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I assumed the woman on the phone was a telemarketer, with the brisk, there's-something-I-want-from-you voice I've learned to tune out. I was deciding how soon to hang up when I heard her say a name, Jen Thompson. It didn't make any sense. But before I could break in to tell her this was someone I don't know, I heard other words — estate, assets recovery, heir. A synapse fired in my brain and the unfamiliar name rearranged itself, not Jen but Jim, and in a split second of neural connection, I learned that my older brother was dead.
In my family, we called him Jimmy, and he and I once shared the same last name. He changed his to Thompson after being convicted of indecent exposure in 1977. That time, he was put on probation, but two decades later Jimmy was charged with criminal sexual conduct after fondling two boys he had lured into his car. He spent the next 15 years in Michigan prisons.
My brother's arrest in 2000 became a sensational story in the Detroit area media. While the charge was limited to a single incident, when the police searched his apartment they found explicit photos lining the walls along with video and audio recordings of Jimmy's sexual encounters with hundreds of boys.
I was trying, in relation to my brother, to be more than the residue of his abuse.
I was living in Boston then and had fallen out of contact with my brother. Our parents had died several years earlier, and after we scattered my father's ashes I had no reason to stay in touch with Jimmy — and many reasons not to. During childhood he was bigger, stronger, smarter; and I was his constant target. He tortured me physically and psychologically. Growing up, I consciously tried to be unlike him in every possible way. After I left home, our only contact was during my visits back to Detroit that over the years became less and less frequent.
But I knew from conversations with my father that Jimmy, as an adult, pursued boys for sex. I knew it in a deeper way from what he had done to me as a child, never technically sexual but in every other respect, conforming to the pattern of gaining pleasure from the intimate violation of another person — a knowledge I carried in my body.
So I was hardly surprised when I heard about his arrest.
After Jimmy was incarcerated, I struggled over whether to communicate with him. Without ever reaching full clarity, eventually I did decide to write. In the face of my own enduring wounds from being abused by him during childhood, and my horror at the damage he inflicted on so many other boys, I wanted to act from a place of compassion. I believed, and still believe, that Jimmy himself was profoundly injured by things done to him as a child, and that the violence he did to others was part of a larger chain in which he was both victim and perpetrator. I hoped that by reaching out to him I could step outside of my own victimhood. I was trying, in relation to my brother, to be more than the residue of his abuse.
It's a complicated grief I feel for Jimmy now, more to do with his life than his death.
We corresponded for several years, but ultimately it became untenable for me. Jimmy was unwilling — perhaps unable — to engage in any meaningful way about his impact on my life. Deep in my psyche, there was still a little boy, flailing, crushed under the heavy weight of my big brother. That part of me needed some sign of caring regard that my brother could not give.
We had no contact for the last decade. It took a year for the news of his death to reach me.
It's a complicated grief I feel for Jimmy now, more to do with his life than his death. When I was little, after he had overwhelmed and hurt me physically, I had rageful fantasies of beating him up. I still harbor shards of rage, but what I mainly feel is an aching sadness and a kind of terrified amazement that one life could have been at the center of so much suffering — among the boys he abused, and others whom his victims, having grown up to be wounded men, may have hurt; but also Jimmy's own suffering, to which he could no more attend with caring regard than he could to mine. The sheer magnitude of it: After all this time, I still struggle to take it in.
My brother's story blurs and blends into broader patterns of sexual and other types of violence. The challenges of how to relate — in life and death — to a brother who caused so much harm merges with larger questions of how to understand evil, how to hold in view the humanity of people who violate the humanity of others, how to interrupt cycles of violence. My grief for my brother blends with a larger grief for the state of our world, and a commitment to keep wrestling with our terrible capacity for destruction.