My first true love lived down the hall. On hands and knees, I would crawl into his room. “Where Baba?” — my very first words. In a home tattered by divorce and bitterness, I endured the strife glued to my older brother Robert.
He was the one most likely to succeed. I was the one most likely to do foolish things, fall in love with the wrong men and leap headlong after college into New York City without a job or a place to stay. Determined to live life fully, I inevitably got snared in the urban scramble, until, addled by lack of sleep and drug-induced paranoia, I took refuge outside by our childhood home.
I lay for a long time near a fast-running creek, staring at the sky and the tops of trees with leaves just barely tinged by autumn’s nearness, prepared to disappear into deep oblivion. I was ready.
Familiar voice. Rustling of leaves.
My brother’s face replaced the endless horizon, giving me arms to hold, keeping me from falling off the earth’s edge. Such sibling love and protection would always be there, I wrongly assumed.
In the early morning of June 4, 1990, Robert kissed his wife and two sleeping children goodbye and drove off. He didn’t head directly to work; instead, he kept driving all day and into the night. We don’t know, will never know, where he went or what jagged thoughts ripped through his mind. A worker in Robert’s shirt-manufacturing factory outside Baltimore found him the next morning. Hanging.
I probably always knew Robert lived a deceptive life. Yet it has taken me until now, nearly three decades after his death, to fully understand how childhood trauma crept up and destroyed him. Childhood trauma such as we underwent — watching our father, a Baltimore lawyer, charged with embezzlement and thrown from the house — burrows like a grenade. Robert brilliantly camouflaged his ticking agony for 39 years behind charisma and a conventional life.
Nearly a decade after my brother’s suicide, a government study finally documented how adverse childhood experiences — or ACEs — contribute significantly to destructive adult behavior. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention joined with Kaiser Permanente to release the seminal CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study in 1999. In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics called for a focused effort to prevent or treat childhood toxic stress. Now, the horrifying situation at the border with children being forcibly removed from their parents has triggered considerably more research into the potential devastating long-term effects of early trauma. This growing focus has the potential to make important strides toward reducing the national suicide rate, the 10th largest cause of death in the United States.
Masses of people came to Robert’s funeral. Everyone stunned, devastated, confused. How could someone so golden, so loved, so depended upon, simply leave us? Rabbi Mark G. Loeb of Beth El Synagogue in Baltimore cited scripture in Robert’s eulogy to offer clues:
“His spirit of light and luminescence is best described in a meaningful image presented by the Bible when it describes the candelabrum, or Menorah, first erected by Moses in the wilderness. It had many shafts of light, says Scripture, but the light in the center was brighter than the others, even though it had the same amount of oil as the others. Why was this the case? Because, of all the lights, it alone was positioned to receive the light of the others and then to reflect it back to them, thus adding the reflective glow of their light as it projected its own. Our sages say that this is the nature of love and of a loving person — one who is both capable of giving his own love and also of returning what others give in added quantities. That, pure and simple, was Robert.”
We cannot continue allowing such bright lights to flicker and die. Prevention starts in childhood.
Susan Kellam is writing a memoir, “Brilliant Disguise," that explores the impact of childhood trauma. Her email is email@example.com.