Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Full audio: http://tal.fm/89
It was [? Emmy ?] who explained it best. This is years ago. [? Connie ?] and Emmy were about to have their second child. Connie must have been nine months pregnant already. And their daughter, Maya, was getting nervous about having a new sister.
And [? Emmy ?] said, I totally understand it. He said, if Connie were to come home and say, "Honey, I'm going to be bringing home a second husband. He's going to be a little younger than you, a little cuter. I'm going to be spending most of my time with him. But honey, don't worry. I love you just as much." [? Emmy ?] said, I would see through that in a second.
Sibling rivalry. When Jack and Lisa had their second child, their first daughter, [? Tarpley, ?] was two and a half, seemed totally cheerful about the new baby. Then about three weeks after the new baby was born, [? Tarpley ?] was at day care. And one of the women at day care asked her, "So how's your little sister doing?" Tarpley looked her straight in the eye and said, "She's dead."
Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it is This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, sibling rivalry, stories of people thrown together by fate to squabble inescapably.
Act One, He Is Heavy, He's My Brother, true tales of sibling horror. Act Two, Drama of the Gifted Child And Her Sister, what happens when your sibling is more talented than you ever dream of being. Act Three, Destiny, a mom records her own daughters fighting, and what she learns in the process. Act Four, Fraternity is Destiny, the story of 100 brothers and their fates together. Stay with us.
Act One. He Is Heavy, He's My Brother.
Act One, He Is Heavy, He's My Brother. What is it about our own brothers and sisters, that we treat them worse than we would ever treat anybody in our entire lives, anyone? And if you doubt this is true, if you doubt it for a second, we offer these case examples.
The very meanest thing would be locking my brother to a flagpole. He was chained to the flagpole for six hours.
He made me eat grass.
I used to play records that I knew she couldn't stand. I'd play them over and over again. And she'd get so frustrated that she'd throw butter knives at me.
He made me drink out of the toilet.
She took my doll. Her name was Beanie. And she threw it down the incinerator.
So my brother comes up to me, and he's like, what's your favorite thing in the entire world? And at the time, my favorite thing in the whole world was this teeny little shell, this little tiger-backed shell that my grandfather had given me for Christmas. So I go down to lunch. I have a tuna fish sandwich. I come back upstairs, go to my room. There's no shell.
And I hear my brother calling me from outside. So I go downstairs. I go outside. And there is my brother. And he's holding this string in his fingers, this yellow string.
And on one side of the string is my shell, my little tiger shell. And on the other side of the string are my blue helium birthday balloons. And I'm standing there about 20 feet away from him. And he just opens his fingers. And I watch my shell float up into the wild blue yonder.
We would take baths together. And a lot of that time was fun time. But there was also some times when we would fight. And I don't remember exactly how it happened. I remember being left by my mother in the bath with my brother. And I pooped in the bathtub. And there was poop floating around in the bathtub. And I somehow convinced him that it was his poop.
And they would hold me down. And they would just [SLURPING NOISE] And they would just spill it on you, and in the forehead. It was just sloppy. And they would just do this. They would get it ready. And you could see them getting it ready. And then they'd do just this [SLURPING NOISE] And it would come out of their mouth. But then they'd suck it back up. [SLURPING NOISE] But occasionally, they would just let it go.
And he would tie a sheet on me and tell me I could fly like Superman. And he was going to let me test it first by jumping off the barn.
And did you jump off the barn?
Yes. I think I broke my collarbone.
Everyone knows this one, with a little brother or little sister. When you're sitting around, and you really are lazy, and you don't want to go somewhere. You don't want to go outside and do your chores, or take the garbage, out or go to the store, or anything like that, there's a little game where you say, "Hey, Josh." My brother's name is Josh. "Hey, if you can go to the store in less than five minutes and buy this, this, and that for me, and you get back within the five minutes time-- I'll time you on this watch-- I'll give you--" whatever, something close to you, like my favorite baseball card or $5 or something.
And they get really excited. And they're like, oh yeah. And you, "Go go go." And they just run. You watch. We used to be able to watch my brother just sort of go off into the distance, into the sunset running.
And he'd always beat the time. He'd get back in three minutes, four minutes. And you'd always be like, "Oh, five minutes and four seconds, tough loss. Next time. You're getting better. You're getting a lot better."
Act Two. Drama Of The Gifted Child — And Her Sister.
Act Two, Drama of the Gifted Child's Sister. Now, two stories, a little one and a big one, the little one first. Tamar Brott grew up with an older brother who was a prodigy on the violin and a sister, one year younger than her, who sang, sang so well that now she is an opera singer. Tamar was tone deaf, wanted to sing, but didn't do it very well. She still remembers the parties that her parents would throw when all the kids were still in grammar school.
