An excerpt from
My Brother's Descent into Madness
by Greg Bottoms
God: A Memory
My brother saw the face of God. You never recover from a trauma like that. He was fourteen, on LSD, shouting for help in the darkness of his room in our new suburban home. I was ten. I stood watching from his doorway, still, eyes cinched up tight as seams, trying to make out his writhing shape. I saw for myself. I didn’t see God, of course, but I saw my brother seeing God; I saw how petrified he was, how convinced. I knew, still know, that he saw, in some form, His or Her or Its face. It was in the window, a part of the night, shimmering over our neighborhood of new construction sites—clear plastic stapled to boards and waving in the night breeze, tire-tracked mud, portable toilets.
God in the lives of men is nothing new. It’s a story that unfurls backward through the history of thought, meaning, reason. I’ve spent a lot of time tracing it, reading it over and over, in a hundred different ways. Characters change. There’s a new setting, a twist in this plot that wasn’t in that one. But it is an old, old story, as old as Story itself, and perhaps its beginning.
I compare my brother with other narratives involving God. God is the common language between us. That’s how I place Michael, make sense of him, reimagine him—alongside saints and martyrs, lunatics, and heretics, those who have fallen, shaken and supplicant, pleading, palms aimed heavenward, at the thought of God. His voice, the sweet, terrible whisper in their ear.
Jesus. Abraham, Jacob, Paul. Mark, Luke, Matthew, John. Joan of Arc, Hildegard of Bingen, John Brown. Charles Manson, Jim Jones, David Koresh.
Blake saw angles in trees. Thoreau imagined the possibility of divinity, the sublime, in a “knot-hole.” Whitman saw God in the salivating mouth of a soldier’s bullet hole. Mother Teresa knew the force of God lived even in the fecal rivers of Asian cities, the venereal fever of a beaten whore. I used to watch a man who lived on the streets of Richmond, Virginia, who spend hours shouting “Jesus” while in paroxysms, drooling, his fly open. But they didn’t see Him. None of them. Not like my brother.
That night I couldn’t move. The feeling of immobility, of being trapped, sticks in my mind. I stood in his doorway, a nightlight golden behind me, wearing pajamas, fat-faced and freckled, looking at my brother while he screamed, all open mouth and high-pitched wail. His face was contorted like a snake handler’s like a strychnine drinker’s in the documentaries I would watch years later, late at night, with a VCR remote in my hand, slow-motioning the physical tics of madness.
I squinted into the darkness. Maybe, at ten, with my eyes barely open, I saw the future. Maybe I saw, in the dark of the room, heard in the screams, that one day soon he would be living on the streets, hungry; that he would be diagnosed as an acute paranoid schizophrenic; that he would leap from a van going forty-five miles per hour to avoid institutionalization; that he would frighten women, children, neighbors, us; that he would be raped; that he would admit to a murder he didn’t commit; that his face would be on the front page of local newspapers, the killer; that he would attempt suicide for the first time by drinking Drano, the second time by hanging himself; that he would dismantle the fire alarms in my parents’ home and set it on fire, ultimately ending up in the psychiatric ward of a Virginia maximum-security prison, praying and crying, by then all but dead to me, locked away in a place I would never visit, a brother—the same curve of flesh, angle of jaw, color of eyes—who had become a few cryptic Hallmark cards filled with biblical quotes.
I go over and over this. My memory is a scratched record. There I am, watching, cautious, afraid of him, afraid to step into the room because of his early propensity for petty cruelties: charley horses and wedgies, dirt clods and airplane spins, skinned knees and bloody lips and mean laughter. The stuff of early childhood, of brothers—but from him, different, darker, done with an eerie pleasure.
He ripped a poster from his wall, knocked over a red lava lamp, the only source of light within the room, spreading glass, a viscous gel.
My father built this house in the suburbs, most of it by himself. He could still barely afford it, had to sign half his life away to a bank. But we were away from blacks and crime and bad neighbors and people as poor as we were. We were pretending, for the sake of appearances, that we had money, though the hold, rusty Rambler in our driveway must have given us away. Our pretending was in the scent of new wood, the chemical stench of fresh, shaggy carpets; it was in the long blades of light falling through our new windows from the streetlight outside, in my brother’s screams.
It seemed plausible to me then that God could be in our window. I sometimes felt a cool tingle, like the breath of an invisible congregant, during the hymns at church. Electricity surged through me during sermons—the stained glass, the pastor’s booming voice, the organ notes in my stomach and testicles. It was wonderful and frightening, the best and worst feeling. I’ve spent my life, starting from this moment in my brother’s room, at once doubting and believing, fearing and embracing God—or at least the very thought of God in me, the possibility of God, as George Steiner wrote, in some future tense made more of love than of hate. So I’m an atheist and a true believer. I value reason and hope for transcendence. I value the four strange, repetitive Gospels as much as any books I’ve read, but I can’t imagine attending a church now, listening to simple aphorisms and affirmations, having become acutely suspect of all proclamations.
