My Brother’s story

After my husband left early for work Saturday morning, I got up for a few minutes to read my e-mail.

One message was from my long-time friend asking if I had seen the video she sent to me privately on FB last week. For some reason, I had not watched it yet, so I sat down and clicked the play button.

It was a video about Ryland’s story. When I got to the part where I heard the parents say, “She may have only been 5 years old, but we needed to start truly listening,” my tears from years of confusion and frustration as being my adopted brother’s sister started flowing freely. My brother and I were both adopted at birth; we are only two months apart in age.

My heart ached for my own brother who was so misunderstood. Part of me wanted to believe his life would have been easier if our parents had been more supportive and had loved him unconditionally like Ryland’s family has admirably done in the video below. Would my brother’s story still have played out so tragically if he had been part of today’s more accepting generation like Ryland was born into?

After watching Ryland’s transformation, I couldn’t help but wonder if this child had experienced as many losses as my brother and I did at such a young age (losses from adoption, divorce of our parents, instability, alcoholism, mental health issues, and verbal and emotional abuse) if the ending to Ryland’s video would have had the same outcome as my brother’s did; as I know now, he didn’t have a chance in hell.

I recall my mother’s righteous sister saying once in a conversation with me, “Your brother always had such feminine, delicate-looking features. It doesn’t surprise me that he thinks he might be transgender.”

In such a disturbing contrast, after the death of my mother, this same aunt lashed out at me with the cold, heartless words, something to the effect, “Can you imagine how difficult it would have been for my sister to have raised your brother, such a bad seed.” And I got lumped into her awful thoughts as well, as somehow we as her adopted children made her a broken woman. I know for a fact that my mother was not nice to many of her relatives over the years, but sadly, all but a few have made it clear by their silence that blood is thicker than water.

No matter if I had wanted her to, my aunt could not have taken back her harsh words. The damage had already been done. I felt violated all over again by some of the personal things she had spoken of only as hearsay regarding our “black-sheep” family. Disappointingly, my sister-in-law is the only one who could have shared such private matters with my aunt, but she wasn’t even a part of our life during that time.

My mother was always worried about maintaining her image, especially with her mother and sisters. Her family meant more than life itself to her. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, my mother, out of pure embarrassment, would have never wanted her relatives to know such ugly intimate details about my brother that might make her look bad. And until now, I honored her unspoken request, even after she passed away.

What I did next even surprised me. Because of my first adoptive father’s alcoholism, I spent a lot of time as a little girl being shuffled around from state to state, and home to home to stay with mother’s large extended family. Up until this point, my aunt had meant a great deal to me. I thought she understood me and could read between the lines that my upbringing couldn’t have possibly been easy. I told my husband and best friend that I needed to write my aunt and speak my peace. Both said, “What good is it going to do; she is just going to hurt you more!”

“If she does write me back,” I said firmly, “I am not reading it!” and at that point I sent the e-mail. When she quickly responded, I kept my word to myself and deleted her reply before I ever saw the first sentence.

In this letter to my aunt, I had asked her, “How could any of mom’s relatives know first-hand what went terribly wrong in our family if none of you were there? What hurts me deeply is that I was there and obviously very personal matters that involved me have been scrutinized by others with such insensitivity and unkindness.”

As I watched Ryland’s video, I knew my brother had been screaming out for help for many years because he was really transgender. If the relatives were apparently maliciously gossiping early on about how different and delicate-looking my brother appeared, it seems so odd that my parents would be wearing blinders. It made me sad for him.

Isn’t it interesting how sometimes as children we can sense what our sibling might have been struggling with better than our parents ever did? It was clear to me that he had difficulty bonding and fitting in with family or friends. I believe that the two of us got as close at one time as he ever did to anyone. Looking back, it was when my brother and I stopped sharing a room at the age of 11 that he started to drastically change. I shouldn’t have been expected to know how to help him, but part of me feels like I let my brother down. All we had was each other and I didn’t know what to do or say.