The climax of each of these parties would be the two of them performing. It would begin with my brother playing a really hard piece on the violin. And then my sister would be brought out. And she was an extremely beautiful child, and extremely small, so the impact was all the greater when she stepped up. I believe she had some sort of high chair she would get into and sing.
And the most amazing thing about it was I really am not conscious of who picked her repertoire. But she had these Malvina Reynolds songs that she sang. And they were all very sad and poignant.
The one that would always get the guests, that was saved for the end, was this one. And I don't know what it's called. But the lyrics were, "Turn around, and she's two. Turn around, and she's four. Turn around, and she's a young girl going out of the door."
And she would sing this song. And the guests would weep. It was just [INAUDIBLE]. And the thing that was really quite hideous about it, the most thing that I just can't forgive her for, is the pause she took after-- and she sang in a baby voice, too. And it was like--
Turn around, and you're two. Turn around, and you're four. Turn around, and you're a young girl going out of the--
And she would have this long pause before "door." And you could glance around the room and see the tears just jutting out of these people's heads. It was horrible.
And I think that's a turning point in your life, right then, when you realize you can not compete with a sibling. And that's probably the first time in life you learn that you can not compete. You're never going to be as good. You either accept it, and you're still whole, or you obsess on it.
This is the thing. These are the kinds of feelings of failure that we usually think that adults are the only ones who have to grapple with, people in their 40s and 50s and 60s, feeling like, "Oh, I'll never be rich. I'll never find true love. I'll never be famous. I'll never do what other people are able to do." And these are kids going through it, without all of the things that we, as adults, have to help us get through those feelings, alcohol, substance abuse, therapy, religion, sudden moves to the opposite side of the country, badly considered marriages to the wrong people.
They're kids, and the facts stare them in the face. I am inferior. And then you just have to deal. Which brings us to the second story in this act, this one from Sandra Tsing Loh, from her book Aliens in America.
Sandra Tsing Loh
All I know is one October night in 1976, we changed from ballet people into Nutcracker people. It had been like any other day. My older sister, Kaitlin, and I had eaten the same after-school snacks, Muenster on pumpernickel, V8. We'd worn our Thursday leotards, navy and white V-neck, orange skater skirt. We'd attended our usual classes at the Mahri School of Dance, Ballet 3 in the big studio, Ballet 2 in the little.
Now my mother was driving us home in the same blue Ford Fairmont, and she was launching into her usual speech. "Attack, Kaitlin, attack. That's what your fouette needs, attack." Kaitlin, hunched and sullen in her parka, said nothing.
At 16, Caitlin was "the brilliant one," hence the one who most often disappointed. And so she always rode home in the front seat, the better to receive this disappointment. I was always assigned to the darkness and quiet of the back seat, enjoying vanilla finger cookies, far from achievement and its many complications.
"What is wrong with you? You are like a noodle, lifeless." Kaitlin set her jaw, turned away. "Sometimes I wonder with you, Kaitlin. Do you even want these lessons? Heaven knows it is not cheap. If ballet is just one big chore, you should let me know. If getting picked by Irina Lichinska to dance in The Nutcracker is not important to you--"
It was the first I'd heard of this. Irina Lichinska was the ballet mistress of the famed Los Angeles Junior Ballet. A Russian expatriate, she had a glamorous, if shady, past.
Rumor had it she defected from the Bolshoi in the '50s, married a duke, lived in Monaco for 10 years. She knew everyone famous at the ABT. Irina Lichinska was the sort of person who could take an average ballet student at the average Mahri School of Dance and lift her up to--
"If getting picked by Irina Lichinska is not important to you--" My sister turned her Grace Kelly profile with its upswept bun back to my mother. "No, it's fine," she closed her eyes tiredly. "I will try to work on the fouettes."
"What a workout we had in Ballet 2 today," I exclaimed from my position way back in Siberia. "Those leaps we had, I practically broke into a sweat. Did you see, Mama? Real sweat." My mother glanced back over her shoulder and tossed me a bone. "Sure, Sandra, sure. Good. You keep trying."
I certainly didn't feel I was a bad dancer. At age 13, only three years younger than Kaitlin, I had been studying almost as long as she had. I loved ballet. I loved what I understood to be the true dance part of it, the whirling about the room, mirrors and other dancers spinning around you, kaleidoscopic. I loved the tattered poster of pink satin pointe shoes in the dressing room. "Ballet," it said, "is inspiration."
What Kaitlin had going for her, as far as I could see, was good form. Passe, attitude, arabesque, they were clean. She seemed to have almost an obsession with cleanliness. In warm ups, other girls would throw themselves into stretching exercises, triple pirouettes, or other showy endeavors.
