By Ann Winschel
I knew I would never again fully be a part of my reservation.
I knew I was going to be a nomad.
I decided to live.
from You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie
I want to tell you about my older brother. Jerry was a gentle, soft spoken man with a big heart.
Two years ago, a year after his wife’s death, he called to talk, a series of calls over several months. He wanted to trade stories about the abuse we encountered as young children. He wanted confirmation that it was real, that it was that bad, that it wasn’t just him being crazy. The stories he told me are spare, heart breaking, stomach turning. I’m going to tell you only a couple, and not the worst.
When he was a little boy, maybe three or four years old, Dad would get him down on the floor and lay on top of him, crushing him, laughing at his cries that he couldn’t breathe, shaming his tears, belittling him for not thinking it fun.
In the early years there wasn’t a bedroom for the kids so we made up beds in the living room. Jerry slept on a fold-away cot, my older sister, my younger sister, and I on the couch opened out to a bed. Dad, working mail runs on the trains, would be gone for several days at a time and then often come home in the middle of the night. Of course sometimes one of us would wake when he came in through the front door. Jerry tells how, excited to see Daddy come home again, he would call out to him. Dad’s response was to yell at him, threaten to hit him.
One day when he was a bit older Jerry heard Dad yelling for him. He went, expecting to be beaten, or at the very least, threatened and humiliated, for god knows what. When he got there, Dad laughed at him and then gave him his allowance.
“We don’t talk about that”: the words my family lives by. Today my remaining siblings speak highly of my father. Sure, he was strict, they will say but he was also fun. What passed for fun in that house was at best bullying, and often sadistic, what they label strict was assault. In another of those calls my brother said a very loving thing to me, “I like talking to you because I don’t think of you as one of the family.” Or, as Sherman Alexie put it, I am no longer fully a part of the reservation. A long time ago I decided to live; I became a nomad.
When he was in high school my brother stood on a bridge, preparing to jump to what he hoped would be his death. Someone came along, coaxed him out of it, told him to go home. Fifty years later doctors piled diagnosis on him, poured pills into him. I know the pain he felt when he resolved to end his life, because I’ve been there. I know the relief as he watched his life blood pour out onto the desk. I know what got him to that place and I know what could have helped.
Jerry went on to say that he wanted all of us – the four remaining sisters and the two boys, plus Mom – to get together to talk about the things that happened, the things that were done. I discouraged him. I told him that he wouldn’t get what he wanted, he wouldn’t get the truth. He would only get the same wall of silence, the delusions, fictions, denials, cover-ups.
After that he stopped calling.
Mental illness is a real thing, there are people who are born with minds that pull them to depression and suicide, regardless of the circumstances of their life. But I don’t think that’s Jerry. Young children who encounter serious abuse naturally believe it is because they are flawed, that they deserve it. When that belief is compounded by a lifetime surrounded by a code of silence that says we don’t call this abuse for what it is, the effects can be doubly devastating. Jerry told me that it made sense to him that Dad and Mom treated him as they did because he was born so horribly flawed. I told him his symptoms were the very human response of a normal child subjected to cruelty; he was as normal as toast. He never did believe me.
After he stopped calling I noticed that he would say simply, over and over, “I love my family.” If I look back at emails and text messages I see it there. For him to tell the truth or ask his family to, the thing that might have saved his life, would have meant leaving the reservation. He loved his family too much to do that. The way he found to reconcile the facts of his life with the false narrative of his reservation was to see himself as irredeemably defective. No one can live with that.
Jerry was a gentle, soft spoken man with a big heart. In his place there is now only a thunderous endless silence.
But we don’t talk about that either.
Footnote: A lot has been written and said about the importance of calling abuse of all sorts out for what it is, that denying to acknowledge it can heighten and prolong the harm it does. Not as widely understood is the importance of talking about suicide. If you think someone you know is suicidal, talk to them about it. Encourage them to look for help. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away, talking about it doesn’t make it more real or more likely. If they won’t call, you can.
When my brother was a teen, and when I was, there was no place for us to get help. Now there are many resources. If you still aren’t sure or aren’t comfortable intervening, you can call me.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-8255
TTY Accessible 800-799-4TTY
Spanish / Español 888-628-9454
Veterans Crisis Line 800-273-8255, press 1
Milwaukee County Crisis Line 414-257-7222
Walkers Point Youth and Family
Center Crisis Line 414-647-8200
HOPELINE Crisis Text Line Text “hopeline” to 741741
Trans Lifeline 877-565-8860
Trevor Lifeline / LGBTQ 866-488-7386
TrevorText Text “start” to 678678