Originally published on HuffingtonPost.com
My brother was murdered — bludgeoned to death as he lay sleeping in his bed — three years ago this summer. The murder (like most murders) was not a random event. My brother knew his killer. The perpetrator was a young man, Max, who had been kicked out of his family home, and to whom my brother had given shelter.
Max was a Russian adoptee, who, post-adoption — from the age of five — was raised with every advantage that should have (could have) helped him to develop into a stalwart member of society. Yet, this did not happen. He came to the country, settling in New Orleans, with his biological sister two years younger than he. His adopted parents are solidly middle-class, and were able to afford medical and psychiatric care for Max as each became apparent as a need.
Max’s mother describes him as being initially a loving, perhaps even overly affectionate, clinging child. But as Max grew into his teen years, his coping difficulties became more pronounced, and, in spite of all parental and societal attempts to stabilize him emotionally (including psycho-tropic drugs, in-patient institutions, residential rehab stints), Max remained both deeply troubled and troublesome for all those around him (in his own family life, his friends and neighbors, his myriad of schools because of being expelled from several).
Aside from Max’s many problematic exploits (stealing, lying, setting fires, repetitive running away from home, waving a gun around kids), he was, in addition, found to be molesting his sister. It was the molestation that finally led his parents to make the decision that Max could no longer be allowed to live in their house.
At the time of the murder, Max had been living at a rehab center in Utah. Unbeknownst to all, he flew to New Orleans, and upon arriving at the airport, called my brother, whom he had met a year earlier. Max asked if he could stay at my brother’s duplex since he had no other place to go.
My brother had told me about Max. He liked him. He described him (as did my brother’s neighbors) as soft-spoken and respectful. My brother felt compassion for him.
My brother’s death was shocking to me. He was the last living remaining member of the family I was born into. We were close and caring about each other. I went down to New Orleans frequently, and stayed with him. Although I had not met Max, I had spoken to him on the phone.
Immediately after my brother’s death, I found myself with various obsessions. First, I wanted to know the details of the moments of his dying. I have heard that this is not an uncommon reaction for loved ones of a murdered person. When the detective asked me what I wanted to know, I said, “Everything.” I wanted to know what my brother was aware of as he was being struck repeatedly by the hard steel of the arm of his vacuum cleaner. I wondered how long he had remained conscious of the fact that someone whom he had trusted was now killing him: was he utterly surprised, or was there a faint recognition in him — a mortified regret — that he had trusted someone who was inherently untrustworthy? I wanted to know how long it took him to die; how long he suffered. I had those questions, and so many more.
But ultimately, I either got the questions answered, or I didn’t. Some answers I came to feel that I knew, though I didn’t. I heard the sound of his dying voice, his plaintive moan of pain as the first blow hit him. I heard it as clearly as if I had been in the room, and I heard it repetitively for months.
I also became obsessed with studying the nature of psychopathology. I had been given all of Max’s psychological records by a Mitigator. Mitigation is a relatively new profession, begun in the happy-go-lucky fry-’em state of Texas. It moved to Louisiana, not far behind Texas in capital punishment advocacy. In death penalty cases, it is the job of the Mitigator to make the plea, because of mitigating circumstances, for an alternative life-saving life-sentence. My brother’s death could have been a capital crime, which in Louisiana, is reserved for the killing of a police officer, a young person or an older person.
At 67, my brother was considered an elder. With all of Max’s records in front of me, I realized that this kid, from five-years old and onward, had been studied, examined, watched. I looked assiduously through the records for indications that this murder could have been avoided — alternative parental decisions, different professional understandings, altered interventions. I think it is possible that different decisions, resulting in the creation of different circumstances, could have altered the course of Max’s life, and the untimely death of my brother.
But whichever way I looked, I understood that the disturbance of the young man who killed my brother was early and deep. In the end, the Mitigator’s involvement was not necessary. As the closest living relative, I was consulted, and my opinion taken seriously, for what charge the DA would make. We were in agreement that capital punishment should be off the table, and we both preferred no trial.