Kaitlin, by contrast, would stand in front of the mirror and clock through her positions, first, second, third, fourth, fifth, making the tiniest micro-adjustments. It was almost mathematical, like an engineer tweaking a model airplane. And her face, totally aloof. Oh, a Nutcracker role would be wasted on Kaitlin. I, I was the true ballet dancer.
It was the day of the audition. The excitement among the 60 dance students crammed into the Mahri School of Dance, with mothers, had reached frenzy pitch. Even the accessories were hysterical, tiara-ish Swan Lake headbands, chiffon Capezio dance skirts, flashy earrings. One girl had a miniature gold toe shoe hanging from each ear.
"Irina," someone called out. The throng parted and Irina Lichinska emerged. In person, the legendary starmaker stood a mere five foot two. Her 60-something years on this planet had clearly been tough ones.
She had dyed, jet-black hair cut in a lank pageboy. She had one roomy eye. Bright red lipstick slashed across her mouth. She wore an oddly mannish trench coat and black boots. She looked like a bag lady.
"Hello. I am Irina. Ladies, may I introduce Corinna?" From behind Irina stepped a thin-lipped, rail-thin Audrey Hepburn brunette in a wide cream headband. "She will be leading your exercises today. She is expert in the Cecchetti method."
The Cecchetti method? What on earth was that? The brisk Corinna stepped forward to demonstrate.
"And a one, and a two?" Corinna asked, as though it were some deep metaphysical question. She extended her right leg forward. "And a one, and a two," she replied, like that was the whole answer right there, doing a quick releve on her left leg, beating the right twice at the left knee and whipping it out to the side, her left leg spasming upward into another quick releve before going into a deft 180-degree pivot.
A taut silence gripped the ragged semicircle of Mahri School of Dance-ers. Faces were white. This wasn't ballet. This was algebra.
"All right," Corinna said. "In groups of eight, then." Eight stalwart Ballet 3 students stepped forward. The pianist began the intro. You could feel an audible breath.
And then seven girls plunged fatally off in different directions, soldiers falling before the enemy's gun. The Cecchetti method had slayed them. But one person stood fast, Kaitlin.
There she stood in the center, steely as a weather vane, precise as a clock. She was beating the right leg at the left knee, whipping it out, doing a quick releve, deftly moving into the pivot. Her limbs were chiseled, elegant, clear.
In that moment, I realized that what I couldn't do was that. For all my jumping, whirling, and half-split, I'd never be able to grasp that. That was the elusive thing that made one girl stand out from 100. It was talent, the very face of talent.
The question was not which role to give to Kaitlin, but how many. My mother related this in a tumble as we drove home in the blue Ford Fairmont. Irina had thought Spanish Princess. Corinna had felt they needed Kaitlin to lead the Mirlitons. The flowers, too, needed help. And how about the Snow Queen, or maybe even Sugar Plum Fairy?
But Sugar Plum Fairy was an advanced, technical role, usually danced by someone on leave from the ABT. On the other hand, if done well, it could lead Kaitlin to New York. In New York was Baryshnikov, Lincoln Center. My mother went on and on, her voice soaring, cresting, swooping. Baryshnikov, Lincoln Center, New York, these were words none had ever dared breathe before in the Fairmont.
Kaitlin did not smile, but her face seemed to shine in the street lamps that night. New York, I thought, New York. God, she was really that good.
Irina had just one question for my mother. "How are Kaitlin's fouettes?" "Coming along very well, very well, indeed," had been her bold reply. Kaitlin's face contorted into a hideous mask. "Fouettes," she cried out, "No. You know that's the one thing I can't do. I always fall backwards."
But my mother had an answer for everything. "All you need," my mother pushed on, "is a little more attack. That is all. Just like I've been telling you." "Why do I have to be the Sugar Plum Fairy? Why can't I just do the Spanish dance or the Mirlitons?"
"We will work on it at home. We will do that spotting exercise in the kitchen, every night." "Oh, no," Kaitlin repeated, suddenly looking old and tired.
"Are you eating again, Sandra?" My mother turned abruptly. "Uh, yeah," I replied, quickly swallowing my vanilla finger. "Just a cookie. Just a couple. I didn't finish them."
"Sandra, dear, you need to start thinking about just having a piece of fruit after class. You're getting to be a big girl, quite big. Poor Sandra. Well, your grandmother always said you had good, solid legs, legs an empire could stand on."
"What?" I gasped. "What are you saying? I'm big? Do you mean I'm fat?"
"Spot and spot." My mother's voice drifted in from the kitchen. "Spot and spot."
