How Forgiving My Brother Took Me on a Journey Toward Healing

July 29, 2020

“Why do you want to be alone with me?” Irwin wrote back.

Although it was an email, I could hear and feel his anger. “I’d love you to voice Dad’s WWII letter for my film,” I wrote.

He quickly replied,  “I’m sorry I signed the release. I don’t want to have anything to do with your film.”

Before I finished reading his response, my head started to throb — something that hadn’t happened in decades. Why was Irwin saying this, and why now? I was just about to finish my movie, a deeply personal documentary I had spent the past three years working on; the one for which I had 250 backers; the one during which I got sick while making because of reliving the trauma; the one I poured my heart into with one motivation: to help others.

I needed him in the film. I couldn’t entirely remove him. He’d given me a beautiful interview, which was filled with empathy — something I had never experienced from him before.

I was scheduled to visit Irwin’s house on Long Island for brunch. I was hoping to record him then. Now, I was afraid to even see him. For sure, he’d bully me — something he’d done continuously since we were kids. He was my big brother. Aren’t big brothers supposed to protect you?

The next day, I woke up sick. I had no appetite and couldn’t stop vomiting, even though I had nothing to throw up. My head was throbbing and the room was spinning. Fear was seeping out of every pore of my body. I hadn’t felt this way since I was child living at home. In seventh grade on the way to Hebrew school in a carpool of kids, I mentioned I had a headache. They all asked me what that was. I had thought everyone had headaches.

Huddled over the toilet, I knew I had to cancel my plans for the day. I was supposed to meet a backer of my film who lived in Scarsdale, N.Y. She had mailed me a letter sharing the trauma of her childhood.

When I pulled myself together, I called her. The phone rang with no answer. She didn’t have a mobile and was picking me up at the train station two hours from then. I had to go. I couldn’t leave her waiting for me with no way to reach her.

As I sat on Metro North with a plastic bag in hand just in case I started retching again, I looked out the window. I kept asking myself, why did Irwin now tell me he didn’t want to be in my movie?

I knew I hadn’t forgiven him yet. My work had been focused on my mother, and I had succeeded in forgiving her.

There was much to do to finish and release my film, especially as the producer, director, editor and distributor. I postponed the emotional work I would need to do in order to forgive Irwin. It would take time and digging, both of which I didn’t have.

As I gazed at the moving landscape, the answer came to me: don’t wait. You must forgive Irwin now. I decided I’d go to his house for brunch, but I wouldn’t go alone. I was so afraid I would crumble from his hectoring. Irwin was an extremely private person, and I knew he’d restrain himself in front of a stranger. I asked a buddy Irwin’s age to come along. We stopped on the way for me to fetch fresh bagels.

As I stood outside ringing his doorbell, my stomach turned. My mission was to get in and get out of his house as quickly as possible. I wasn’t going to bring up my movie — just talk about world affairs.

Irwin’s future wife answered the door. Behind her, leaning on the spiral staircase,  was a life-size mounted portrait of Irwin wearing a suit, yarmulke and tallis from his bar mitzvah in 1959.

“Why’s that there?” I asked her.

“I don’t know. He wanted you to see it,” she responded.

Both curious and worried what I was walking into, she led the way to the kitchen, where Irwin was waiting. I plodded to him, kissed him lightly on his cheek and introduced him to my friend. Being around Irwin was never a warm, loving experience. It didn’t take much to unleash his anger. One time, I was visiting for a holiday gathering during the day. I had to be back in Manhattan for something I was participating in by 7 p.m. He was settled on the couch with some of his guests, watching a ballgame while the rest of the family was scattered in the kitchen and the backyard. I had to get to the train station. Not wanting to disturb anyone, I asked if someone had a phone number for a taxi. Irwin started screaming. “This is not about you! You can’t wait until the game is over and I’ll take you?!”

He was so loud that everyone heard him, perhaps his neighbors, too. His then-wife ran in, startled. Just another offense on my growing record. I never knew what I would do that would piss him off. Frequently, it felt like just my presence annoyed him.

Now, there was something so critical, something I couldn’t give in to, something he couldn’t control: my film. I had to make the best possible movie without his involvement.

Our brunch was going well. Just as we finished and were ready to say goodbye, Irwin directed us to follow him to his finished basement. Sitting on his desk, he pointed to his baby book from 1946. He was the firstborn of three. As I went through it, gently turning each page, I marveled at each item that was cut, placed and pressed on these pages: his hair, baby announcement card and ribbons. Mom had written down everything in Irwin’s book. As I hemmed and hawed, my big brother started to sing, “I’m the Prince. I’m the Prince. Your next movie is going to be about me.” He sang this over and over again.

That was all I needed. My prayers had been answered. Before this, Irwin was my brother whose life was filled with riches — partner in a law firm, a gorgeous house, fancy cars, many friends, a loving wife, children and grandchildren. Now, I saw his pain. I didn’t know what caused it, what happened in his childhood, but I saw him as a wounded child desperate for attention and love. This gave me the ability to forgive him.

My friend commented in the car on the way home, “Boy, your brother is a narcissist.”

Two years later, Irwin was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. Three years later, he died. It was devastating to watch his body deteriorate and see him in so much pain. He fought to the end, still controlling everything. The day he returned from making his funeral arrangements, I was visiting. For the first time in my life, I was invited often and was thrilled to be there to give him my love. I wished I had a magic wand that could heal him. As he withered away, my heart ached. Irwin was taking his rage to the grave. I was losing my brother, my emergency number, the only person who never missed sending me a Valentine’s card, and the one who, no matter what happened, I knew would be there for me.

I was now so grateful for the email Irwin sent me years before, as it was the trigger that enabled me to forgive and love him no matter what he said and did.

Gayle Kirschenbaum is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, TV producer, photographer, writer and TEDx speaker. Her documentary “Look at Us Now, Mother!” can be found here. She’s writing a memoir based on this film. This story is an excerpt. 

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