Dear Prudence: Should I ever speak to my bullying brother again?

Help! My Little Brother Pushed Me Down the Stairs and Called Me His “Chew Toy.”

Help! My Little Brother Pushed Me Down the Stairs and Called Me His “Chew Toy.”

Advice on manners and morals.
May 2 2013 6:15 AM

Cold-Blooded Brother

He bullied me viciously when we were growing up, and my parents did nothing about it.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudie,
When my brother and I were kids, we were close. But around the time I was 14 and he was 10, he started verbally bullying me when our parents weren't around. Even when they were there he would whisper threats and insults to me, but they didn’t notice. Sometimes I would answer angrily back, and my parents reprimanded me and send me to my room! I was thin-skinned and insecure and became terrified to be alone with him because he would insult my looks, say I had no friends, tell me I was an idiot because I wasn't good at math, and then say he could get away with anything because he was younger. He would fart directly in my face when I was sitting on the floor. He acted more and more viciously until by the time I graduated high school, he was calling me his "chew toy” and used the pronoun "it" when talking about me. If I started crying, he would laugh and say he had "succeeded." When he was 14 and I was about to leave for college, he hit me in the face and pushed me down the stairs. On multiple occasions during those years of abuse, I would try to talk to my mother about it, but she either wouldn't believe me or tell me that I should show more maturity because I was older. When I came home for Christmas, I cut off all communication with him, and we haven't spoken a word to each other since. Now my brother is 18 and I am 22, and he is about to leave for college. He is attractive and intelligent and my parents are very proud of him. I, on the other hand, still see only the bad in myself. As a result of his bullying, I have low self-confidence and no great ambitions for the future. My mother recently has been encouraging my brother and me to talk and to become friends again. I want nothing to do with him for the rest of my life and have told her so, but she keeps trying to shove us together. What should I do?



Dear Hopeless,
Your chilling tale about your brother is made even more cold-blooded by your description of your parents—particularly your mother—willfully ignoring the pathology of their son and virtually conspiring with him to make your life a misery. Of course I don’t know what was going on with your brother. It’s possible he was just an unusually vicious child and has outgrown it. It’s also possible, for example, that he was being abused in some way and then displaced his trauma on you. But if there was no precipitating event, and if today he has no remorse and would recommence hostilities if you resumed speaking, then it’s possible your brother may be a sociopath. Sure, lots of siblings have ferocious rivalries. Stuff like face-farting can be simply a disgusting prank. But what’s worrisome about your brother is how his behavior escalated, and that it was calculated, callous, and covert. Sociopaths are adept, as this article points out, at escaping scrutiny. There is increasing recognition that this disorder starts young and has a strong genetic component. Perhaps there’s a clue in the behavior of your own dismissive, heartless parents. I understand those who would rebuke me for suggesting a diagnosis of a mental illness, given my lack of medical credentials and having only a one-paragraph description of your brother (admittedly a strong basis for a rebuke). But I would feel remiss if I didn’t raise this possibility for you to ponder.

You are in a strange psychological bind. You haven’t spoken to your brother in a long time, so in the absence of there being an acknowledgement and apology from him, the onus is on you to create this rapprochement. I support your decision not to make this move. Your brother tormented you for years and he is a young man now. If he wants a relationship, he should be the one to act. If he does, proceed cautiously. Read The Sociopath Next Door by psychologist Martha Stout and see if it resonates with what you observe of your brother now. If so, you may need to continue to do what Stout recommends and which you instinctively knew: refuse contact. That may make for odd family gatherings, but if he hasn’t changed you must avoid being manipulated by him again. You made it out of a neglectful household and have stood up to your favored brother. Please recognize and celebrate the strength of character this has taken. Your brother’s assessment of you was wrong, so don’t give him the power to pass judgment on your abilities or future. Help yourself heal by finding a therapist. You will enormously benefit by having someone hear your story and help guide you on your own healthy path.


Dear Prudence Live in New York: My Best Friend’s Husband

Dear Prudie,
My girlfriend is a beautiful, funny, and intelligent young woman and I'm very lucky to have her in my life. We met in college, we know each other's families, and are each other's best friends. I've been with her for almost two years and I would like to start a life with her. There's only one issue—as a Muslim, I feel my future wife has to believe in God. I'm not the strictest of Muslims, I occasionally drink and don't follow everything written in the Quran, but my girlfriend is an atheist. She says she’s open to believing, but that is a requirement in order for our marriage to be valid within Islam and so that we can marry in a mosque. I want that not only for religious reasons but because it’s a cultural and familial tradition. We've talked about her converting but it's usually ended up with us brushing it aside or with her being hurt because she says I can't love her for who she is. Of course I love her and want to be with her but I also want my future marriage to be validated by my religion and accepted by God. But I don't want to pressure her into converting, either. What do I do?

—Feeling Lost