the Prodigal Son

How well I remember the parable of the Prodigal Son, told often during my upbringing and adulthood in Mormonism.

In the New Testament, Jesus used parables to teach his followers, simple stories that can be interpreted many ways to teach moralistic and life lessons. (Aesop’s fables did the same thing, just with a bit more flair).

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, a wealthy man gives half os his wealth to each of his sons. One son squanders it all and ends up destitute, then he comes back home and is openly greeted, given riches and a huge feast. The other son, the one who was faithful and never left, is jealous, and his dad basically tells him to get over it and rejoice that his brother returned at all.

End of story.

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Except the part that should have continued, the one where the brother, the one who squandered all of his riches in the first place, stayed for a little while and then left again, taking more wealth with him. Because just over there in the city, there were girls to impress, spirits to consume, and frivolous things to buy. Then there is the part where the faithful son gets to tell the dad, “Hey, I told you so!”

This might be a slightly cynical take on an old tale, but it is one that years of life experience has taught me. My years of experience as a therapist have shown me that there is a very fine line between supporting someone and enabling them. Who wants to make a change when they can continue to take advantage of people around them and get a free ride?

During my faithful Mormon years, I was the good kid who stayed home and followed all of the rules. I was respectful, consistent, and reliable. I got amazing grades, had an after-school job, and served my two-year missionary service. When I got home, I attended college for six consecutive years and I paid my own way through, always holding a full-time job. I paid for my rent, my books, my cell phone, and my car insurance, and I went without health insurance. I had not an ounce of help.

I have only one brother, and he took a very different life path. He is eight years older than me. He started drinking in high school, grew his hair out, and bragged about the girls he was dominating. He bullied his younger siblings, wiping boogers on my books and blaring his trombone in my ear. For the ten years after high school, he could barely hold a job and he spent most of it high on drugs. He married, fathered a child, got into several domestic disputes with his wife, chain-smoked, did drugs, and divorced. Throughout this, my family developed the habit of rushing to his rescue, paying his bills when he didn’t show up to work, giving him places to stay, and giving him spending money, which he would then turn around and spend on drugs. He moved to a new city, married and divorced again, the moved to another new city, married a third time, fathered two more children, and divorced yet again. Throughout all of this, he has failed to hold down jobs, has continued to use drugs consistently, does not pay child support, and has had a number of concerning charges leveled against him, even in recent years, including allegations of animal abuse.

Recently, my brother was arrested, and rather publicly. He loaded a stack of 40-foot long pipes from a farmer’s field through the back windows of his small car, so that they extended a dozen or so feet out each side of his car, and then he drove down the highway, reportedly in an attempt to get money for them from a recycling facility. While driving with the oversized pipes, he struck several vehicles with them, and was soon arrested by the police, who took an embarrassing mugshot of him at the police station. The story was shared hundreds of times and received several hundred comments on social media.

My brother, who is now in his late 40s, began trending on social media as one of the nation’s dumbest criminals. Hundreds of comments showed up in the media articles, harsh statements about the impact of drugs, how he should be removed from the gene pool, and how he should never be allowed to see the light of day again.

More painful, though, were the comments by people who knew him. “That’s the guy that comes in to my gas station. He says rude things to me and he’s so creepy. I don’t feel safe when he is there” and “That’s the guy who struck my mom’s car with those pipes!” and “He will never realize how much stealing those pipes hurt my parents. It will cost them hundreds of dollars to replace and they will never see a penny of that money from him.”

I posted a link to the news article about the arrest, and multiple family members reached out to me abruptly, demanding and pleading that I take it down so other people didn’t find out about it. I was furious, but sure enough I took it down. Over the following days, I watched history repeat itself. My brother was bailed out, his car was taken out of impound, and his rent was paid. And last I heard? Just a few days after his arrest, he took a road trip south to visit friends and family. I understand he finds the whole thing rather funny.

This blog comes from a deeply personal and painful space, one that I don’t often give voice to publicly. I’m certainly not seeking to shame anyone, I simply want to give voice to my feelings and experiences. My little sister and I, who are both gay, often feel like the ‘black sheep of the family’, estranged, overlooked, and forgotten. On top of that, I’ve never asked for support, recognition, or financial assistance, even during times of my life when I’ve struggled, from my family or anyone else. I have family members visit the city where I live and stay for days without telling me that they are here. I hear from my father once or twice per year, and I would honestly be surprised if he could tell me the names of my own children, no less their ages. I just published a book and only two members of my family have read it, with the others bizarrely silent about it.

This past ten days, I have felt like the faithful son, watching father slay the fatted calf and offer rings and coats to the brother who is prodigal. (Prodigal, by the way, is defined as wanton, reckless, and wasteful.) I’m standing in the corner as he eats the meat, as everyone celebrates his return and ignores his past, and I’m furious. I’m furious and I’m hurt.

As with all things, I choose what to share and with whom. I choose what to give voice. After a few decades of living closeted, I refuse to remain silent any longer, to quiet the parts of myself that are in pain. Even in this blog, while I give voice to the pain, I have refrained from sharing things about my brother and family that come from very shameful, deep places of pain. I choose to do that for me and for them. But I do refuse silence.

But, like all parables, I get to choose what I want to learn from the Prodigal Son, and I choose not trust those who hurt others. I choose to not remain silent in the corner while others sacrifice and celebrate and, yes, enable. I choose to plan my future separate from those things that bring me pain. I choose self-preservation. And I choose to be embarrassed by the actions of a brother who has shown time again that he will hurt others to get what he wants. And I choose a life away from family members who would cause me harm.

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