It was two weeks later. Kaitlin had been training with Corinna by day, drilling with my mother by night. Kaitlin's big fouette showdown with Irina was tomorrow. "It's no use," I could hear Kaitlin reply. "If you just have a little more confidence in yourself-- spot and spot. Spot and spot."
I lounged in the dark living room. I was eating peanut butter. I would plunge my finger into the jar, lick. Plunge and lick. Plunge and lick. In 20 minutes, I consumed half a jar and felt sick. But what did it matter? I was fat.
On the family scale, under the harsh glare of the fluorescents, I had discovered that I weighed 137 pounds at age 13. It was like a weird dream. How had this grotesque transformation happened?
"Sandra?" Oh. It was just Kaitlin. "I'm glad you get to be a flower." She sat down in the darkness with me. "Are you excited?" "Oh, I suppose so. There are what, 25 of us? I just hope they find enough pink tulle in the city to cover us all."
All of us fat girls had been jettisoned into the vegetable kingdom. In the hellish [? bulges, ?] in the cruel, Darwinian pecking order of The Nutcracker, only the "Waltz of the Flowers," the lowest rung, would do for us. Any girl who could pull a pair of tights over her hips could be a flower.
"I'm going to be humiliated tomorrow," Kaitlin said suddenly. "What?" "No, it's true." I could see her Grace Kelly profile perfectly silhouetted. Her words were said with almost clinical detachment.
"My spotting isn't good, not yet. I think it's because my weight is falling backward on the releve. It's something I have to relearn, but not in three weeks."
And she was right. After all, Kaitlin was the genius. She knew ballet. She understood it. But one thing Kaitlin was wrong about, she would not humiliate herself the next day.
The pianist began the Sugar Plum Fairy intro as usual.
Sandra Tsing Loh
Um plum, um plum, um plum, um plum.
Sandra Tsing Loh
On cue, Kaitlin whipped her right leg out and began her painful but impressive hopping on one pointe sequence. She neatly ended the phrase with a deft skip, turn, plie, to murmurs of approval from the throng of watching students and mothers.
"That's lovely, darling, lovely," Irina called out, clapping her wrinkled hands together. Two short stag leaps done with perfect landings, a gentle sigh. And then, buoyed by the music, Kaitlin boureed toward the center, the site of the dreaded fouette sequence.
But instead of launching into her turns, that day, Kaitlin kept boureeing and boureeing. Her speed picked up. She broke into a run.
"Darling?" Irina called out. A murmur arose from the crowd. The pianist looked nervously over her shoulder but kept playing, because there was no stopping Kaitlin.
She kept running about the studio, running, just like in Giselle's mad scene. She was shaking her head, no, no, no. And then giving one final, riveting leap, Kaitlin ran out the door, down the stairs, and caught the bus home.
I didn't have the courage to run from The Nutcracker. I stayed, was zipped into my huge, pink costume, ate my sandwiches, did my waltz. But I, too, was changed, because I'd seen that pure, steely thing inside Kaitlin.
Call it character, call it stubbornness. Whatever it was, it led to the true revelation of my 13th year, that a kind of integrity existed that was invisible to the world, that certain acts of courage reap no earthly rewards, that somewhere in the darkness of the audience, my sister sat, bearing her terrible burden, knowing all. Slowly, I waltzed with my 24 compatriots, our hair curled, our faces rouged, in the bright glare of the footlights.
Sandra Tsing Loh, stories from her book, Aliens in America.
Coming up, Luke, it is your destiny. Now why doesn't Princess Leia say that instead of Darth Vader? Well, maybe she should. Why? In a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.
Act Three. Destiny.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, sibling rivalry. We've come to Act Three of our show, Destiny.
Well, Deb Monroe has two daughters. And they're a pretty typical family, except for one thing. Deb does some radio reporting, and so she has professional tape equipment lying around the house, and was willing to record her daughters fighting for our program.
Her daughter Alexandra is five years old. Michaela is six and a half. Michaela believes that as the older child, she should get special rights and privileges. Alexandra believes otherwise. And they start measuring who is ahead from the time they wake up in the morning. Who's getting more cereal, who's getting more juice, who gets closer to the microphone.
It's not fair. Alex got the microphone. Why does she have to hold it when she's talking, and she holds it up to my mouth? It's not fair. Alex got--
Well, it doesn't matter.
Have you observed, does each of them have her own style of tormenting the other one?
Mm-hmm. The older one likes to control and minimize the achievements of the younger one, but in a very insidious way. So you have to really listen to what she's saying.
Like what do you mean?
Like she'll say, "Boy, Alexandra, you're doing really great on your piano lessons. And if you try really hard for the next two years, you're going to be as good as I am." And it sounds superficially like she's complementing her sister, but she's not. She's asserting her dominance.
