Thursday, January 6, 2011

All in the family. Thursday, January 6, 2011.

“Genes and family may determine the foundation of the house, but time and place determine its form.” – Jerome Kegan

My sister-in-law thinks my big brother, Charles, is bipolar.

She wrote me about his extreme mood swings, bouts of anger, anxiety and depression. Moreover, she complains that Charles can’t communicate and doesn’t understand how she feels. She’s frustrated, but she’s also terrified – Charles has been out of work for months, and he’s been mentioning suicide.

None of this should be too surprising. I’m bipolar and our father is autistic. Charles is just acting like one of the family. Obviously, he took after Dad in his difficulties with empathy and communication, and my brother and I are very much alike in other ways.

The interesting thing, though, is that Charles never knew Dad. Charles has spent a grand total of three hours with our father, when he came into town a couple of years ago and had dinner with him. He’s spent a little more time with me – three short visits; in total, about a day.

Charles was born in the 1950s to a teen mom, before Dad ever met my mother. It was the “good old days,” and when the girl turned up preggers, her parents whisked her out of town so she could have her baby in secret. Charles was taken in and raised by relatives. Dad never knew their whereabouts, and back then, didn’t even consider the option to look. Charles and I were adults before we even knew of each other’s existence.

I visited Charles this summer, and even though the visit was short, I was taken aback by how similar Charles is to Dad, and to me. Charles is definitely not autistic, but in so many other ways – his mannerisms, his tastes in entertainment, his sense of humor – he’s a reflection of me, of my Dad, or both of us.

And now his wife writes me about bipolar, which is really weird because I’ve never told her that I’ve got that diagnosis myself. And she’s afraid Charles will kill himself, and she knows nothing of my attempt. She wants him to see a counselor, but there’s no money for that.

Anyone who has had more than one child will tell you that we are born with different temperaments. One’s first baby might sleep though the night and smile at every new face from birth, while the next one screams for hours and is petrified of strangers. It’s undeniable we learn behaviors from our parents, but it’s also obvious (to me, anyway) that we don’t come into the world tabula rasa.

I learned of perhaps the world’s most extreme example of this in college, when we studied “The Jim Twins.” Jim Lewis and Jim Springer were identical twins, raised apart, and reunited at the age of 39:

Both had childhood dogs named Toy. Both had been nail biters and fretful sleepers. Both had migraines. Both had married first wives names Linda, second wives named Betty. Lewis named his first son James Allen, Springer named his James Alan. For years, they both had taken holidays on the same Florida beach. They both drank Miller Lite, smoked Salem cigarettes, loved stock car racing, disliked baseball, left regular love notes to their wives, made doll furniture in their basements, and had added circular white benches around the trees in their backyards. Their IQs, habits, facial expressions, brain waves, heartbeats, and handwriting were nearly identical. The Jim twins lived apart but died on the same day, from the same illness.

I get the chills whenever I read about The Jim Twins. And while their case is extraordinary, it begs the question of what is nature and what is nurture. It doesn’t let parents off the hook – children do “live what they learn.” We have a billion examples of that. But we have, at the very least, tendencies to react to that parenting in different ways.

I’m so sorry my brother is going through this. If I only knew him ...


  1. Wow. Interesting Alizah. I have always been interested in the bond between twins. Also have wondered about the family tree and if there was anyone in my family from generations ago who was like me.

    You always come up with the most interesting things to ponder over. Thanks. :)

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