On Family, Brotherhood and the Ties that Bind
…Then God said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis (Bereshit) 4:9
“… and they may not see each other for days, or weeks, months… even years at a time. But if there’s love, dear… those are the ties that bind, and you’ll have a family in your heart, forever.” Mrs. Iphegenia Doubtfire, [Mrs. Doubtfire, 1993]
The story of brothers Cain and Abel, from my first quote above, stemming from the Judeo-Christian tradition, is by no means unique as a representation of an archetype, that of sibling rivalry, around the world’s cultures. The phrase “my brother’s keeper” has gained a rather strong presence in English vernacular, used even by those with no ties to Judaism or Christianity, and that might even unaware of where it comes from, but knowing what it refers to.
Whether it’s myth, literature or any other form, cases this extreme are rather rare in everyday life! But the inconvenient truth remains that family relationships, and those between siblings in particular, can be quite complicated, to put it mildly! And still, the impact these relationships have in our lives is nothing short of monumental.
On a previous post, A Day of Atonement, I mentioned the important role my older brother, eight years my senior, had in providing me with information and recollections about my early childhood and signs of Asperger’s Syndrome. His feedback was invaluable then, but not without opening the door to revisiting many complex emotions and misunderstandings that plagued and hindered my relationship with him for decades. It was puzzling, a mystery to me, why our relationship had been so peculiar all these years.
I just couldn’t understand why my brother would behave towards me the way he did on so many occasions. He would do “crazy” things, seemingly for no good reason other than to annoy me. At other times he was quite critical, while ironically “sprinkling” it with the odd compliment or maybe, dare I say, a little pride for his “little professor” brother? But no matter what, I always felt “safe” somehow when I was with him and that counts for a lot! In a nutshell, my big brother was the ultimate paradox to me! While he was very much a sports jock and “popular,” I was a skinny, uncoordinated book-worm. We couldn’t be more different! Well, I guess that bonding over sports, literature or science was just not going to happen.
Over the years I started to suspect that his attitude had much to do with his problems with my father, with whom he had completely severed ties with and to whom I didn’t speak either for over 5 years at some point. I understood that he had this “baggage” that I wasn’t even fully aware of, but also this made me feel like he had made me “guilty by association.” If that was the case, I thought I had been treated unfairly. Regardless, I had no idea of what to do about it or how to fix it. The fact that I didn’t see him treating our baby brother the same way made it even more painfully evident to me.
Reading that article was very emotional and hard for my brother. It was very hard for me to write it too. I gave him the option to “veto” the post, as I would only publish it with his consent. He agreed on publishing it. It opened the door to at least starting an uneasy dialogue about our shared experience. I understood then that at least some of the memories I had difficulties with stemmed really from his efforts to shelter me from some of the dysfunction at home. I guess he did a good job at that, because I was blissfully oblivious to it, at least until he left for college (university.)
When I started my official diagnosis process I asked if bringing my brother along would be helpful. I was strongly encouraged to do so and he agreed. As the day approached my anxiety kept increasing, evidenced by increased difficulties like even more appalling executive functioning than usual. The day finally came and he accompanied me to my appointment (the second one in the process.) I was expecting that it would “get emotional” for my brother, and it did. It was quite brave of him to do this, and probably painful, but he understood that this was important to me and was most willing to speak openly during the interview.
But what I was not expecting was how much more insight I got about our shared past, and how much better I would be able to understand my brother’s reactions towards me back then. It seems like he was actually quite concerned about me, and coming from his own experience, was utterly unable to figure me out.
In his mind, I was not only a very anxious child (accurate for the most part) but a “sadly isolated loner” (not quite as accurate, at least not the sadly isolated part of it). The sting of isolation and loneliness didn’t bother me until much later, as a university student and young adult.(1) It was hard for him to believe I was not “suffering,” and figured that I was isolating myself in fear of rejection from most of the kids in the neighborhood, probably due to my quirks, I guess. This was aggravated by my lack of emotional responses, my “affect” or what have you.
I only had one friend in that neighborhood for many years. And well, here’s the thing; I quite honestly didn’t give a hoot about hanging out with those kids because we had absolutely nothing in common and no common interests to talk about or pursue. I was quite at peace with that. My one friend was almost as obsessed as I was with some of my own special interests and I had a blast hanging out with him, learning and engaging in our “scientific” explorations and plans for animal husbandry, aquariums, etc.
To this day, I think my brother doesn’t really understand the immense joy, “the bliss,” that comes from immersion in a special interest for an Aspie.(2) It seems that he finds it puzzling, maybe even disturbing. Later on, it turns out that my brother, already a teenager then, made it a bit of a project to try to “help me get out my inner world” or something like that, even if that meant provoking me. Somehow that made sense to him! And I’m afraid it didn’t work too well. But now, I finally understood the motivation behind his bizarre and sometimes downright stupid actions and I love him more for it. Not for what he did but for what he tried to achieve, and for why he did it, trying to help me even though he was not my parent, from within his own (misinformed) understanding. His motivation was not resentment but deep concern for me instead!
I think he failed to realize that even though my mother made many mistakes (she was only human, after all) and she was very much into denial as a coping mechanism, she actually did “get me” better than most. Her “adjustment of her parenting style” for me, as described by the psychologist interviewing us, although far from perfect, was still rather effective for my individual needs, all things considered. If only we had known why I was the way I was, the way I am, from early on, we might have saved ourselves a lot of aggravation, guilt and even pain.
Several years ago, I found out about an ancient Hawaiian practice, Ho’oponopono , that had started to gain mainstream recognition, even in some clinical settings. It can certainly be understood as a “primitive” form of therapy, in my opinion. The Hawaiian Dictionary defines it as:
(a) “To put to rights; to put in order or shape, correct, revise, adjust, amend, regulate, arrange, rectify, tidy up make orderly or neat, administer, superintend, supervise, manage, edit, work carefully or neatly; to make ready, as canoemen preparing to catch a wave.”
(b) “Mental cleansing: family conferences in which relationships were set right (hoʻoponopono) through prayer, discussion, confession, repentance, and mutual restitution and forgiveness”
It occurred to me that my diagnosis process had given me an unexpected gift, by opening a circle of communication with my big brother, our very own “Ho’oponopono!” We loosened the ties of resentment, guilt and misunderstanding and fastened the “ties that bind,” those of love and forgiveness, as brothers. For that, I couldn’t feel more grateful. It turns out my big brother was my “keeper” after all. What an amazing gift!
by Eitan Rosa
(1) I discuss about my awful university years in this post: Thank You for the Music
(2) In this context, “Aspie” refers to a colloquial term, derived from Asperger’s Syndrome, used by many, but by no means all, within the autistic community for self-identification and identity purposes.