The other one is more likely to just annoy the older sister. Like when Michaela had her big meltdown, because she wanted to--
Michaela is the older one.
The older one. Her favorite song is "Sweet Dreams" by the Eurythmics. And she thinks it's her song. And she likes to sing it. And she doesn't like her little sister to sing it at the same time.
And the little one knows that. And so the little one went around the coffee table singing, "Sweet dreams are made of these," over and over and over.
Alex, please stop. I'm asking you. Can you even hear me? It's annoying.
Sweet dreams are made of these.
Alex. Mom, do something.
Did anything surprise you about what you found when you started taping?
Because I had the microphone in my hand, I became someone else. I was not Mommy. I was just watching, watching to see what would happen.
And I was able to see things that I hadn't seen before. I hadn't really noticed that Michaela abdicates all power, and that she's totally incapable of ignoring her sister, and that her sister is so calculated, that Alexandra can remain in control.
--my songs. Alex.
It did not bother Alexandra at all that her sister had just come undone.
Sweet dreams are made of these.
I'm getting frustrated. I asked her nicely. She--
Come here. Come here, sweetheart.
Sweet dreams are made of these. Who in the world will disagree? Travel the world and seven seas. Who in the world--
She was so gleeful that she had got to the microphone first. She won. Fight was over.
Ding, ding, ding.
What does each of them try to accomplish when they fight? What is it about the other one that's just getting under their skin? What is it about?
I think it's an assertion of power and dominance. Both of them want to be the one calling the shots.
You're not the boss of me, Michaela Monroe.
Fight for the number one spot. And there is no number one spot. They're siblings.
There will never be a number one spot. They're not totally equal. But there is no number one.
What you're saying, in a way, is that they're fated to fight, because it's fated for each of them to want to feel that sense of control and dominance.
Yes. And I think that's natural. I think that's totally natural. I think as soon as you begin to suspect that there's something weird or strange about it, we can give kids a lot of hangups.
It's hurting my ears.
Sweet dreams are made of these. Who in the world can disagree. Travel the--
Deb Monroe reports for PRI's Marketplace and for various parenting magazines.
Everybody's looking for something. Some of them want to use you. Some of them want to used by you.
Act Four. Fraternity Is Destiny.
Act Four, Fraternity is Destiny. If it is our destiny, our natural destiny, to fight with our siblings as children, so what happens when we grow up? Donald Antrim reads this excerpt from his book, The Hundred Brothers.
My brothers Rob, Bob, Tom, Paul, Ralph, Phil, Noah, William, Nick, Dennis, Christopher, Frank, Simon, Saul, Jim, Henry, Seamus, Richard, Jeremy, Walter, Jonathan, James, Arthur, Rex, Bertram, Vaughan, Daniel, Russell, and Angus, and the triplets, Herbert, Patrick, and Jeffrey, identical twins Michael and Abraham, Lawrence and Peter, Winston and Charles, Scott and Samuel, and Eric, Donovan, Roger, Lester, Larry, Clinton, Drake, Gregory, Leon, Kevin, and Jack, all born on the same day, the 23rd of May, though at different hours and separate years. And the caustic graphomaniac, Sergio, whose scathing opinions appear with regularity in the front of book pages of the more conservative monthlies. And Albert, who is blind, and Siegfried, the sculptor in burning steel.
And clinically depressed Anton, schizophrenic Irv, recovering addict Clayton, and Maxwell, the tropical botanist, who since returning from the rainforest has seemed a little screwed up somehow. And Jason and Joshua and Jeremiah, each vaguely gloomy in his own lost boy way. And Eli, who spends solitary, wakeful evenings in the tower, filling notebooks with drawings, the artist's multiple renderings for a larger work, portraying the faces of his brothers, including Chuck the prosecutor, Porter, the diarist, Andrew, the civil rights activist, Pierce, the designer of radically unbuildable buildings, Barry, the good doctor of medicine, Fielding, the documentary filmmaker, Spencer, the spook with known ties to the State Department. Foster, the new millennium psychotherapist, Aaron, the horologist, Raymond, who flies his own plane.
And George, the urban planner, who, if you read the papers, you'll recall, distinguished himself not so long ago with that innovative program for revitalizing the decaying downtown area, only to shock and amaze everyone, absolutely everyone, by vanishing with a girl named Jane and an overnight bag packed with municipal funds in unmarked hundreds. And all the young fathers, Seth, Rod, Vidal, Bennett, Dutch, Bryce, Alan, Clay, Vincent, Gustavus, and Joe. And Hiram, the eldest,
Zachary, the giant, Jacob, the polymath, Virgil, the compulsive whisperer, Milton, the channeler of spirits who speak across time. And the really bad womanizers, Steven, Denzel, Forrest, Topper, Temple, Lewis, Mongo, Spooner, and Fish. And of course our celebrated, perfect brother Benedict, recipient of a Medal of Honor from the Academy of Sciences for work over 20 years in chemical transmission of sexual language in 11 types of social insects.
