When people find out about this project, they often say that it must be very hard for me to read and edit his book, to go back in time and relive those hard years through his eyes. Parts of this process are hard, certainly. I hate editing sex scenes that star my brother and [insert name of female headcase here] and I hate editing the parts where he lies (which is often). But I think what makes me the most uncomfortable is when I'm editing a scene wherein he is behaving in a way that is so familiar and true not just to who he was, but to who I am as well.
Alex and I were just shy of two years apart. We shared not just the same parents, houses, schools, fashion trends, favorite TV shows, and for one tumultuous week, a Chumbawumba CD, but also the way we experienced those things. I didn't notice how similar we acted until Mike started pointing it out when Alex came home from prison the last time. The way we hunched our shoulders, as if apologizing for being tall, our constant need to fill a space with a joke, the way we get lost in a task, be it reading, writing, or organizing our pog collections. When he grew his hair long, we even looked the same from the back. We had the same crazy, wavy hair. But today's pages highlighted a similarity I'm not as fond of. In this scene, he levels his ex girlfriend with a paragraph-long speech that's so mean and hurtful even I felt bad for this woman, and I never even liked her. Sure, what she did to Alex's character was frustrating, but it didn't warrant the venomous verbal lashing he released. This is the other thing we do that's just alike, and it makes me sick to my stomach.
I'm not certain exactly when or why we gained the ability to string together words so hurtful they could physically change the way a person's face looked, as if we'd actually punched them. I have an inkling is has something to do with having a father who fights with teenagers like a teenager. As we grew and it became harder and harder for our father to control us, he would lose control over his own emotions and lash out, which perhaps he meant to be intimidating, but really only diminished his role as an authority figure in our eyes. How can you respect an adult who kicks down your bedroom door because he thinks your boyfriend is in bed with you, the very boyfriend who went home four hours earlier? Or who dumps a salad on your head at dinner when you flip a forkful of spaghetti at your sister? You can't. Our dad was like having another sibling, only this brother could take things away and was three times our size. Since you can't hit your father with a vacuum cleaner the same as you would your brother, the easiest way to level him was with words. There is this joke by comedian John Mulaney that explains this well. He says, "...8th graders will make fun of you, but in an accurate way. They will get to the thing that you don't like about you." Alex and I had this "gift," and as lanky dorks with glasses, it was the single weapon we had to protect ourselves. Our fists were bony and breakable, but we were both good with words, and it turned out that right combination of sentences could floor a person as efficiently as one good punch. You could see it drove our father nuts, our ability to outwit and out-insult him. He was a shark, but we were piranhas. He couldn't win, because at the end of the day, no matter what we said, if you're an adult fighting with a teenager, you are the loser. This is a fact we figured out long before he did.
While being a linguistic gladiator had its benefits in terms of protecting one's privacy, personal space, and autonomy in a house that was determined to rid us of those things, that "skill" has only caused problems for me, and I assume Alex as well, once I left my parent's house. To this day, when someone insults me, I feel a spark ignite in my chest that makes my hair stand on end and my eyelid twitch. It's like the way the air feels just before a tornado touches down; everything is electric. Letters and words and turns of phrase start swirling around in my brain while I analyze my victim. I pick words out of the swirling storm clouds in my mind and organize them by rhythm and sound. To have proper impact, you can't just choose the right words, you have to compose them, you have to make them sound right, so it sticks in the person's brain like a song they can't stop whistling. Sometimes I make the mistake of opening my mouth, of dropping this word tornado right onto someone's house. It is always, always more than the person deserves. I know I'm going overboard when I say the things I say. It's on purpose. I go so far so I can guarantee they can't follow me back. When you drop the atomic word bomb, you destroy everything, which includes your opponent, yes, but also your dignity, your trustworthiness, and any notion you were a stable, good person. You take out the enemy, but you take out yourself, too. It's a suicide mission, only instead of taking your life, it just takes the people that make your life worth living.
I have, over the years, gotten better at controlling this urge to get people away from me with words. Before, when I was younger, I never saw or cared how they could hurt people. I needed them to help myself, to help myself stand up to bullies. But I don't have regular bullies in my life anymore. I've been so lucky, in my adulthood, to have been given the chance to pick a group of friends and family members I don't need to protect myself from. People I trust and love, people who wouldn't hurt me intentionally, people I would never want to hurt myself. I wish Alex had had the chance to find a circle of friends in which he could feel safe. I wish we had the chance to retire our figurative swords together, to cast them in stone, leaving that terrible burden, the burden of constantly having to protect yourself, for someone else.
About a month ago, my friend’s grandfather died. He was in his eighties and had been ill, so his end was not a surprise, but she was sti...