A secret relationship

My brother and I have a 10-year history of incest. Should I tell his future wife?

Published September 3, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My brother is getting married in a couple of months to a wonderful, bright, successful woman. A real catch. Everybody says so. When I see her with my brother, "Brad" (not his real name), she is constantly stroking his ego, saying things like "You can tell Brad works out" or "Brad definitely will be running the company soon" or "I have never met a more sensitive man than Brad, we just connect on so many levels." I think it's good that he has found a woman who heaps adulation on him and makes him feel good about himself, but I find myself constantly struggling to keep from blurting out an ugly fact about his past, or, I should say, our past, that I know would completely change her feelings about him. I am torn between the painful truth and her blissful ignorance. Do I feel so compelled to tell her because I can't stand his being in a happily committed relationship that doesn't include me, or what? It's too sad to contemplate really. And yet I think about it all the time.

Here's my problem: "Brad," who is the perfect son, athletic (a jock), good looking, a lawyer who lives near my parents so that he can help them in their "golden years" (my mother had a stroke two years ago and my father is in the early stages of Alzheimers), and I, the wild one, rebellious, recovering crystal meth addict who found small-town life too constraining and who "selfishly" (as my aunt described it) moved to New York City after borrowing $25,000 from our father (which my brother claims I stole because our father is in no position to lend such a large sum of money given his mental health), had an incestuous relationship on and off for almost 10 years, which sadly only ended three years ago. I am 32 and he is 28. He acts like it never happened and the one time I brought it up explicitly, in private when we were having drinks after he passed the bar exam, he simply denied it at first and then as I pressed him to acknowledge the truth he demanded curtly that I "grow up and move on."

I do not see how he has managed to evade the memories and the guilt. I haven't been able to really commit to anyone since it ended, and if I have sex at all it's always just a one-night stand where we are both so drunk we don't even really know each other's names. I am a mess, I know, but I don't want this to ruin his life too. Yet I feel like the truth must be acknowledged, for no other reason than that it is the truth.

Since our incestuous "relationship" ended (is it even appropriate to call it a relationship? I feel like it was a relationship since it was my reality for 10 years ...), I have moved to New York City to start over. He still lives in the same small town we grew up in, where everybody thinks he is a living saint, so I don't see him that often -- only when I go back for family affairs (pun not intended), which I do less and less these days. I am finally starting to get into the rhythm of living in the Big Apple and I can see now that over time new friends, a new more open community, and an active rewarding social life will go a long way toward helping me to forget this sordid aspect of my past. I guess I don't really know what I am asking you, Cary, other than one of the big questions in life: How do we live with the Truth (capital "T") when the Truth is best forgotten? Why do we long to expose something we work equally hard to hide? How can the past become truly past? I ask you because I feel like my own problem is like how you always mention in your column that you are a recovering alcoholic. Somehow we always tell people the last thing we would want them to know about us.

Go East Young Woman

Dear Go East,

I have tried several times to answer your letter. Each time, I was not satisfied with my response. I seem to lose the thread at a certain point. Or my prose becomes wooden, overworked, or my voice sounds hectoring, or I become verbose and pedantic, or I veer this way and that into unexpected regions. Perhaps your story is too much for me to bear, or perhaps it affects me in ways that I myself am not aware of, dragging me into a primitive, infantile consciousness of taboo, horror and impotence.

I am trying yet again to respond. I hope I am not too late. Let me begin by answering an ethical question first. Should you tell your brother's fiancée about your incestuous history? No. At this point, that would simply be destructive. If he has committed no crime for which society dictates he must pay a price, if there is no restitution due a victim, if no greater good would be served, if revealing this history would only ruin a family and a reputation, I don't see what compelling reason there could be for you to reveal it.

In the future the truth may have to come out. For instance, if your brother begins having emotional trouble, he may seek counseling and find that these events in his past are relevant to his relationship with his wife. Or if he and his wife plan to have children, I would think that his history of inappropriate sexual behavior with a female family member would be relevant, especially in the raising of a daughter. But the manner and timing of such a revelation ought to be handled with great care and sensitivity. And unless there is a danger to others -- if, for instance, you fear for his children's well-being -- such a revelation would have to be your brother's decision, not yours. As for you, in deciding how to handle this knowledge, and in dealing with this episode's effect on you in general, I would strongly urge you to find a professional who can help you work through this. It has certain daunting complexities.

