On June 7, 1984, seven-year-old Louis Anthony Mackerley arrived home from school to a babysitter. His mother was in the hospital, and his father, an Allentown manufacturing laborer, was at work. Louis informed the sitter that he was going to visit a friend down the street. Anyone watching would have seen a small boy step from the apartment clad in long, blue pants, a green striped shirt, and brown shoes. If you looked closely, you may have noticed his pink socks, the boyish auburn hair, or the rounded almonds of his eyes. You may have seen him step into the street, even heard the taunts of the other school children as he slipped into a hot dog shop to escape them. It’s possible that you may have seen him leave that same shop, minutes later, in an attempt to resume his journey. But, it seems, no one saw Louis Mackerley after that. Not ever again.
These details may have had little relevance to my life, to my family, were it not for Louis’s photograph on a milk carton, his face a dead ringer for my brother’s.
More than a year after Louis Mackerley’s disappearance, my mother, father, brother and I set off in the middle of the night for our annual drive to Florida. I was eleven, my brother seven. Somewhere in New Jersey, as the sky lightened with the first rays of morning, my father stopped for milk. We weren’t used to seeing the photographs on the cartons, a practice only recently begun by The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. We hadn’t yet adjusted to rows and rows of missing kids, snatched from their lives in the time it takes to snap a photograph. They were new enough to hold our attention, to keep our eyes from blurring their black and white faces into one. I don’t remember who noticed it first, whether it was my mother or father, or which one of them initiated the joke, but we were all complicit.
“Jason*,” my mother said, the lines of her mouth turned down, “we have something to tell you.” She showed my brother the picture on the milk carton and went on to describe how we had been responsible for his abduction. He stared quietly at the photograph.
“You were too young to remember,” I said, catching on to the game, “but I begged for a brother so mom and dad picked you up one year on our way to Florida.” I loved to tease him, to convince him that I could fly with the aid of a pillowcase or that my favorite doll was a real baby he had to stay awake all night to care for or it would die. But this was even better.
“The only thing is,” my mother said, “we feel guilty for taking you from your real parents. Since we’re right next to Pennsylvania anyway, we’ll give you back.”
My brother continued to stare at the picture of Louis Mackerley. The likeness was such that even he began to believe that the image was his. Since he remembered growing up in our family, I believe his terror came not from the possibility that he was Louis, but that he had been somehow confused with someone else’s missing kid.
“See,” I said, “your real birthday is February 15, 1977–you’re really eight, but we changed your age to seven in order to fool the police.”
“Don’t worry,” my mother said, “you’ll like your real parents.”
With this, my brother began to cry. Long, heaving, pleading sobs.
“I–am–not–Louis–Mackerley!” he said. “I–am—Jason! I–am—Jason!”
The first time my brother tried to kill himself, my mother searched her memory for where she had gone wrong, where she had failed my brother so completely that he didn’t want to go on living. She had given him life and then, twenty years later, held him as that life flowed from self-inflicted wounds to his wrists, as he broke down and sobbed in her arms. “Do you know what that was like,” she said to me later, “to see my little boy in so much pain? Can you even imagine?” She cried, too, when she remembered Louis, wondering if the loss of one little boy had become the trigger point for another.
When Jason finally recalls for us the origins of his abandonment issues, this is not the scene he describes. But it may be the last time my little brother was certain of who he was. Louis Mackerley disappeared in 1984. Decades later, I wonder when we lost my brother, when he wandered too far into the funhouse of his own mind, mirror upon mirror distorting his image until he became unrecognizable even to himself.
* * * * *
Jason is in his thirties now and lives with my father in a two-bedroom condominium 2.3 miles from where we grew up. Since college, he has had three apartments in three different states. He has worked for Vegetarian Times magazine, Disney, our hometown bank, and the Connecticut public school system. He has gained fifty pounds, and recently lost twenty of it. He has been hospitalized twice. He has made three suicide attempts, although he claims the last one was an accidental overdose. Jason occasionally mentions a diagnosis, Borderline or Bipolar, but later claims they were mistakes. He’s never given his doctors consent to discuss this with our family. Everything we know is filtered through him. His list of daily medications has included Zoloft, Xanax, Lithium, and Ativan. My father is afraid to leave him home alone.
For years, Jason’s inclination toward humor functioned as a clever disguise for the symptoms of mental illness. We encouraged him to try out for school plays rather than seek a diagnosis, to regale us with tales of Renaissance artists, local history, and diamond mines, without ever asking why it was he couldn’t sit still. Even after he was voluntarily committed to the Silver Hill mental health facility, he hid behind a cutting sense of humor, mocking the anorexics whose recovery plan determined what everyone else could watch on TV, whispering the names and diagnoses of famous actors, and fellow patients, into the telephone. But by then, it wasn’t so funny anymore.
Whenever anyone references an event of that summer, a picnic or a family reunion, my brother will call attention to his own whereabouts at the time. “If you’ll remember,” he says, “that was the summer I was institutionalized.” As if any of us could ever forget. I was in Montana, hiking across Glacier National Park with my new boyfriend. We came out of the woods at periodic intervals to shower, re-supply, and use the telephone. My boyfriend would call his parents to let them know he hadn’t been eaten by bears. I called mine to see if my little brother was still alive.
