain and not fessing up to it! 

Then again, if we had known about it and I had expressed my disgust with my brother, my mother would have once again turned the tables on me. “Why aren’t you more sympathetic to your brother?” she would ask, bristling with fury. “Have you no milk of human kindness?” 

Next: My Brother as an Adult.


  1. chuck dunbar August 1, 2021

    Another finely written, in-depth piece on family life by Marilyn Davin, and an interesting perspective, that of a the relationship of a sibling to a mentally ill family member. In this instance, the family’s (that is, the parents’) apparent unwillingness to hold her mentally ill brother accountable in any way stands out, and is quite troubling. And yet it’s easy to judge and condemn, and may well be a mistake. Families, especially in less enlightened times, did the best they could, in terribly hard, complex circumstances. What is the right way to respond, to act? What will best serve the mentally ill family member and also protect the interests of other family members? No perfect answers, for sure. But tough love and accountability interventions must be considered, at the least.
    The robbery, by the brother and a friend, from the parents’ home is really shocking, a clear moral transgression by the brother that is not excusable under any reasonable terms, mental illness or not. He clearly felt, and seemingly had been given the message, that his needs were paramount, above and beyond the needs of other family members. And this exacted a great loss to his parents, a very sad outcome.

  2. Laura J Walker August 1, 2021

    Very well-written and engaging account.
    My own brother, who passed away from decades of bad lifestyle choices just a couple of years back, was doubtless mentally ill, but mainly an asshole. I am not suggesting that your brother is in the same category, but am saying that it’s a very fine line between mental illness and assholery. My brother was mildly mentally ill, and majorly selfish, undisciplined, hot-tempered, and loudly angry.
    I have a burning question. Did you tell ever tell your parents about the burglary being your brother?

  3. Marilyn Davin August 2, 2021

    Thanks for that, Laura, I laughed out loud at your witty distinction. No, I never told my folks that it was my brother who robbed them. By the time I found out about it 30 years after the fact they were quite elderly and my mom’s health was on a downhill slide. Had I known about it at the time I would certainly have told them so that they could reconsider their decision to move away.

    • laura cooskey August 2, 2021

      Good morning, Marilyn! Thanks for your reply.
      I’m glad to hear you’ve kept that sordid fact from your parents. Nothing but more misery would have come of letting them know. (I would have been tempted to share my outrage, as misery loves company, but i like to think i would have resisted that and spared them the agony, as you did.)
      I look forward to your sequel!

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