After learning of his death last year, I wanted to find out how to remove my brother’s online journals. His writings made me feel uncomfortable as if I was the reason he didn’t like who he was as a human being. As his sister, I was hurting as well.

Quite honestly, I don’t know how to stop these feelings that make me think that I am partly to blame, “My sister and I were inseparable and I wanted to be her!”

Was it just ramblings from a lost soul who couldn’t distinguish fantasy from the real world? The truth is — my brother didn’t get the help he needed with gender identity issues combined with serious mental illness. I do understand that not all transgender individuals are mentally ill and do live happy and healthy productive lives. I have debated with myself whether my brother would have had more of a fighting chance if my mother would have not been so worried about what others think – that somehow it would have made her look like she had failed as a parent if she didn’t have all the answers.

Excerpt from my brother’s journal (age 40 something):

Kids get the funniest things in their heads. My sister and I were raised as equals, even though she is two months and six days younger. We bathed together, played together, slept in the same crib and shared the same clothes. We got fed at the same time and were put to bed at the same time. My sister and I were inseparable.

Was there a difference between my sister and myself? Turned out there was. What, I really didn’t know at that time.

About age 4, I was laying in bed wishing upon a star. Mom came in and I asked her if I could be like my sister. Guess she didn’t understand the question. Her reply gave me another tailspin, “No, Scotty, you can’t. She’s a girl. You’re a boy.” Right then and there I changed my wish. I wished Tinkerbell would make me more like my sister. Tinkerbell was my invisible friend.

That night Tinkerbell visited me, but she wouldn’t turn me into a girl. Tinkerbell told me I would take it for granted. That I must work hard and some day my dreams will come true. Then I would appreciate what I have. Yes, I was a female cognitively; I still had some lessons in life to learn that I wouldn’t learn as a female. Haven’t figured out yet what those lessons could have been.

As his sister, I never want any other sibling to grow up like I did feeling so alone and vulnerable, while trying to make sense out of the tough issues in life.

When we plant a seed, one never calls it a “bad seed” if it doesn’t get plenty of sunshine and water to help it bloom into God’s beautiful creation. How can we expect it to be any different with our children, if we as parents and society aren’t truly listening to those unheard voices who are crying on the inside for love, respect and above all, understanding.

My only regret is that I did not know how to stand up for my brother in a world that can be so cruel and judgmental.


  • Lori Prouty says:

    One of my favorite posts by you simply because it’s so raw and so real. Sharing this with others is such a good thing.

  • Camilla Hudson says:

    JoAnne, this is so deep. It really helps people, that have not traveled your road, to understand much better..
    Remember, you were a child, growing up with a confused brother at that time, and it was the adults that let him down. You could not have helped him. So many times , as children, we feel responsible for our siblings when it is not our job. That is the bond we have with each other. We look out for each other but when the heavy stuff happens a parent is suppose to step in. Some are unable to do so due to lack of understanding or just not knowing what to do so they ignore the fact they have a child that needs help. Some of these very parents have problems of their own and just can’t do anything.
    I’m sorry for your brother. Today he could have had a wonderful life. There is so much more understandind than there was then.. Bless him..
    Just know that your ability to help was very limited.. Don’t hold the thought that you could have changed anything.. You couldn’t have..
    I’m glad you wrote this…..Good Job!

  • shari says:

    You are a great sister.

  • Betty Church says:

    I’ve read and ‘re-read your story several times and the song, “Skip A Rope” keeps repeating in my head. “Listen to the children”. That old adage that “children should be seen and not heard” is so very wrong. How many people could have been helped if only someone had truly listened and cared? Once again you have put into words what so many others haven’t been able to voice, thank you..

  • I agree with Shari.

    I’m so sorry that the adults in your lives weren’t able to be more attuned to you and your brother. As the sister, it wasn’t your responsibility. But it was theirs.

    I love these pix of you two.

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