My brother brutally murdered two people

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAR 2, 2011

Should I approach his victims’ families? Can I help in any way?

Dear Cary,

My brother brutally murdered two people and now faces the death penalty.

There are many issues I am dealing with so this really jumps around a lot but it is the best I can do right now.

I have generally been in favor of the death penalty as punishment for the crime of murder. Now the killer is one of my siblings and my perspective has changed. I know that if he was someone who killed my partner or best friend or someone in my family or anyone else I would probably not be forgiving and would want him to suffer and pay.

But he is my brother. The same brother who told jokes and liked to have fun. The same brother with two children who are now devastated by what he has done. The same brother who killed his fiancée and another man he found her with.

I wonder about how much he is suffering right now. I know that he is not a sociopathic monster. It is almost certain that he was on drugs when he committed the murders.

The homicide detective wants to fly across the country to interview me, because I had spoken with my brother a few hours after the murders. My brother did not confess to the killing.

I feel really bad for my mother and what she is going through, and for myself and the rest of my family. But I have reminded everyone that we will not suffer even close to what the families of the murder victims are enduring. They are living in hell and it very likely will destroy at least a few of them.

I was going to specialize in forensic nursing at one point with an emphasis on effects and treatment of homicide bereavement. I have volunteered for a national organization of survivors of homicide victims. One of the issues I helped co-victims of homicide address is whether the victims suffered, how they died and if it would have been possible to save them for those who made it to the hospital. I helped them process the fact that the murderer usually was the last person who got to be with them and that it is unrealistic to believe that they should have been there to protect the victim. I helped them process the horrible emotion of feeling like they want to kill another human being (the killer).

Even with a perspective of homicide and its aftermath not shared by most people, I do not want to be used by the prosecution to help make a case for first-degree murder against my brother. The crime scene was very bloody. The DNA evidence was all over the place. The prosecution wants to try to get me to prove that the murder was premeditated and coldblooded. I cannot offer what I do not know. I do not want to look at my brother in the courtroom and testify against him. I believe the prosecution does not need me to prove its case.

As horrible as this crime is, I still care about my brother and I want to let him know that I am there for him in any way that I can be. I will not be there to help him get away with the crime — as if that would even be possible. He made a horrible mistake and I believe he would take it all back if possible.

I have already replayed the scenarios of visiting my brother one last time before he goes to the execution chamber. Things I would tell him:

That organized religion and concepts of hell and all of that other garbage is a bunch of shit.

That I have been with many people at the time of their death from traumatic injuries and natural causes and that I have an inner knowing that we all go to the same place/transition regardless of how we lived on this planet.

That one victim of a brutal attempted murder left her body briefly before she was resuscitated and stated that she felt bad for the man who had just strangled and stabbed her and left her for dead as she looked down on her body. She said that she felt bad that he had gotten to a point in his life that he could do that to another human being.

I saw an online memorial for one of the victims. There were family pictures of him from birth to just before his death. His family looked like our family. A lot of people really loved him. The victims were also on drugs but they were not to blame for this and they did not deserve it. Their families did not deserve this. My family did not deserve this.

Something else that troubles me is that I cannot find anything online to offer support to families of the killer. I never really thought much about it until now but we have our own issues, too. This has really generated an incredible amount of emotional pain for my family as well.

One last really shitty thing that I need to mention. I was notified of this while I was at work around 3 a.m. I told a few co-workers about it while I was in shock. I was fired the next day for bullshit reasons. It was a temp job so it was easier than usual to fire me.

Thank you for any guidance you can offer.

Am I wrong for not wanting to speak to the homicide detective? Am I wrong for wanting to support my brother through his own personal hell and the aftermath of making one of the worst mistakes a human could make? Am I wrong for even asking you for advice on how to help myself and my family through what we are going through when the pain of the other families is much worse?

Would it be inappropriate for me to contact family members of the victims to offer any support or answer any questions that might help them process their grief?

Brother of the Murderer


Dear Brother of the Murderer,

You have many profound and searing questions. But let me focus on just one: whether you should approach the victims’ families.

But before I do, let me just say this: No, you are not wrong. You are not wrong for any of this. You are innocent. You are the brother. You feel what you feel. You are not wrong for feeling any of this. The task before you is one of action: figuring out the right course of action.

Let me also, in advance, offer you this suggestion about support for the families of perpetrators. You might try the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, and look at their Directory of Programs Serving Children & Families of the Incarcerated

As to reaching out to the families of your brother’s victims, if you feel called to do so, I think it can be appropriate and healing. But only after careful thought and preparation.

The questions you must answer for yourself are, Who and what do you represent? What are you offering? And what do you want from them?

As far as what you have to offer, I would not suggest trying to help them process their grief. That is not your role. Their grief is their concern. If they want help, they can seek it from others.