All of us, except George, about whom there have been many rumors, rumors upon rumors-- he's fled the vicinity. He's right here under our noses. He's using an alias, or maybe several. He has a new face, that sort of thing. All my 98, not counting George, brothers and I recently came together in the red library and resolved that the time had arrived, finally, to stop being blue, put the past behind us, share a light supper, and locate, if we could bear to, the missing urn full of the old [BLEEP]ers ashes.
The red library walls were haunted by shadows and light cast from a multitude of low wattage reading lamps that haloed the tables on which they sat. "I hate this room. It stinks of death," whispered Virgil, wedged beside me on a loveseat. "Lighten up, I told him."
A line of our brothers scuffed past us in search of places to sit. The library was filling with male energy and low sounds of voices saying, "Hey, man. Scoot over and make space." Soon it would be standing room only. The musty air would grow lush with our smells of sweat, shaving lotions, exhaled humid breaths. God help us.
No one was altogether certain who'd last seen the urn. Jason once, long ago, reported a sighting over near where maps of the world are stored in drawers. But it wasn't, it turned out, there. And some time back, Paul suggested looking in the gloomy alcove packed with patriotic music hall songs in their archival boxes. A thorough search turned up nothing.
"It's nice to have everyone together again, isn't it?" a voice near me said. I turned and saw in the shadows a man bearing flowers. This man said, "All the old faces, all the familiar voices. Hello? It's me, Doug. It's William." "William."
"Don't be frightened. I brought these," he said, stepping partway out from darkness with pale flowers held before him. "Lilies brighten a room." "Yes," I agreed.
"Take them." "Me?" "Put them on a table, somewhere in the light, where people can enjoy them."
"You brought them, William. Wouldn't you like to find a spot for them? Let everyone know you brought flowers. I'm sure it will mean a lot."
"I'd rather not, Doug. I don't think I can bear to talk to everyone right now. Maybe later." "I understand," I said. Then he was gone, behind European folklore and mythology. And I clutched the lilies he had brought for us.
In the library's open spaces, men tramped singly or with buddies toward the drinks table. Others, already with drinks, stood drinking. They were lucky to have these drinks.
By now, the press around the bar would be enormous, five guys deep at least. It would take an eternity to get served. Clayton and Rob would have poured the last Johnnie Walker Black. And there'd be nothing remaining but Johnnie Walker Red, if that, or maybe Four Roses brand, one of the gallon discounts that are admissible late at night, but which you never want in the beginning. That's the way life goes around here, the blinking lights, the dry taste in the mouth, the body's craving need for something cold and warm at the same time.
Out into the milling crowd, I hurled myself out in search of a suitable vase for William's gift. The lilies, with their long, thick stems, their lush, drooping blooms, required a large, heavy vessel, precisely what I could not locate. "Does anyone know where I can find a vase that'll hold these?" I asked a group loitering around the Native American stone tool collection in its metal and glass display case. Dennis shrugged, and Noah said, "Sorry." Jim, who often does not speak even when spoken to-- he's a contemplative Buddhist-- suggested, "Try over by the African masks."
Eventually, one of us is going to crash down his glass or an ashtray too hard on that stone tool display table and there will be a mess. I said, "You guys be careful using that as a table, because it isn't designed to support weight." I did not mean to scold my brothers. But what can you do when people have no sense?
"Seen a vase, anyone?" I asked another bunch as I hurried past their leather sofa and chairs pulled up close in a circle. "Not me," Lewis said. "Maybe on the mantle," said Drake. "I'll try there," I said, then advised, "Take off your shoes if you're going to put your feet on the furniture, because you'll scuff the leather."
The chandelier bulbs overhead flashed off, on, off, on, like playhouse lobby lights signaling act one. I sometimes imagine our red library as a kind of bleak and unruly interpersonal anxiety zone. Emotions heat up, and tempers break out in real disputes that have their roots in 100 contingent histories of the standard childhood competitions, degradations, reparations, punishments, tortures, all the gory excitements of pain and power that seem, in retrospect, so ineluctably linked with childish fantasies about manhood. Screaming and crying were the routine bedlam of our bedtimes, drowning out the crickets and the pounding wind outside, though never drowning out the voices of older brothers, who taunted, "Had enough, you little worms? Father can't help you now."