Jason’s current boss at the local historical society appreciates his attention to detail and has promoted him to a full-time position. Those of us who love him can’t help but see this as the beginning of yet another end. Each time he starts a new job, the same pattern emerges. At first, he is a model employee. He learns quickly and readily assists others both on and off the clock. He befriends his coworkers, charms them with his vast array of knowledge and magnetic personality. At home, his mood is elevated. There is a high that comes from a new beginning. As with any high, however, the low that follows is inevitable and we can only watch as he self-destructs. Any number of things are a catalyst for this downward slide. An off-hand remark by another employee. Failure of a boss to properly (as Jason sees it) praise his efforts. A misunderstanding over what is and is not professional behavior. Jason will experience this as a betrayal of the personal bonds they have formed, for he has no capacity to separate the personal from the professional. He will set up tests for those around him, who will have no idea they are being tested. When they fail, Jason will feel as if he has failed, too. This behavior will feed upon itself, slowly eating away at the fragile identity he has created around this latest endeavor. As he crumbles, so does his ability to work. As his job performance suffers, those around him are affected. Eventually, there are consequences.
My brother and I used to joke about how, in my early twenties, I would intentionally and rather dramatically get fired from jobs I hated. Jason would grow indignant with me as I regaled him with tales of workplace injustices I’d sought to remedy. We’d laugh together as I told him how I’d smiled and shaken my boss’s hand, thanked him for releasing me from what I felt as my obligation to continue working for him. As a young woman just out of college, there was always another waitressing job in another restaurant in another ski town. But when my brother left jobs, they were close to home—the bank president sat next to my mother at Rotary meetings, the teachers at the middle school were also neighbors—and for Jason it wasn’t a release from obligation but a passing of judgment on his value as a human being.
* * * * *
From my home across the country, it’s easier to believe the half-truths that spill from my brother’s mouth, to dismiss my father’s deep, oppressive sighs as evidence of his own depression. I am thousands of miles from the clutter of their lives, my brother’s futile attempts to purchase peace of mind. Books, magazines, and trinkets line every inch of my father’s home. Shopping bags filled with miscellaneous items are stacked against walls. Collections of quartz and tanzanite sparkle among rocks flecked with fool’s gold; layer upon layer of talismans gathered to quiet the endless cacophony of my brother’s mind. In times of desperation, his purchases become more elaborate and expensive. A Louis Vitton address book and wallet. A pair of gloves from Holland & Holland in New York. Jason rarely wears them, citing their delicate suede texture; they just sit in the closet, a constant reminder of his own self-worth.
Without all this in front of me, I can almost believe he’s getting better. Almost. I believed it once before, when he swore he’d quit smoking, told me over and over that my father’s accusations to the contrary were evidence of a heartbreaking lack of faith. Then I went back to visit and saw the fresh burns on Jason’s bedroom carpet, singed forty or fifty times over, the same long marks in chemical brown. His baby blanket, a small red square of so many memories, was stretched across the bed. This too was charred and burned. He’d lock the door against imaginary intruders, then fall asleep with a lit cigarette between his lips, or curled in his fingers, taking such chances with my father’s life, and his own.
“Trust me,” he says, and I don’t have the heart to tell him, again, why I can’t.
* * * * *
Jason has started traveling again. He’s been to Iceland and Spain, navigating languages effortlessly. He’s now immersed in several tribal languages for an upcoming trip to Africa. “I’m worried about Tsitsi and Bot flies,” my brother wrote in a recent e-mail. He always has to have something to worry about.
When I mentioned Jason’s Africa trip to my father, he sighed and read me newspaper headlines about genocide in Sudan, bloodshed in Nigeria and Zimbabwe. “He’s not going to any of those places,” I said, but my father does not travel and has his own fear of change. “I’m glad Jason’s getting out of his comfort zone,” I said. My father sighed again.
When I talk to my mother, she seems optimistic, regaling me with details of Jason’s exercise program, diet, and weight loss. She tells me he’s talking about moving out of my father’s and getting a place of his own, as if this wasn’t something he’s said so many times before. I want to believe, to accept things as she needs to see them, but I know my brother too well. He isn’t totally truthful with anyone, even his therapists, because he doesn’t know how to be honest with himself.
Last Christmas, Jason showed up to dinner wearing an ascot and limping over a cane.
“I’m in pain,” he insisted, scrunching his eyebrows for effect. I had no doubt that this was true, and that it had nothing to do with his ankle. A week later, my father told me that Jason was pleased with how strangers were treating him. Given the obvious nature of the pain, they held doors for him, let him go first at check-out lines, inquired about his injury. Nobody ever says, How’s your personality disorder? or Any suicide attempts lately? Mental illness isn’t something we talk about because it isn‘t something we see. A sprained ankle is visible, understandable. It’s something that will heal.