You are an emissary from a party that has taken something from them. You are therefore on a delicate mission. So I would suggest approaching them in a spirit of recompense, of returning, of giving something back. What you give back will of course in no way compensate. It will not be proportionate. Yet it still may be correct emotionally and spiritually. And it may also be practical.

Victims’ families often suffer tangibly as well as emotionally.

“Homicide survivors may lose much more than their loved one following the murder,” says the National Center for Victims of Crimes. “There may be a significant loss of income in the family, especially if the victim was the primary ‘breadwinner.’ Other family members may find they are unable to go to work because they cannot concentrate or because they need to be present at court hearings and may subsequently lose their jobs. There may be loss of the family home if mortgage payments cannot be made. Plans for school may have to be postponed because of financial difficulties or because survivors cannot concentrate on work or studies. If the victim survived briefly before dying, extraordinary medical bills may have been incurred for which the family may not have had sufficient insurance coverage.”

So I suggest you learn as much as you can about their situation so you can think through what you might offer them. Talk it over with people who know them, or with people whose sense of how to approach such things is well developed. Perhaps if they are suffering financially, a fund of some sort can be created, or if it already has been created, then you could contribute to it, or solicit funds for it. Or your gift might be something more concrete and personal, such as food, or toys.

Think carefully about where. Rather than approaching them at their house, you might attend a church service they attend, if they attend church services. A gift and a brief word of condolence, in such a setting, might have a greater chance of being received.

In spite of how well you prepare, you never know how people will feel or what they will think. No matter what you do, it won’t be easy. But you are motivated by compassion and conscience.

Your impulse is to reach out and console, to share, to be another witness to the awful. It’s a righteous impulse. But your motives are not pure, nor could they be. You want something, too. If you bring to them your own guilt and your own need for forgiveness, they may be offended; this they cannot offer you and it is inappropriate for you to ask them to. In doing so, even inadvertently, you would subtly place your own claims to loss against theirs and be found monstrously wanting. You don’t want to do anything to make it appear that you equate your suffering with theirs. Your sufferings are of a different kind.

In fact, you don’t want to be asking anything of them. You just want to give, simply and clearly. I suggest that you focus only on what you might offer them, and make it tangible and simple.

For instance, if your brother kept anything that belonged to his fiancée that has not been recovered as evidence, you might give that to the family of the fiancée. Or if there was anything of his that you know she wanted. It might be a small act of justice to say that after all he has taken from you, here is one thing returned, one tiny thing, but still, something is returned, something is restored.

In particular, if he or you had any photographs of her, you might return those to the family. Likewise, if he had any letters from her, and so forth.

What are the risks of approaching the victims’ families? Well, murder stirs our savage nature. We react with primitive, raw emotion. We may seek vengeance on the kin of the perpetrator. We may see the brother of the murderer as a stand-in for him, and want to vent all our rage on him. So be prepared for such a thing.

Imagine the victims’ families. In each of their hearts a battle rages. Each heart contains conflicting forces, or actors. Which actor takes center stage? Will it be the thoughtful and moral actor, who counsels forgiveness? Or will it be the warrior? The warrior says to the moral actor, Your high-minded morals are fine for times of peace, but this is war; one of ours has been slain; in war, we burn the village and slay the family!

Each of us has a warrior in us. His savage energy carries us through many a battle. We do not want to stifle that warrior. So be prepared to meet the families’ warrior spirits, if you venture onto their porch or into their church.

You, too, have a warrior spirit, and it may talk to you. This warrior spirit is wise not only about victory but about surrender. It is wise about defeat. It knows defeat and can walk many miles barefoot in the rain after its village is burned. This may be the spirit that you go to the family with: The spirit of a warrior in defeat. Go to them knowing that your own kin has done wrong and now is the time to surrender. Surrender is appropriate. For though you too are a warrior you do not want war. You want peace. They also want peace. They want peace but they also want justice.

If you can give them both, you will have done an honorable thing.

So you think well about what you offer them. You choose your gifts wisely. You take your shoes off before entering, if that is the custom. And you do not stay too long. If they offer you tea or coffee, you accept. But you ask for nothing. You only give. And you do not stay too long.

My brother retreated to a basement apartment with his dog

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column from

He’s had some tough blows lately, but I’m concerned he’s really losing it.

Dear Cary,

My younger brother, 40, is an anxious, depressed social recluse. He lives with his dog in a basement apartment alone. He never answers his phone. He only returns calls if it’s urgent. He is getting more obese by the day, smokes and hacks and coughs, may be drinking. He now smells, doesn’t cut his hair. He’s so anxious, he’ll do anything to avoid discussing real issues (his) and talks only about superficial things.