But I believed God was there for Michael that night, hovering in the window. I don’t mean a hallucination; I’m not speaking figuratively; I mean that what was in the window that night for Michael was as real as the skin on his face. He’d stepped outside of our tenuous collective reality and into alternate space, a space where God was a shape, a newly decipherable language.
He had been at an Ozzy Osbourne concert at The Coliseum. It was 1980. He’d dropped six hits of acid. In his room he was having his first of many psychotic breaks. It came in the form of crippling guilt, ruthless introspection. He was Jesus being scolded by an angry Father. He wore sin, all sin, as heavy as lead shackles. God made him look at himself, and he was a stone with a minuscule heart.
He flailed. He cut his feet on the glass from the lava lamp. He turned and pleaded to and then punched a neon, glowing blacklight poster of Bruce Lee. God was torturing him with the things he had inside himself, with his own feelings and memories. His thoughts were razor-sharp. He started breaking everything he touched: piggybank in the shape of a football, spreading coins across the floor; his stereo case; a picture frame containing a family picture, each of us smiling under a blue sky against a blue blue ocean.
But memory fades, tricks, becomes convenient, reshapes itself. It’s been nineteen years. I remember my mother and father there now, as if conjured from air or simple need, standing at the threshold of Michael’s room. Glass scattered everywhere, shining like quartz.
My father hesitated. He wasn’t much bigger than Michael, five feet eight inches, a hundred and sixty pounds. And Michael was swinging, the LSD pumping panic through his blood. My father knew. He wasn’t surprised. He knew about the drugs and the heavy metal and the bad friends and the skipping school. Michael was a problem kid. Always had been. Foulmouthed. Willing to experiment with anything. My father knew and wanted to change things, to make it better, but the kid was out of control, sometimes violent. He knew how simultaneously sophisticated and irresponsible kids were these days. They knew more than they could handle knowing. They’d granted themselves a dangerous, cynical sort of freedom. Sex at twelve, thirteen. Drinking, drugs, even earlier. He knew. He even, if he would have thought hard enough about it, knew that mental illness was our family’s sickness. His mother had been institutionalized. His own father, who was dead, had lived in a terminal funk, as if carrying the weight of a world that he knew cared nothing for him. His grandfather in North Carolina, a migrant worker, had clenched the barrel of a rifle between his teeth, spreading chunks of hair and bone and flesh along the wall, while his children were downstairs playing. Before this, my great-grandfather, as Michael would soon do, had taken to quoting scripture at length, mixing dogma with threats and expletives.
If my father had thought about it while watching Michael that night, he’d have realized that the chances of his son seeing the face of God, in some form, were not so astronomical, even without the acid.
I looked up at him—he seemed like a giant—wondering what was required of me. He wore sweatpants and a night-league softball shirt with “Three Dog Night” stenciled across the chest. He had big sideburns and wavy auburn hair, was only six or seven years older than I am now, with the massive hands of a worker. He was barefoot. It was after midnight, and the stars out the window were more ground glass.
What do I remember about my mother? She was composed. She was withdrawn. She must have been crying. She’s always been given to quick, private tears. She knew Michael better than anyone, is perhaps the only person who has ever really known him, even though he hid things from her, was secretive to the extreme. In fact, this was the last straw in an ongoing line of last straws that spread out in front of us like taillights on a highway. This was the last straw like taking him back in the house after kicking him out will be the last straw, the last straw like picking him up from jail will be, the last straw, really, until the next last straw, and then the next. She was motionless, out in the hall, cast in shadow from the low-wattage nightlight.
These days she got calls from school, from neighbors, from the parents of girls her fourteen-year-old may have slept with. She got headaches she blamed on the stress of Michael. She prayed for Michael. She locked her bedroom door at night when my father wasn’t home.
My father clicked on the light. That simple move seemed dangerous, bold, courageous. The room felt charged, alive. Shards of broken glass the size of human teeth spread over the floor. The lava lamp’s snot glistened on the new carpet. Michael calmed. The window had now become a mirror. Instead of the accusatory face of God, the angry father, he saw only himself, a pallid face and tears and eyes black as coal.
His feet bled, were completely red with blood, glass sticking out of them in different directions like shark’s teeth. My mother called for an ambulance. My father went to him, walking over the glass, not even considering the glass, and pulled him to his chest.
I remember my father—who died one month before Michael went to prison in 1993—sitting on the bed, holding Michael, this big kid in an Ozzy Osbourne T-shirt, sprawled awkwardly on his lap. They were rocking back and forth. Michael was slack, almost a corpse. He looked empty, drained of all life, of any former self.
I can see us all in my memory, even myself, the kid, the character, the narrator. It’s quiet now. I smell the chemical newness of our home. I’m floating over my past to make it into a story. I have an aerial view: I see myself seeing the first evidence of my brother’s blossoming insanity; I hear my first fragmented thoughts of God, feel my first real spiritual dread; I see my mother rummaging through the bathroom medicine cabinet for mercurochrome, Band-Aids; and I see my father—I see this most clearly—holding Michael, probably for the last time, holding him like an infant, shushing him, rubbing his hands through his sweaty hair. Their feed drip blood into a small puddle as if from one vein. My father is whispering. He is telling us it will all be fine.
From this false statement I begin.