* * * * *
My brother always buys the perfect presents, tailoring each purchase specifically to his relationship with the recipient. Last Christmas, I opened two of Jason’s gifts–the first, a copy of Jane Austen’s Emma, the second a silver necklace on which was engraved a quote from the text, Where shall we see a better daughter or a kinder sister, or a truer friend? As he fastened the chain around my neck, I forced myself to sit still while I suppressed layers of anger, at myself, and at him. I had not been a kind sister, nor had I been a true friend. My present to him was not memorable because I’m not sure who my brother is anymore, where he stops and the disease begins. He has become both the person I know best, the one who shares my genes and my childhood, and a twisted maze of incongruities. Intellectually, I understand he’s mentally ill. But it’s because he’s my brother that I find it so difficult to accept. It’s our similarities that allow me so little in the way of compassion. I can follow his thought process quite precisely but only so far before I’m lost in the attempt to distinguish the choices he makes from that over which he has no control.
“Trying to understand your brother,” my father has said, “is like trying to solve a Rubix Cube in the dark.”
* * * * *
There is an 8mm video of my brother in Florida. In it, he is not even two years old. He is tan and blond and, in much of the footage, wears nothing but a diaper. His skin is smooth and flawless, his very existence a testimony to possibility.
In one segment, my father is walking backward, taping, as Jason waddles toward him. They’re on a small grassy knoll on the front lawn of my grandmother’s apartment complex. Occasionally, there is a glimpse of me, at age five, on the sidelines. Suddenly, my brother topples over, falls to his hands and knees. There are motor skills he hasn‘t mastered yet. He is not hurt. He lifts himself up again, his face contorting in the unconscious way of a child, tears welling in his eyes. The tape continues to roll. It is a silent movie. Jason walks forward again but his baby legs take him only so far before he loses his balance. He falls, backward this time. Gets up again. Reaches for my father with arms outstretched. My mother runs forward, kneeling and pulling Jason close. Then the tape cuts to the Magic Kingdom.
For years, we gathered for home movie night. We made popcorn, ate ice cream, and laughed as my brother fell down again and again.
“You were just the cutest little baby!” my mother would exclaim. I didn’t mind. I thought she was right.
When someone is sick, it’s tempting to identify a moment of contamination, to seek out a cause. My father’s uncle, sick with stomach cancer, blamed the water in New Orleans. When Dana Reeve lay dying of lung cancer, newspapers reminded us that back in college, she’d waited tables in a bar. Louis Mackerley, my mother remembered, because blame and guilt were things that she could comprehend. Because if there’s a cause, then there has to be a cure. But when my brother looks back at his life and searches for the first time he felt scared and alone, it is on the lawn of my grandparent’s home that he stops rewinding the film. In this seemingly innocuous moment, the seeds of a fear were born. While we watched the fuzzy replay of our home movies, Jason was the only one who wasn’t laughing. He was remembering, in clear and vivid detail, the sudden fear that overwhelmed him that day, the toddler’s conviction that his parents were going to leave him behind.
* * * * *
On the twentieth anniversary of Louis Mackerley’s disappearance, the Allentown police reopened his case. Louis’s mother, Sheila, says that she removed his pictures from their frames on his eighteenth birthday because it was too painful to see a little boy who didn’t need her anymore. I have no doubt that Louis’s mother would give anything to have her son back, whatever his level of need. But as I watch my strong, physically healthy brother shuffle around with a cane, as I listen to my mother’s excuses and my father’s heavy sighs, I wonder how much more any of us can take of this full-grown man who needs so much. Jason does not know I carry this weight. He would, in fact, multiply my fear, my regret, and take it upon himself if he knew. Over a string of days it would manifest itself in his behavior at work. He may take it out on his friends. Or perhaps he would swallow an extra pill before falling asleep, lit cigarette in hand. It’s the nature of the disease. There is no rational discussion that will make a difference.
Sheila Mackerley still holds on to the hope that her son is alive. She thinks that “if the case is ever solved, it will be Louis who finds his way home. It’s now time for Louis to find Louis…I think there’s some spark in him. He’s going to recognize something in him, and he’s going to come home before anything else happens.” I pray that this happens for her, and I don’t pray any more.
There is no single cause of my brother’s illness, no amount of love and support that can heal the scars that have been forming since before he could walk. Brain chemistry, personality, circumstance, all contribute to his pain. I can nod and smile and swallow guilt as Jason circles my neck with a silver chain. My father can continue to let him smoke in bed, for fear that he’ll move out and risk something worse than a house fire. My mother can fund his gym membership, seek out new doctors, and stock his freezer with homemade soup. But my brother is the only one who can help himself. Jason needs to find Jason, too.
*Jason’s name has been changed.
Sayzie Koldys is a writer/editor whose work has appeared in the North American Review, the Mid-American Review, and Event, among others. Her short story, “Mona, Yehya, Basma,” which originally appeared in the New England Review, was a finalist for the 2009 Best American anthology, and she has an essay forthcoming in [wherever]. Sayzie took the past five years off from publishing to sail the Pacific and learn about the places and cultures she encountered. She writes about this at www.SayzieJane.com, and information on her writing and editing can be found at www.opercula.net.