Dad's a loser but my brother thinks he's a hero

Just like our father, my brother joined the Marines. Little does he know he has a screw-up for a role model


Cary Tennis
October 13, 2010 4:01AM (UTC)

Hi Cary,

Yesterday, I received a letter from my 19-year-old brother ("Tom") from boot camp. He has a month left, and in the letter he said that he sent a letter to our dad ("Frank") when he started two months ago and hasn't heard back from him yet. Tom went into the Marines to follow in Frank's footsteps, and he has always idolized him. However, Frank is not a good person. When they were married, he constantly cheated on our mom, he abuses drugs and alcohol, and has been toxic to everyone he's been around.

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Most recently, he lived with his sister for five years without ever paying rent and only helping with bills occasionally when he had a job as a semi-truck driver. However, he lost that job over a year ago due a minor accident he had while high and driving, and he's made no effort to find a new job. He still thinks that his sister should be doing more for him, even though she is a single mother with MS. He's just one of those people who believes the world owes him everything. Taking care of Frank caused my aunt to max out all of her credit cards and get behind on her mortgage, so she was forced to kick him out a week ago with nowhere else for him to go. Tom does not know that our father is now homeless. He also does not know why our parents divorced or that when Frank would take him on the road with him for the summer, Frank would sometimes get high and drive while Tom was asleep. I'm positive my mom doesn't know this either, because she would've never allowed my dad to take Tom for the summer.

Frank has also said that he will not go to Tom's boot camp graduation even though Tom has offered to pay for the plane ticket and hotel. The reason? He doesn't feel like it. Tom doesn't know this yet either.

Before I get to my questions, I should note that I do not want to help my dad. I don't want to check him into rehab. I don't want him in my life. Investing energy into him will ruin me. But, how do I tell my brother all of this? Should he know? I don't want to do it in a letter while he is in boot camp (he doesn't need the extra stress), but should I just lie and say I tried to get in contact with our dad and I couldn't? Because he still sees our dad as a hero, knowing the truth would be devastating, but I don't know if it would be worse to discover he's been sheltered from the truth his whole life.

Sincerely,

Daddy Issues

Dear Daddy Issues,

These family things go deep.

Here is something I have learned. When you start thinking you should tell this person this thing, or, This person really should know that, just stop first. Just stop.

There is usually something you're not aware of that is going to trip you up later. You need to become aware of your own hidden wants. Often what you want doesn't make sense at first. It may seem childish. But you need to know your own motives.

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Say I have the idea to tell one of my brothers something unflattering about one of my other brothers. This is something he should know, I think to myself. But if I stop and ask myself first, What do I want? I may find that what I really want is his approval. I am unaware of this motive at first. But I realize I am picturing him saying, Wow, you're right, I never realized that. But in reality, if I don't think this through, it may backfire. He may say, "Why are you telling me this? I don't want to know this. Nor do I believe it."

So it helps to ask yourself what you want. What comes to mind may seem kind of vague. For instance, you may realize you simply feel bad about your dad and would like to feel better about him.

If it's truthful, it's important.

What else? Maybe you want your brother to be safe. That would make sense.You also may realize that you're quite angry at  your dad. OK.

Also think about how you want to feel when you talk to your brother. You may want to have a  feeling of bonding. You may want somebody to share your experience, to say, Yes, I understand how you feel, I would be angry too. 

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Once you realize what you hope to get out of the conversation, you can see that your brother may not be able to give you that. He still considers your father a hero, so he won't be able to commiserate with you. He won't be able to see your father's flaws. He may instead focus on you and why you are telling him these things. Indeed, you probably can't get what you would like to get out of the conversation.

Nor can you ensure your brother's safety, especially now that he has joined the Marines. If you are older, you have protected him. That has been your role. Now he has matured and is becoming a protector. Yet you still see him as vulnerable. Your roles are shifting. He may not want to be seen as vulnerable. He may want to be seen as powerful and wise. So he will resist.

For these reasons, I would be cautious. I would not talk with him about all this stuff about your dad. Not yet.

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The fact remains, once you realize what your emotional motives are for wanting to talk to him, you may find you do need to just say certain things out loud. To speak aloud our parents' weaknesses can feel shameful at first. It feels like you're saying something you're not allowed to say. Or if you are angry at a parent, you may need a space in which to try out these utterances. You may need to be able to say certain of these things out loud just to demonstrate to yourself that the world doesn't fall apart when you say them.

That is why it is useful to have people in your life with whom you can talk with radical frankness. Such people are rarely in your own family. They are more likely religious leaders, teachers, psychiatrists, therapists, psychologists or people in 12-step groups.

I suggest you talk this over with someone like that. And make a habit of it. This is only the beginning of the story.

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Cary Tennis

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