'I Grew Up In The Shadow Of This': Writer Reflects On His Brother's Murder | KUOW News and Information

'I Grew Up In The Shadow Of This': Writer Reflects On His Brother's Murder

Mar 19, 2016
Originally published on March 21, 2016 10:12 am

In 1973, when journalist David Kushner was 4 years old, his brother Jon left for a short bike ride through the woods. He was going to buy some candy at a convenience store — but Jon never came home. A week after he disappeared, his body was found buried in a shallow grave. He was 11 years old.

Kushner tells NPR's Melissa Block that the killing both haunted and unified the family's Tampa, Fla., community. "This was before the 24-7 news cycle; it was before Nancy Grace; it was before ... the Internet," he says. "Things like this didn't seem to happen at the time. I mean, statistically perhaps they did, but Tampa was still kind of a small town at the time. It really drew people together."

Alligator Candy is Kushner's account of how his family coped with his brother's death.


Interview Highlights

On the freedom his parents gave him after his brother's death

As my mother always said to me, you know, they didn't want me to be crippled. I mean my my instinct would be ... lock my kid in the room, they'll never go out again, or something like that. But I had tremendous freedom as a kid. You know, I had my share of trouble; I would go off on my bike like a lot of us did at that era. We didn't have cellphones and we'd be gone for 10 hours. I mean, it's almost a joke how much freedom we had.

On how his father viewed grief

He was interested in, kind of, what maybe you would call the anthropology of death and dying, as a result of this experience. But anyway, it was right after he had died and I was just looking in his office and I found a journal entry that he had written which was on grief. And it was basically saying ... despite how you feel right now, you will get through this; but it will leave you changed and you have to ask yourself, "Who do I want to be?"

On teaching his daughter to ride a tricycle outside the house where he grew up, decades after his brother disappeared

I think with the loss of anybody, that person — they don't disappear, you know. They're a presence in your life. Any kind of loss, they're always there. I mean, this never goes away. You know, my brother's always on that sidewalk, and so am I — I'm always there talking with him in that moment.

So when I was there decades later with my own daughter, it was kind of an overlay of two moments happening simultaneously. And I was very aware of that at the time and I felt that, standing there, I knew that anything can happen at any moment, but I had to find a way to live with that and to take pleasure in the joy of my child's first bike ride.

On why it wasn't difficult to see his daughter ride off from that house just as his brother had

It's like I grew up in the shadow of this. It was always there. It still is. I mean it's almost like there was a crack in the universe and I saw that darkness from the age of 4. So I always had to live in spite of that, and I'm not unique. I mean, so many people go through all kinds of trauma. I mean, I really — even though ours was very particular, there is this idea of resilience or this idea of a deepening appreciation for life, and I think that's what we each have to do is just find a way to experience the joys of life even with that knowledge of the tremendous evil that's in the shadows.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

There's a black-and-white snapshot on the back cover of David Kushner's new memoir. It's a photo of him and his older brother, Jon, when they were little kids. It's one of the only photographs he has of just the two of them together.

DAVID KUSHNER: It's a tremendously 1970s picture. I mean, he's got these pants on with the big thick, vertical stripes and, you know, I've got muscle shirt on. And, you know, it captures our relationship. I mean, you know, he's got his arm around me. He's the big brother.

BLOCK: That big brother, Jon, pedaled off on his red bike on a short ride through the woods in Tampa, Fla., when David Kushner was 4 years old. Jon was going to buy some candy at a convenience store. He never came home. A week after he disappeared, his mutilated body was found buried in a shallow grave. He was 11. It was the early 1970s. The murder both haunted and unified the community. And of course it's haunted the mind of his younger brother ever sense.

KUSHNER: One of the questions that I kept thinking about is, you know, the memories of a child and what does a child absorb.

BLOCK: Yeah.

KUSHNER: And I think - I mean, I can kind of report on that from the inside and say that, you know, I mean, I certainly knew a lot more than I realized.

BLOCK: You write a lot in the book about how your parents responded to the murder of your brother and how they seemed to have really tried to make things as normal as they could for you and for your older brother.

KUSHNER: Yeah, you know, that point that you just made was really the driving force of this book for me because I wanted to find some way to bridge this chasm to the ordinary person who doesn't go through anything like this. And the thing that I hit on finally was this question that I had always had, you know, which was how did my parents survive?

And I realized, you know, this was not only the first question that I had, but it's the first question that everybody has. You know, it's inconceivable. How do you survive something like that? So, you know, to your point, you know, as my mother always said to me, you know, they didn't want me to be crippled. I mean, you know, my instinct would be, like, well - you know, I would say, oh, my God, my - lock my kid in the room. They'll never go out again or something like that. But I had tremendous freedom as a kid. I, you know, I had my share of trouble. I would go off on my bike like a lot of us did at that era. We didn't have cellphones, and we'd be gone for 10 hours.

BLOCK: Yeah.

KUSHNER: And then how is it that, you know, we became these parents who seem to be denying that freedom from our own kids?

BLOCK: Many years after your brother was killed, and this is after your father dies, you were in his office and you write about finding something that your dad had written titled "On Grief." It seems to be something he wrote for himself, but you also take it really as a message from him to you. What did he say?

KUSHNER: Yeah. This was something that I guess he had just written - you know, my father was an anthropologist. And he would write - you know, he would write and edit professionally but he also would do it for himself. And he was interested in kind of what maybe you would call the anthropology of death and dying as a result of this experience.

But anyway, he - it was actually during - it was right after he had died and I was just looking in his office and I found a journal entry that he had written, which was on grief. And it was basically saying, you know, essentially despite how you feel right now, you will get through this. But, you know, it will leave you changed, and you have to ask yourself, you know, who do I want to be.

BLOCK: There's a moment in the book where you describe taking your own daughter out to ride a tricycle for the first time. It's 30 years after your brother rode off on his bike and disappeared. You're outside the same house where you grew up at the spot where you last saw your brother.

KUSHNER: Yeah.

BLOCK: I can't even imagine what that must have been like to watch her pedaling away and that tension between wanting her to be free and yet living with fear that you know so well.

KUSHNER: I think with the loss of anybody, that person - they don't disappear, you know? They're a presence in your life. Any kind of loss, they're always there. I mean, this never goes away. You know, my brother's always on that sidewalk, and so am I. I'm always there talking with him in that moment.

So when I was there decades later with my own daughter, it was kind of an overlay of two moments happening simultaneously. And I was very aware of that at the time. And I felt that standing there I knew that anything can happen at any moment, but I had to find a way to live with that and to take pleasure in the joy of my child's first bike ride.

There is this idea of resilience or this idea of a deepening appreciation for life. And I think that's what we each have to do is just find a way to, you know, experience the joys of life even with that knowledge of the tremendous evil that's in the shadows.

BLOCK: That's David Kushner. His memoir is titled "Alligator Candy." David, thanks so much for talking with us.

KUSHNER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.