My Brother John . . . in BYSTANDER

When I was writing the first draft for BYSTANDER, I had to contend with the issue of the new boy in town, Eric Hayes. I knew he would have a problem with a bully — but why? My sense of bullies is that they are  cunning, predatory, keen and careful in the targets they select. So Eric, I decided, needed some kind of vulnerability. Something subtle, but nonetheless something that an astute boy could perceive, the way the wolf pack selects the weakest in the herd.

I thought of my brother, John, eight years my elder, who had been living with a diagnosis of Schizophrenia for many years. He had been married in college, and quickly had two beautiful boys, my nephews. But it could not last. John went through many stages of mental illness, from terrible times to placid years of dulled medication. He was unable to be a husband, and struggled to be any kind of father. As the boys grew older, the distance became more acute, their fragile relationship almost untenable. Everyone did their best. All of us. But it was not good enough. Not even close.

As I wrote the book, I allowed John to stand in as a loose model for Eric’s absent father, like a shadow cast by a guttering flame. I didn’t do much with the character, it was not where I intended the book to go, so I quickly explained him away, took a few traits from John, a few moments from his life (he used to send my son, Nick, these crazy CDs in the mail, out of the goodness of his wild heart, as some act of connection). Eric’s father in the book would do the same.

For Eric, it was simple. His father was not there anymore; and worse, he was sick in a challenging way, one that was difficult for a 13-year-old boy to understand. His father went off the meds, as my brother did, as so many others who suffer from mental illness do. Because the medications can bring their own kind of death.

So the mother took her two boys and moved to Long Island. There: I had what I needed for my story, Eric’s vulnerability. And I had that other important thing, a little bit of soul.

Here comes the bizarre part. One day after I turned in that first draft to Liz Szabla, I received word that John had died in his home in Virginia. Suddenly, irrevocably, gone. A final loss after endless years of loss. Heartache, suffering. I thought of his boys. What did they feel? How have they felt all these years? I thought of my book, and how John had hovered around its edges like a ghost, a spectral presence that was felt, but scarcely heard.

Liz and I talked about it. John’s tragic life and death. The book, in Liz’s view, was almost clean. It barely needed revision. Yet we both knew that I’d have to honor this strange almost spiritual coincidence, and dig deeper, and do more to flesh out this character, my brother, Eric’s father-in-the-mind.

I wrote a new chapter that focused on Eric and the absent father, Chapter 11. I added small pieces in a couple of other places. A scene at Jones Beach. Changed the ending of the book, the longing expressed in that final sentence. Here’s a few paragraphs from Chapter 11, with Eric reflecting on life with his father in Ohio, and later, without:

It was scary. Because his father was still around, drifting aimlessly from room to room. When things were okay, when Eric didn’t think about it too much, Eric could sit quietly in the same room with his father and feel . . . good. Pretend everything was okay. He still had a dad. Not just any dad, but his dad, his one and only. That guy over there, the innocent one with the gentle soul, who loved trees and music and laughter and his two sons, that swell guy whose thoughts were eating him alive.

Then some things happened — other memories now, the water of remembering rising ever higher — when Eric’s father lost control, smashed a mirror and some lamps, ripped down the blinds off a bay window — and was gone the next morning before Eric awoke. And here was the truly shameful thing, the horror in Eric’s heart: He was glad. Good riddance. Who needs to live with that?

People can lose a leg. People can get their hands stuck in machines and have their fingers torn off. Terrible car accidents robbed people of their sight, their ability to walk, their dreams and hopes of a healthy future. But there was nothing worse — nothing on this earth, of that Eric was sure — than losing your mind, your peace of mind, because that was like losing your self. It was losing everything.

His father was a walking absence, a faint duplicate, a watered-down version of his former self, without substance enough to cast a shadow.

There was no way Eric could tell Griffin Connelly that story. So he told bits and pieces and white lies. Eric wondered if Griffin sensed it, the whole truth, if somehow Griffin already knew, saw into Eric’s secret heart and smiled.

——

I dedicated the book in memory of my brother John, loving father to David and Ryan.

4 comments

  1. Barbara Preller says:

    I write with tears streaming down my face. You really captured alot of the feelings and emotions surrounding John. It was very well said. You certainly have a real talent with words.

    My thoughts about John’s life and death are that it is something that will always be with me, a saddness, a regret. I suspect it is the same with you. I’ve come to accept it as part of my life.

    Your words are an excellent way of remembering and honoring him. I think he would have been pleased.

    On this day, the anniversary of Dad’s death, I join you in donning the cloak of remembrance and, wiping the tears from my face, choose to be gratitude to be a part of both of their lives, their journey.

    Thanks for sending me this link. I love reading what you write. I am an official groupie!

    Love,
    Barbara
    P.S. Our cousin, Jane Gilluly is visiting Mom with Aunt Milly this week. She is devouring your book Six Innings. I think another groupie has just been born!

  2. Heather Howe says:

    Your blog as well as your book Bystander show what an excellent writer you are. When I met you at our student author presentation I was impressed. I was also almost mystified at the power an author can have over so many people.
    Thank you for sharing your personal struggles and stories. Your brother’s challenges brought an understanding through this book.
    I loved every minute of Bystander. As a school counselor I help students in all aspects of bullying. It was great to remember what students might be feeling through the whole experience. It made me want to help them feel empowered even more.
    It was truly a pleasure to meet you.
    Thank you so much.

  3. Cutie Cat says:

    I am a middle school student. In ELA we are participating in book clubs. My group was given the book Bystander. When it was time to write essays on our books, we were told to research a little bit about how the author’s own life relates to the main or secondary characters in the story. I am really glad that my friends found this. It was really helpful. I am so sorry about your brother.

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