It Happened to Me: My Brother Is In Jail

The circumstances were unclear. He'd been at a friend's house -- an older woman we didn't know -- and he'd been drinking, and someone had called the police, and now he was in jail.

Nov 21, 2011 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

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A few months ago, my mother called. There was a long silence in which I could hear the faint scratch of classical music on a radio with bad reception. I curled up in an armchair and waited to hear the bad news.

Maybe she'd gotten an awful haircut; at worst, her eyesight was still deteriorating. Then she said it: "Your brother is in jail."

The circumstances were unclear. He'd been at a friend's house -- an older woman we didn't know -- and he'd been drinking, and someone had called the police, and now he was in jail.

Everything proved difficult to piece together. Because he was 24, my mother had no legal access to him, and none of us had any experience with this sort of thing.

Over the next weeks, we could begin to build a thready story, with snippets from unreliable narrators. He'd threatened a dog with a knife -- no, there was no dog, or there was one, but it was the woman he'd threatened, tugging at her collar. He'd drunk her entire bottle of Parrot Bay and refused to leave. He hadn't been wearing pants. He'd either yelled at an officer, or he'd passed out and had to be taken away in an ambulance.

All we knew for sure was, the charge was assault, with a maximum sentence of 10 years.

It was, on the one hand, the last thing I'd ever expected to hear. We'd grown up in a middle class academic family. We'd never wanted for anything. I had a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university, for god's sake. A small, terrible part of my brain said, these things weren't supposed to happen to people like me.

On the other hand, I wasn't surprised at all. There was another part of me that had been waiting for something like this. My brother, a wickedly smart young man who can argue a debate champion into a corner and reconstruct a Hendrix riff after hearing it once, suffers from severe bipolar disorder. He could be incredibly kind: He was the only person in the family our old, half-feral cat had ever liked, and at times he was the only one who could chivvy me out of my depressions with a clever text message or an absurd, ad-libbed song.

He could also be cruel, always knowing precisely what to say that would hurt the most. He was quick to anger and slow to accept help, quick with a retort but slow to admit blame.

He was too smart, and too beloved, to ever truly go over the edge, until the night my mother called me to tell me he was in jail.

The first sentence my brother ever wrote in kindergarden was "Jamie W. is the ass." Even before he had a strong grip on grammar, he had a talent in transgression. "Ass" soon became his favorite word, scrawled on my bedroom door in black Crayola, hurled at dinner over corned beef.

Even before he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I could sense the sine waves in him. One day we would be playing "birdie," nested in comforters at the foot of my parents' bed while they were still asleep; the next he'd be enraged, whipping a pair of binoculars at my prepubescent chest. I love my brother, but sometimes I was scared of him.

When he was born, I was upset, with the childish panic of a girl who had always been the center of attention. So as we grew up, I got straight A's, read miles above my grade level, and won piano competitions. When I was younger, I would secretly revel in the fact that when teachers taught my brother years later, they would lament at parent-teacher conferences, "But Molly was so wonderful!"

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I love my brother, but sometimes I worry that I had a role in breaking him. When he was 13, I left for college. I missed the first time he smoked weed, eventually making gravity bongs out of two-liter bottles and the mop bucket from the pantry.

In grad school, I would gleefully recount, "My brother was dumping his pipe out of his window, and a three foot marijuana plant grew right there, in the loam of the front garden! We lived next to a state trooper!" 

I missed the time he was so drunk at a high school talent show that he almost dropped his guitar, a Les Paul he could coax incredible improvisations from. I missed a lot.

Of course, I knew that he had problems. I knew that he'd started taking powerful psychoactive drugs, drugs that would ultimately leave him six inches shy of my father's ex-football player height. I knew that he idled his car at rural gas stations, waiting for a baggie, a pill. But he was my baby brother, and it was difficult to admit that he was really messed up. 

When I'd go home on holiday, and he'd pull out a gallon of vodka, shooting it warm down his throat, I'd think "Families are stressful." I'd think,"It's a special case. I had like four glasses of prosecco. It's okay."

One night, a few months ago, he called me: unhinged, manic, speaking in a strained Liverpudlian accent.

"Oh, that kid," I thought. "So weird."

Then I went back to work and I went home to Brooklyn, tucked myself into bed next to my fiancé, and forgot about it. A few weeks later, he crashed his car into the concrete ribs of an overpass.

Days out of recovery, he slit his wrists with a kitchen knife. Because he'd studied to be a counselor, he knew just what to say, and the psychiatrists at his overtaxed suburban hospital let him out.

A few weeks after that, he drank himself near death and landed in jail on an assault charge. He's there now, under suicide watch and waiting for a hearing.

My mother calls me, and I step into a conference room and sit in one of the plush chairs with views of the East River to hear the latest about my brother.

"He was supposed to have a hearing," she says with her voice trembling, "but it was postponed, and while he was gone the other prisoners stole his bedding."

I clutch my iPhone, feeling both blessed and impotent.

"Can I send him a blanket? Can I do anything?"

I'm not permitted to do anything: the system is overtaxed, and court dates are postponed, and inmates are only allowed one delivery of personal effects.

I never really thought about the consequences of his actions. I barely feel like an adult, though I'm 28 years old and employed and engaged -- how could my little brother be one? Yet, there he is, and I'm on the phone using terms I've only ever before encountered on 'Law & Order" or "The Wire:" parole, and public defender. I love my brother, but sometimes I worry that I'm already too late.

Throughout all of this, I have let myself hope that this could be a good thing. It could be the "tough" part of that so-called "tough love" that we were never able -- or perhaps, quite willing -- to provide. I let myself hope that he'll emerge from the past months with a new determination to stop drinking, to stay medicated and to accept help.

I hope, but I also know that I've learned not to dismiss his actions, and not to retreat comfortably into my own privileged life. I can't get IKEA to deliver him an OFELIA blanket (and no, the irony of the name is not lost on me), but that would be too easy anyway. I love my brother, and this time, I will do my best to make sure it really is okay.