I’m in the unenviable position of being the one who can intervene — or not. Although we have an older brother who would support me, he’s not prepared to lead the way. I’ve had many talks with my younger brother, pleading with him to see a doctor to get help. I’ve had my own mental health and addiction problems over the years, and I’ve shared my experience with him, including how much better I’m doing as a result of an SSRI I’m taking. I’ve offered to go with him to the doctor, to get him the names of people who can help. I’ve even told him I’d have to have him forcibly removed from his place if I felt he was becoming suicidal. He laughed it off. He still seems rational to talk to, but his life is crazy.

He lost his job about a year ago. It was a media job, pretty high profile. He’d been working at the same place basically since finishing college. He’s talented and attractive, but not proactive in the least; he got as far as he did mostly because others pushed and made opportunities for him. In his first serious relationship (with someone from work, a “star”), he allowed himself to be treated with a lot of disrespect and completely deferred to her needs. In the end, she ended it and got married to someone who could provide what she needed. Soon after that, my brother rebounded with another woman, also from work but not a high-profile girl. Instead, she was a sweet but impulsive, gregarious, high-energy party type. Within six months, he’d proposed and they soon married.

From almost the day after their marriage, my brother seemed to abdicate and begin retreating. He didn’t seem to worry anymore about putting effort into being positive, energetic, doing things. He became a lazy, withdrawn and bitchy guy who saw his work as his main obligation. True, his work required a lot of social energy; it required interacting with a lot of people; but he didn’t seem to have anything left for his wife. After years of this and a general decline that saw him more and more withdrawn — never returning calls to family or friends, so that eventually he had no friends left — his wife left him. A week or two later, our father, whom he also neglected over the past years, died; months later, he was fired.

I don’t fear that he’s suicidal at this point. What makes me angry is that I know, in one way, where this will end up, and it means I’ll be cleaning up for him because he’s refusing to take my help now. He’ll run out of money and become destitute, and I’ll have to either take him in or otherwise “solve his life” for him. I get exasperated often as I wonder how someone who is being served up help on a platter can be so damned stubborn and insist they’re “not ready for it” — knowing it’s going to get worse. On the other hand, I guess he might make some change once he hits the real rock bottom — who knows? I’m torn about whether I should intervene now or whether he should be left to go through this?

Big Sis

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Big Sis,

What strikes me about your brother is that within a matter of months he lost his wife, his father and his job. That would be a setback for anyone. Some people would bounce back fairly soon. They would get another job and work through their loneliness and grief on their own time. Others might be seriously shaken, but would at least maintain their standard of living and basic hygiene. He went into a tailspin. I wonder why.

It could be that he is clinically depressed. If at all possible, have him examined. The stress of events may have triggered an episode. But I must be careful with such speculation; not only am I unqualified to diagnose, but as a writer, my bias is toward meaning, not pathology. So perhaps this is not illness at all. Perhaps it is a kind of journey.

What kind of journey could it be? You say that he is talented and attractive, but not proactive, and that his success at work was largely due to the favorable actions of others. You say that in his first relationship he deferred to the needs of his partner. That leaves the impression that he is affable and charming but somewhat passive. Perhaps in the past whenever he faced adversity he would give up until someone came along to rescue him. This time there is no one to help him to his feet — not his dad, not his wife, not his co-workers — only you, big sister, only you.

I always look for signs that the soul is seeking knowledge. The soul seeks knowledge through adversity. Sometimes that adversity is self-generated. People break the law and get locked up; we call it acting out; we call it antisocial, as if in a perfect world none of it would happen. We do not often pause to consider the value of our dark journeys, the priceless material we carry back with us when we return, shaken but sobered by what we have seen.

While we are sometimes too quick to assume that abnormality is illness, that deviation is pathology, as I say, I am no kind of doctor. (If I were, I would be a crazy doctor crawling in the muck, a scary bearded banger of bells, a gonger, a shouter, a vibrating and unreliable sage. I would be applauding the insane as they are led away in wagons. I would not be the kind of doctor you want to mend an arm or fix a tooth.) So, again, you should have a real doctor find out if he’s clinically depressed, if he needs to be treated. If he is physically in danger, if he becomes suicidal, then perhaps to save a life a doctor has to intervene.

But perhaps he is struggling to accept adversity on his own. Perhaps, stricken by grief, alone in the world for the first time, he is trying to find out what difference it makes if he smells bad or not, if he answers the phone or not, if he succeeds or just sits alone in the dark with his dog. Perhaps he is on a twisted journey toward self-reliance. Perhaps in this way he is trying to become a man! As much as I want him to be OK, I also want to honor his decision to descend into a kind of funky, ugly madness.

In the meantime, what is your role? If you determine that he’s not in imminent danger, you stand by. You stand by like a tug when a ship is in distress, like a spotter for a gymnast attempting a difficult flip. Do not assume that simply because he has chosen to retreat to the basement with his dog that he is irretrievable. After he has gone where he has to go, he may emerge one day, blinking in the sunlight, looking strangely radiant, saying, Look, look what I found, I may have paid too much for it but look how it shines!

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