How I Became a Radical
It’s only been in recent years that I realized that a childhood event ignited the spark in me, which grew into a full-fledged flame by young adulthood. In researching this incident as well as I can, over fifty five years later, I discovered the startling fact that it apparently occurred on the same day as the historical event that most haunts me.
On November 22, 1963, not only was John F. Kennedy assassinated, my older brother’s life was impacted and in some ways ruined by a monstrous injustice. A freshman in high school, he made the mistake of following the suggestion of some older, undoubtedly popular boys, to “goose” the bottom of a particular older girl.
This girl was not only popular, but her father was a military General. When my brother touched her precious ass, in an effort to become popular himself, the entire weight of the high school administration came down upon him. He was ushered into the principal’s office, where this well-paid educator screamed at him, “Do you realize what you’ve done?” so angrily that he wet his pants.
The boys who’d egged him on nevertheless were now irate at my brother, and formed a veritable lynch mob. The situation was so precarious that the police had to be called, to safely escort my terrified brother from the school. The school meted out a punishment that might better reflect a student who had savagely raped, not merely “goosed,” a female peer. He was summarily expelled from the school, and was taken to juvenile court on charges that I have no knowledge of and can’t comprehend.
The girl’s powerful father had a real legal team involved, and it’s fortunate, I suppose, that my hapless brother avoided prison time. He was forced to attend regular mental health group sessions, with youngsters that had truly severe issues. I especially remember him talking about one boy who never removed his hand from covering his mouth. These sessions served to impress upon my brother that he was mentally ill, and set the tone for the rest of his life.
My brother was forced to go to another local high school, and thereafter lived with my married sister and her young family. He would come home on the weekends, and the change in him was startling, especially to an impressionable seven year old like me. He would beat his head against the wall in frustration, started half-laughing and half-crying at times for no reason, and would sometimes approach me with his hands heading for my neck, as if he intended to strangle me.
My parents reacted very curiously to all this. Instead of defending my brother, and lashing out in anger at the wild, punitive overreaction from the school administration, my father grew even more bitter at the world, and my mother wanted no mention of the incident, and lied to everyone about why my brother was no longer living with us. I heard my father rage constantly about the crooked court, the crooked judge, and the very wealthy family that was behind that crookedness.
I didn’t really understand what my brother had done, but it certainly seemed as if “goosing” someone was a horrible crime. I heard that word over and over again, especially from my father, who would rant at my brother about why he’d “goosed” that girl. I began feeling a heavy weight on my seven year old shoulders, as children grilled me regularly about “what happened with your brother?” and “why isn’t he living with you all any more?”
My mother basically pretended nothing had happened, and I was aware of this every time I lied about why my brother had left home. I think “he’s helping my sister” was the line I most often used. I remember thinking the other kids were looking at me, and whispering to each other, about the serious crime my brother had committed.
It wasn’t until after both my parents had passed away that I realized just how significant this one incident had been, not only to my brother, but to me. It directly effected my brother by destroying his self-confidence, immersed him in the putrid mental health world, probably killed any chance he had to become a financial success in life, and is almost certainly responsible for the fact he never married or had children.
Its impact on me was less direct, but just as powerful. Although I was eight and half years younger, for all intents and purposes I became the big brother from that day forward. Combined with the JFK assassination happening at the exact same moment, my young mind became instantly distrustful of all authority. I could tell, at seven years old, that just as Lee Harvey Oswald hadn’t assassinated the president, my brother’s absurd punishment for an offense that should have maybe garnered a few days of detention demonstrated that the authorities weren’t interested in justice.
For decades, I suppressed this incident, and never recognized the way it had helped form my own radical mindset. I often wish I’d questioned my mother about it, but she was just as reluctant as my brother was to talk about it. It was only recently that my brother began opening up at least a bit. Before that, he would become uncharacteristically angry at the very mention of the subject, and invariably still blamed himself, usually saying, “I can’t believe I did something so stupid.”
The impact on my brother can also still be seen in the fact he has suppressed the name of the girl he “goosed.” Considering that he has an almost “Rainman” like ability to recall the names of even kindergarten classmates, over sixty years later, this is truly remarkable. The fact that he can’t remember the name of the person who had more influence on the direction his life took than almost anyone else can only be attributed to his purposefully suppressing a painful memory.
After he started opening up, I learned other details that staggered me even further. My brother claimed that the principal who’d screamed at him actually followed him to his new school, where he would regularly come into his classrooms, sit near him and stare at him. More incredibly, he would walk up to my brother if he attempted to talk to a girl in the hallway, and ask the girl with great concern, “Is he bothering you?” These incomprehensible tidbits had me thinking I was heading down one of my usual political rabbit holes.
I contacted the juvenile court system, and found people there as interested as I was once I told them the incredible story. But the records were already nearly fifty years old, and there are always privacy considerations for minors, etc. I even tried the high school where the incident took place, but again, too much time had passed. I need to know the truth for myself, if not for my brother. Even with my cynical adult perspective, it is hard to fathom how school authorities acted the way they did.
We are all the sum of our experiences, and early childhood events can set an adult personality in stone. Certainly, those youngsters who are sexually assaulted are impacted forever. The same thing goes for those who were viciously bullied as children. Perhaps my brother’s experience is the main reason I’ve always been so drawn to the side of bullied victims. It was certainly a great inspiration for me in writing my upcoming book The Bullyocracy: How the Social Hierarchy Enables Bullies to Rule Schools, Work Places, and Society at Large.
It felt therapeutic to write this. Sometimes it’s important to step away for a minute from the political and cultural madness that normally preoccupy my thoughts. Self- searching, introspection can lead to important insights for all of us.