Surviving a Violent Sibling

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader recalls a frightening memory:

My brother is four years older than I am. When I was 13 and he was 17, he dove head-­first into drug and alcohol abuse. It all began simply enough, as apparently these things do. Most kids grow out of it. But what began as hidden packs of Marlboro Reds and vehement, nearly hysterical pleas that his eyes were only red because his contacts were dry, eventually turned into missing valuables, violent eruptions at the slightest provocation, court dates, lawyer’s fees, rehab, nights in jail, my mother driving around the streets with street dealers hoping desperately to find any sign of life.

But there was one pivotal night where I finally understood that this wasn’t just a phase my brother was going through.

The summer before my 15 birthday I spent most of my time at home holed up in my room, reading or writing or chatting with my friends on the now­-ancient AOL Instant Messenger. My brother had become verbally and physically abusive towards me any time he was around, because at 15 I had no money to give him and I wouldn’t let him steal anything else of mine for drug money.

I had become so angry about what he had turned my family into, about how sharply his behavior shined a light on my parents’ inability to say no to him and further inability to say yes to me. In my mind, I had asked them to keep me safe from him and, in their way, they told me that his safety (staying off the streets) was more important than mine (feeling safe in my own home, feeling safe from the social stigma he had caused me at school, feeling protected by my parents).

So, one balmy night I was listening to sad music and zoning out online when I heard a rumbling downstairs, like a thunderclap. I walked through the hallway and down the stairs and saw my brother, utterly inebriated, moving like a Frankenstein monster toward my father. He was carrying a broom handle and trying to hit my father like a piñata.

In his stupor, he missed. He flipped our kitchen table and its contents over on its side. He swung again. This time, my father, a Vietnam vet, wrenched the broom away from him and knocked him down with one punch. Then my father collapsed himself, down to his knees, clutching his heart.

God help me, I ran to my brother first. I leaned down to him and with breath bordering on smokey from the stench of Southern Comfort he said, “Krista, I’m sorry I ruined your life.”

A few feet away, my father wheezed and heaved and I ran to him, frenziedly trying to understand what happened. But I knew what had happened. My brother came home piss drunk at 19 and my father had tried to be a parent about it. In turn, my brother got violent, and in order to save us from him, my dad did something he had never wanted to do, something which had been done to him countless times: He hit his son.

Within seconds, my mother, who had somehow missed the shouting match, the table flip, and two labored thuds, flew down the stairs screaming. She called the police. I stuck around while arrogant local cops asked me condescending questions and took my brother away.

When it was finally just my parents and me, I put on my shoes, grabbed my school bag, and without any words I walked a mile down the road to my best friend’s house. She and her parents gave me big hugs and put me to bed without asking any questions.

The next morning, I knew it was over. I may not have felt like an adult yet, but I knew I wasn’t a kid anymore.