I held my eyes closed and pretended to sleep and did nothing, night after night. It grieves me to think back now over old boyish stuff, all the bad times made more bitter in memory by the absence, in this strangling red library, of a serene corner to hide out in, of a comfy chair that gets enough light for reading without strain, of a taste of unstale air to breathe. It's shocking, isn't it, how the dreadful circumstances of one's life grow to feel, simply because one knows them, perfectly normal?
I love my brothers, and I hate their guts. "Me, me," our voices all seem to shout, as if we were not a true community united in blood and spirit, instead, a common mob intent on nothing more than the next drink, the next mouthful of food. I love my brothers, and I hate my brothers.
The long, snaking line of men to the bar was growing less long. Hiram's walker clacked across floorboards, clacked again. It sounded as if Hiram was gouging the floor with a trowel. Each step brought scuffing and digging.
Hiram paused on his walker and glared in my direction. His injured hand was swollen and large. He inhaled a shallow breath. He was having trouble, and his mouth was working.
He said, "Where did you get those flowers?" "William." "You should trim their stalks and put them in a vase before they turn brown and die." "I was looking for a vase, actually." "There's one somewhere. You'll find it," he said, as he gripped the walker with his good hand. He heaved himself up, scooted the walker forward on the floor, took another labored step onto the edge of the carpet with its knotted fringe that caught and became tangled as the walker's legs scraped past.
He said, "I don't know about you, but I'm famished. I could eat a side of beef if I had my original teeth. Remember, always, to care for your teeth, Doug." "I will."
"Do you floss? Flossing is more important than brushing, I can tell you. Too much vigorous brushing as a young man was my downfall. You scrub away the gums. And before you know it, the roots of your teeth are exposed to the elements, and it murders you to chew. Then, one after another, you lose your teeth, like you lose everything in life." "I'll remember that."
"Your teeth are your greatest possession. You probably think your greatest possession is your johnson. But it's not your johnson. It's your teeth, especially your two front teeth, these, right here," he said, opening his mouth wide to insert fingers. He touched the teeth in question, the upper incisors.
He pointed these out. And when he did, when he touched these dentures, they moved. They were loose in his mouth, insecurely fastened, and slipping off the gum. The effect was grotesque, Hiram's teeth hanging at an angle, wobbling in his mouth, licked by Hiram's tongue and about to fall out, as he commanded, "Stow those flowers in a vase before the petals fall off." "Yes, sir."
Here I was again, in the old, unconscious complicity with Hiram's authoritarian posturing. This happens every time I engage with Hiram. It happens to a lot of us when we engage with him. We feel infantilized. And I invariably promise myself, after taking orders from Hiram, that next time, I'll stand up to him, not obey, and let him get angry if he wants. Tiptoeing around Hiram's anger resolves nothing and only serves to perpetuate a strained and uneasy state of affairs, in which one personality, Hiram's, overwhelmingly influences the general quality of feeling in the room as a whole.
Would it be going too far to imagine my own bad moods, my terrors and despairs, and so on, as personalized responses to this room-wide, Hiram-centric emotional atmosphere? Could it then follow that Hiram is himself responsible in large part, unwittingly, presumably, for whatever uncomfortableness we brothers experience when we congregate? Might it be possible, if, in fact, Hiram is the root cause of our squabbles and disputes, might it be possible to drive a wedge through this ancient and pervasive household trepidation-- I don't know what else to call it-- by meeting Hiram's anger with anger? It was in this absurd spirit of revolt against destiny that I now hurled the flowers to the floor before Hiram's walker, before Hiram's feet caged inside the walker's clackety aluminum framework, and said, "Find a vase yourself, you sadist."
Instantly, I regretted my actions and wanted, needed, to recant and beg forgiveness. Hiram leaned on his walker. He was little and bent over and liver-spotted and lame.
And I was startled to realize once again that I was intensely afraid of him. Throwing the flowers was nothing more than an act of self-disempowerment, an emotional demonstration of the sort that Hiram would never allow himself. I felt awful when Hiram said, "Pick them up."
It was one of those familiar, deplorable moments. I wished for the dinner bell. No such luck yet.
In the meantime, there stood Denzel. And next to Denzel was Saul. And next to Saul, and more or less directly behind Hiram, were Aaron and Pierce. And of course, there were other brothers standing around, looking on. And no one among these men wanted to get too close to a fight involving Hiram.
Hiram leaned forward over the frame of the walker, out over the metal frame. He had me in his sights. He said, "You're full of hate, aren't you, Doug?" "No." "You keep it all bottled up inside, your scorn and your contempt for people. And when you can't control it any longer, it comes flying out. And we have one of our little tragic scenes. Isn't that right?" "No."