For instance, there is the issue of who initiated the conduct, and who might be held responsible if it were to come to light. By my estimate, at the time this relationship began, you were about 19 and he was about 15. In the eyes of many, that would mean that you were the responsible party, the one who should have known better, the one who ought to have stopped it. So in addition to your regret and confusion, you may also be feeling considerable guilt. After all, one generally wants to protect one's younger brother and preserve a chaste boundary about him; yet you had sex with him. It's very difficult and disturbing to contemplate how you must be feeling. I'm sure you feel you have suffered enough, but others might wish to punish you further for engaging in such acts with a 15-year-old boy.

This 15-year-old boy, moreover, is now a man trained as a lawyer and so represents a threat to you should you ever contemplate bringing these episodes to light. He might sue you for slander. He might counterattack, accusing you of seducing him. So whoever you consult ought to be competent in the legal aspects of your story as well as the psychological ones.

When you ask in your letter, "How do we live with the Truth (capital "T") when the Truth is best forgotten?" it sounds like nothing so much as the classic defense mechanism that psychoanalysis attempts to break through in order to get at some buried truth. In your case, however, the truth is not all that buried. Intellectually at least, you know the truth. You had an incestuous relationship with your brother. But the way this event has affected you probably remains hidden in certain ways. Understanding how it shapes your life today must now become your central quest.

But indeed, the major way it seems to be affecting you today is in its insistence that it be spoken. Why indeed would we feel compelled to tell people those things we want them least to know? Perhaps the answer lies in the confusing haze of fantasy and splitting-off after an act of sexual transgression. Afterward, when we feel we do not even know ourselves any longer, perhaps the act itself becomes the one true thing we do really know, the one central fact that above all others is most irrevocably and eternally real. Perhaps the urge to say this thing becomes synonymous with the urge to know and proclaim the truth of our existence. But since that truth can hurt us and those we love, we are naturally conflicted. This conflict might be expressed as a riddle, as in Oedipus; or it might be expressed as a tragic spiral of self-destructive madness, as in Lear.

We are now approaching the point where I have repeatedly found myself overwhelmed by the dark, wrenching complexity of this matter. But there is more to say. I wonder about the $25,000 you borrowed from your father. Is it possible that you felt your parents owed you this money because you are angry at them for not protecting you? One often longs for the protection of one's parents well into adulthood.

And what of your parents' illnesses? Forgetting can be a family tactic for dealing with the unspeakable. So it is cruelly revelatory that your father has Alzheimers and your mother has suffered a stroke -- that this urge to forget might express itself so dramatically as disease. That your father, who might have protected you, now suffers from forgetting, and that your mother has had a stroke that has perhaps rendered her speechless: These facts must have affected you profoundly, leaving you without even the hope of a powerful advocate who might speak the truth for you.

So you are left alone with this truth. Your brother suggests that you grow up and move on. It could be that he has compartmentalized the experience for the time being, and it will only come to affect him later in life as he finds himself indulging in unexpected compulsions. Perhaps he has responded to this event by developing a narcissistic personality. His choice of a wife who is so openly doting, like an adoring mother, hints at such a thing. People with narcissistic personalities have a maddening blindness to how their actions affect others; their egos seem like black holes, sucking everything into themselves, leaving the rest of us gasping for air.

So you are not likely to get any satisfaction from trying to show your brother how this relationship has affected you. Nevertheless, I believe there is healing power in confronting him personally, as you have done. It is one way that you can allow the truth to come out in a healthy way. Perhaps it would help if you could confront him about this matter again, only this time while you are sober.

Aside from confronting your brother about this, there are other ways you can let this truth come out, as a way of getting better at living with it. Perhaps you can find a room where you can speak of it to others who have experienced the same thing. You may find that your chest constricts and your throat closes up at the prospect of recounting what happened, how it began, what you felt the first time, but you will feel better if you tell it all: Tell how you told it to yourself afterward, what words you used, how you built a new person who could take it without screaming and crying or hanging herself, who could see it all from a distance and pretend it was happening to someone else, who would then take the long airplane ride of a methamphetamine jag, who would stare out the window at 36,000 feet and contemplate the vast farms of Iowa as if nothing had ever happened down on earth. Whatever hot searing grief or clammy fear arises, I hope you will find that you can stay there in your chair in that room with the others who have felt it too, and tell it from beginning to end, tell it simply as you remember it, knowing that whatever you are feeling now as you tell it, the event itself is in the past and doesn't ever have to happen to you again. You can sit in that chair and say, Now I am doing a new thing. Now I am telling the truth about the past.

To answer another of your questions: That is how the past truly becomes the past.

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