I attended the plea bargain hearing. It was the first time I actually saw Max. There were many places for my eyes to settle: there was the prosecutor who I had come to know well and like enormously; there was the judge who reneged on our prior plea bargain agreement, demanding that we go back to the drawing board and settle on a tougher penalty (which was then lengthened from the original 30 years to 40 years); there was Max’s mother, who I had met and attempted to have a peaceful reconciliation with. But, in the courtroom that day, where my eyes wanted to go always was back to Max. I watched him at first furtively; then openly; and finally, I suppose challengingly. I wanted him to look at me, to meet his eyes. I wanted him to turn to me, and give me a sign of sorrow, or remorse or even just recognition and acknowledgement of this terrible plight that we found ourselves in together. It didn’t happen.
As the third anniversary of my brother’s death approaches, this is what I am left with. My dreams have irreversibly changed. Last night I dreamt that I was in a school with some friends. There were prairie dogs locked in a cage, but somehow one of them got out. This one animal was vicious with needle-sharp teeth, and he decided to attack us. We were all jumping around, moving as fast as we could to avoid his incessant attempts to bite us, tear apart our flesh. I finally took an instrument and cracked his head open. Seeing the contents of the animal’s brain squashed onto the floor was the strongest image I was left with. I knew I was guilty of murder; it didn’t matter that it was an animal. The dream was awful.
Every night since my brother’s death, my dream-life has become as vivid and memorable as my waking life. They are intense, powerful, intricate stories I create. Most are not as overtly related to my brother’s death as this last one is. I can’t say that I understand why my dreams have become more intense. It is usually as though they don’t belong to me. They seem to plop down into my psyche, unbidden and foreign. Yet, there they are: every night, a different mind-bending experience.
I am left, too, with the forgotten memories of my brother alive. It is his death that has become the most memorable fact about him. I don’t want this to be the case.
I want to remember my brother as the magnificent, loving brother he was. I want to remember the first time he told me he loved me. He had gone to one of those weekend consciousness-raising seminars that was popular in the ’70s, flown to Houston to take it because none was offered in New Orleans. He said he was on the plane coming back home, and opened a magazine. He saw a picture of a family barbequing in their back yard. He said they seemed so warm and loving with each other. Their warmth brought tears to his eyes. And he had an irrepressible urge to tell me he loved me. As soon as he got off the plane, he dropped his dime into the pay phone and called, delivering to me the heartfelt news.
I want to remember the man who embraced my daughter, and loved her the moment they met. They first met even before she and I had met. She was a week old, and he met her at the New Orleans airport, as she was taking her first earthly journey, leaving her biological mother, who had given her up for adoption, to meet her rightful mom, as I awaited her arrival at Newark Airport.
I want to remember the rides she and I had in his car with him, a talking car that was fun and wondrous to my daughter. Imagine, from the point of view of a three-year-old, a car that talks to you, greets you and gives you instructions. My brother made it magical.
I want to remember our sitting together at family events, Passover Seders and his endless pocketful of jokes, always the jokester, always in good humor, but never smiling at his own jokes.
But, these memories have to be reached for, strived for. The murder memories don’t. They are right at the forefront of my brain where I suppose they will remain for the rest of my life.
And I am left with my relationship to the man who killed my brother. It is a unidirectional relationship. I understood from his refusal to look at me at the plea bargain hearing that I, the sister of the man he killed, mean nothing to him. Yet, I continue to think about him, wonder about him and, oddly, long to know him. It is, I suppose, a perverse connection I feel to him, peculiar that I feel that in some distorted way, he remains the most powerful living link I have to my brother.
I am left with the understanding that murder can be an act of intimate violence. I am left with knowing that only Max has the answers to my questions about my brother’s last moments on earth. I am left with knowing that my brother’s killer is now the person in my life with whom I share the most important unanswered questions.