"This is a family full of love, Doug. We all love one another here. This whole room is full of love. Too bad you can't feel it, Doug. You can't participate in love because you're busy tearing everybody down. You want to tear us down, and you want to discredit our forefathers." "No."
"Don't say no to me, boy. You think that if you find sickness in others, you'll be healthy. You think if you find weakness in others, you'll be strong. Does throwing a bunch of flowers at an old man make you feel strong, Doug?"
"No," I whispered. "Speak louder." "No." "Pick up the flowers, Doug."
Then the 20 chandeliers blinked off again, and everything became a shade darker for an instant. It was like a negative form of lightning, perfect accompaniment to the routine thunder of wind hitting windows. Chuck's dog, Gunner, barked and barked.
The Doberman had managed to unsnarl his leash from the art nouveau armchair. And so he was free now, and sprinting in wider and wider circles around the furniture. "Settle down, fellow," Chuck called to the racing dog.
I prayed for Gunner to dash toward Hiram and knock him down. "Here, boy." Instead, Gunner charged between couches. Men sidestepped to avoid the onrushing dog. Gunner jumped a coffee table, then disappeared into a narrow aisle of shelves housing geology, natural history, and mineral sciences.
I had begun a moment or two ago to describe in plain terms the situation as it stood that night with the lilies and with Hiram, our little semi-public showdown that wasn't, in fact, so little. I always charge off the track in moments like these, the bitter moments, I guess you'd call them, and instead begin rendering the scenery and all the extraneous misbehavior of my brothers and their abysmal pets, as if anyone cares. Conflict is the really interesting thing, I've found. Conflict.
Conflict is always so difficult to recount. By difficult, I suppose I mean painful. But also, I mean demanding. The technical aspects of describing true conflict are daunting.
First, you have to establish your antagonists. It is important to avoid cozy oversimplifications, and to bear down instead on all the obscure and intractable problems of identity and desire that make our lives and our needs so various and dissimilar. The problems in describing a person are essentially problems of knowing a person.
One of the sad features of most close relationships is the decay of intimacy as a function of time, turmoil, and all the little misunderstandings that inevitably occur between people, leading them, year in and year out, toward the same tired conclusions. Conversation falters. Friendships fail.
That said, allow me to concede that my brother, Hiram, is an incredible asshole. He's just a complete jerk. He finds your worst insecurities and then tortures you, until you'll do practically anything to escape his voice's dry wheezing and the spectacle of bony fists clutching that walker.
"Take a look at yourself, Doug. Take an honest look at yourself standing there, with your hair falling in your eyes. You really could do with a trim and a shave." He paused, coughed, inhaled one of his racking breaths.
He resumed, "You need some new clothes. Those clothes you're wearing don't even fit you. Who wears a corduroy jacket anymore? You don't even stand straight, Doug. You slouch. You've always slouched. You have the posture of a weak person."
I said to Hiram, "The fact that I haven't shaved this week means nothing. I only want to help. I want everybody to get along. I want all of us to be happy again."
How did this sound, woeful, tender? I should explain that in spite of antipathy toward our eldest brother, toward his more hateful manifestations, it was still not uncommon-- and I believe this has been true for each of us in our relations with the man-- to hope for some kindness or gentleness, even a hint of his admiration for the odd opinion or sentiment, whatever.
You see, in his presence, we felt like children, children caught in precisely those worst moments of growing up, those times of clear and terrifying appreciation of one's utter smallness in the world. And this smallness is excruciating to feel in adulthood, because it is a form of regression, and therefore, humiliating. For this reason, and in spite of mean feelings, in spite of everything, we all craved our aged brother's esteem.
He heaved himself up and gaped another painful breath. It hurt to listen to him. "It's a good thing father isn't around anymore to see what's become of you." I walked forward two steps and abruptly, dramatically, as if swooning, collapsed before Hiram's feet.
I dropped to my hands and knees and reached out for those broken lilies. Several pale blooms had come to rest directly atop Hiram's large, black wingtip shoes. I plucked up one, then another, and another ruined flower.
Donald Antrim, reading from his book, The Hundred Brothers.
Well, our program was produced today by Julie Snyder and myself with Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike, senior editor Paul Tough, contributing editors Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Alex Blumberg and Rachel Day.
If you want to buy a cassette copy of our program, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago, phone number 312-832-3380. Again, 312-832-3380. Our email address, firstname.lastname@example.org This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who reminds you--
Your teeth are your greatest possession. You probably think your greatest possession is your johnson. But it's not your johnson. It's your teeth.
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.
We all love one another here. This whole room is full of love.
PRI, Public Radio International.