My brother, Frederick, was eight when I was born. I don’t know if he was happy to have a sister or resented me being born, as it was difficult to get any kind of reading on what he was thinking or feeling. I never felt any love or affection from him — unless his way of showing it was through emotional and physical abuse.
Although he wasn’t diagnosed with schizophrenia until he was an adult, it was clear by his behavior that something wasn’t right with him. He seemed to enjoy upsetting both me and my parents.
Since there was such an age difference, and he was always getting kicked out of one school and going to another, there wasn’t as much contact between us as there could have been.
Things were easier when Frederick was away at boarding school or backpacking, as the signs of schizophrenia and mental illness often threw our family through a loop.
During the times that he was home, he’d sleep in the summerhouse in our backyard. Summerhouse sounds so extravagant, but ours was a bare-bones room with a concrete floor, just a few feet away from our house. His living situation wasn’t unlike his relationship with us: he was physically near and yet disconnected.
Since there was no plumbing in the summerhouse, Frederick was forced to make regular visits inside. Whenever he was cooking his breakfast or on his way to the bathroom, there would be some kind of incident: a shouting match, a snide comment, or a direct hit of verbal cruelty.
My brother fat-shamed me before I ever was fat; it was as if he knew just by looking at me what my future flaws and issues would be. I remember him standing in a doorway once, and saying to me, “This steak sandwich is delicious. I could eat them all day and never gain an ounce, but I bet you’re getting fat just by watching me.”
Of course, I knew that he was wrong and just being mean, but later — when I did have real body issues — I had to wonder how he knew how to really hurt me. I wasn’t even a chubby kid, but on the other hand, that didn’t stop my mother from putting me on diets and making sure I knew she was the only one who could be truly thin and beautiful.
It would be years though until I realized that my mother had her own brand of mental illness, and there was a strong probability that my brother had inherited his illness from her.
Sometimes when I felt like I had enough of his bullying, I’d stand up to my brother. But that was a dangerous move. There were more than a few times that he chased me holding a knife or threatened to hurt me.
I don’t think he ever actually physically abused me, but one of my mother’s sayings was, “Don’t threaten anything you’re not willing to back up.” I couldn’t risk that one day he wouldn’t hold back. I don’t think my parents were fully aware of how much my brother terrorized me, but my father was concerned whenever my brother was in the summerhouse.
To escape my brother, I’d go over to our Greek neighbor’s house and sit enthralled, watching their huge extended family handle their problems with great warmth and compassion. There was so much sweetness in that household, and it wasn’t just honey dripping off the baklava.
I wished I’d been gifted with a close family, or at least what I considered a normal one — one where the members built each other up instead of emotionally tearing them down.
One time, Frederick made sake in our basement when, after a few months, the rancid smell of the fermenting rice started to seep upstairs into the house. Since Frederick didn’t live in the main house, he didn’t care that the smell was vomit-inducing.
When my father told him to get rid of all the sake-making supplies, including the fermenter, my brother flew into a rage. First, he smashed all the equipment and then he took his beloved comic book collection and lit it on fire. If he couldn’t have one thing, he’d get rid of everything he loved.
Shortly after this incident, Frederick was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but knowing what he was dealing with didn’t seem to give my brother or anybody else any peace. I couldn’t just stop fearing him and forgive him. Although I now knew he had a mental illness, his bullying was still too ingrained in my memory.
Eventually, my parents divorced, and I went off to college. I had no relationship with my brother and tried not to have much to do with him. He had his own life, married with three children. We didn’t see each other on holidays and I’d only occasionally see his kids or his wife.
Marriage and its responsibilities proved too much for Frederick, and he and his wife divorced. He seemed to love his family and tried his best to have a part in their lives, but he’d often go off into the mountains on his own.
My sister-in-law was the one who called to tell me that my father had died. He was on his way to get some papers signed (a trust agreement, ironically) and had a heart attack in a sporting goods store. I was stunned and immediately filled with grief.
I had just hung up the phone when my brother called. My father’s death reminded him that he had a sister.
“Dad was murdered because he was a Nazi,” he screamed.
I tried to stay calm. “No, he had a heart attack,” I said.
“He was a Nazi, and now the American government wants to kill us all,” Frederick said.
He hung up before I could point out to him that our Jewish grandparents and father had been forced to flee Nazi Austria to Shanghai and that to call him a Nazi was beyond offensive.
After my father’s memorial, friends and family gathered at his apartment. My brother was there, self-medicating himself with alcohol.
“Look at you with your clique,” he slurred, referring to my friends. I wasn’t sure what he was trying to say — that he was envious I had friends who cared about me, or if he was pointing out that I always felt more loved by people who weren’t related to me than my very own sibling.
He continued taunting me, pointing out that the sandwich I was eating was fattening. I decided not to internalize his hateful comments and treat them as seeds of self-loathing, as I had done in the past. This time I would protect myself. I turned away, choosing not to engage in his bullying, and to no longer let his words hurt me.
Two years after my father died, my brother committed suicide. He’d been much more affected by my father’s death than anyone had suspected.
I was relieved my brother would no longer be hurting anyone anymore — not his family, not himself, and not me. The truth is that we weren’t close in life, and we aren’t close in death.
I know that it wasn’t his intention to be cruel and that it was only a symptom of his schizophrenia, but I continue to think of him as more of a bully than a brother. I’m hopeful that someday, through his children, I’ll be able to find some love in my heart for him.
Christine Schoenwald is a writer, performer, and astrology lover. She has written over 500 articles on the zodiac signs and how the stars influence us. She’s had articles in The Los Angeles Times, Salon, Woman’s Day, and is a contributing writer to Ravishly, I AM & CO, and YourTango. Check out her website, her Facebook writer’s page, and her Instagram.