The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I idolized my brother-in-law. When he left my sister, it almost ruined my marriage, too.


I was 10 when I first met my brother-in-law. We sneaked into my sister’s room as she took a midafternoon nap. He pulled out a black marker and went to work, drawing a handlebar mustache, a Cindy Crawford mole and a Frida Kahlo unibrow on her face. When my sister woke, he kissed her on the forehead and told her, “I’ve never seen you look more beautiful.”

He was my hero.

He taught swimming at our local community center. After a shift, he’d become enchanted by my sister, who was huffin’ and puffin’ on the nearby treadmill. She was 24, and he was only 21, a baby. My sister rejected him over and over. He begged her to eat with him at Canali’s, dance with him at the 10,000 Maniacs concert, stroll with him down Union Street. Finally she relented, and soon they were sharing a one-bedroom apartment.

I loved being around him, so I signed up for swim lessons. After class, I’d ramble to him about the latest Spider-Man comics: “Harry blames Peter for his problems, so he ingests the serum, becoming the Green Goblin.” He said, “Wow, awesome,” nodding his head like he got it.

At my bar mitzvah, he sucked helium and chipmunked congratulations. He told me how when he was 13, he’d immigrated to the United States from Russia, where circumcision was frowned upon. “First thing I did once off the plane,” he said, “was get my thinger snipped.” Everything about him was funny.

He married my sister, and they had three kids: two girls, one boy. At my nieces’ and nephew’s bat and bar mitzvahs, it was me sucking helium, reusing my brother-in-law’s gags.

I met Annie when I was 28. She was an ambitious college student, with a Jamaican mother and Nigerian father, who rocked her natural hair and spent weekends mentoring kids. When she told me she wouldn’t date a smoker, I quit — and my parents viewed her as a superwoman. A great laugher, Annie became an essential member of my brother-in-law’s audience. He adored her, too.

Early on, my parents invited Annie and me over for family dinner. When my nephew fell asleep in front of the “Transformers” beaming off the TV, I grabbed a marker, making him resemble a 12-year-old Groucho Marx. Annie couldn’t stop laughing. It had to be love.

Yet as I found my soul mate, my brother-in-law and sister stopped joking. At family events, they sometimes communicated in screams. I learned they started sleeping in separate rooms. I figured this is what happened in long-term relationships. No big deal.

Six months before my wedding to Annie, I sat in my sister’s white kitchen, witnessing my ideal successful marriage shatter. I heard my brother-in-law yelling upstairs — dropping the b-word, over and over. I didn’t move, didn’t make a creak or a crunch. I didn’t want them to remember I was there, a 34-year-old child hearing his idol verbally assault his sister.

He walked out right before my sister’s hip replacement surgery. She was out of commission for months, unable to work or cook, bringing up three teenagers. Alone.

Other family members denied his behavior, questioning whether my sister provoked him. I couldn’t deny it. I was there. I watched my role model transform into the Green Goblin. I was heartbroken.

Annie booked a DJ and a caterer for our secular ceremony. Although she was in temple every Shabbat, Annie hadn’t formally completed the “choosing Judaism” process. A smaller Jewish service would be held six months later, after Annie immersed herself in the mikvah, a ritual bath.

But I couldn’t send out the invitations.

I was afraid I, too, would run, perhaps before the wedding, or possibly struggling for years, having kids, cursing Annie out and then disappearing completely. Maybe Annie and I weren’t in love but were comfortable. I carried my brother-in-law’s failure. Every moment I stayed with Annie I felt I was leading her on, lying to my family, lying to hers.

Friends and relatives sent gifts, saying, “You must be so excited.” I stopped sleeping, spent nights in the spare bedroom taking compatibility quizzes, searching for something to tell me to leave, desperate for something to tell me to stay. I was in mourning for my sister’s marriage. The longer the invites remained on the counter, the less Annie and I talked.

I tried prayer, exercise, meditation, talk therapy, even took pills for anxiety. As a licensed clinical social worker, I knew what was happening but couldn’t stop it. During adolescence, I borrowed my brother-in-law’s strength, idealizing him. I understood that trauma was relative and could cause you to feel hopeless, confused, vulnerable or alone. A crisis might cause someone to become incapable of performing day-to-day activities, much less make major life decisions. Though I recognized recovery was possible, I couldn’t stop the worst scenarios in my mind.

I broke up with Annie three times. Each time, she persuaded me to stay. Weeks before the wedding, I mailed the invites. A week from the ceremony, I called it off for the final time. Annie smooshed her face into mine. Our wet cheeks molded together as she whispered: “Just be with me for one day. Not all the future. Just a day.”

“Promise you won’t hate me if this doesn’t work out,” I begged.

“I can’t,” she said. “But I know what I’m getting into. I won’t give up.”

I stayed, married her, and cruised to the honeymoon, still worrying we wouldn’t last.

Annie and I worked with a therapist to better communicate, not blame each other, and use caring gestures even when upset. During my brother-in-law and sister’s arguments, they were cruel. I empathized with my brother-in-law’s frustration, but how did he allow himself to build up enough rage over 20 years to verbally assault my sister and walk out on his family? He shouldn’t have let it get that far. I was disappointed he didn’t act sooner, didn’t seek help.

Annie and I recognized we needed help. We put in the work.

Before the Jewish ceremony, I cleansed myself in the mikvah and met the woman I loved under the chuppah, or marriage canopy. With screeching klezmer music playing in the background, Annie and I spun in circles doing our clumsy hora, reconnecting, while my sister smiled as if she were the star at her bat mitzvah all over again.

My soon-to-be-ex-brother-in-law texted me to see the new “Star Wars” movie and eat at TGI Fridays. At first, I said I was busy. He kept asking. So I texted: “You verbally assaulted my sister and haven’t apologized. We cannot hang out.”

I had to break up with him to protect my wife and sister, to be able to start my own family. He should understand. He was the one who taught me to be a man.


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