My Brother,
My Keeper

BY LYLE ENRIGHT
My Brother, My Keeper Audio Version

As read by Daniel Amerman

I. Jekyll & Hyde

I remember my grandfather as a white-haired man in suspenders, bending over his pot belly to pick up my toys and laughing apologetically when I thought he was trying to steal them. I remember watching him nap slack-jawed and whispering for him to wake up because we’d brought him McDonald’s for lunch. In an old black-and-white headshot, taken before Grandpa shipped out during World War II, I saw a smoother-faced version of the same man, proudly wearing his enlister’s cap and staring out over my Grandma’s brown waterfall curls.

That younger face had younger hands; long before those hands braved arthritis to lift me out of my mother’s arms, they grabbed my grandmother’s curls by the fistful and dragged her down the stairs.

Mom sees the shock on my face as she relays things I’ve never known, my own infant son crawling up her shoulder to gum her neck. She is not telling me this to destroy my idyllic image of my grandfather, over twenty years after his passing; she wants me to journey with her through the jumbled history that makes us who we are—that makes us family. “I’ve been thinking about my past, my growing up,” she says. “I guess it’s because I turned 70 this year.” She describes a picture that Todd—the youngest son, and family archivist—has been passing between his siblings: “It’s on a Christmas morning. There’s a furnace-type thing in the living room, and I recognize from that picture that we were poor—and don’t look particularly happy. It triggered a lot of memories.”

These memories include the violence of her alcoholic father, newly stalking her dreams like a ghost only she can see. “My fear was that my memory was all messed up and nobody in our family saw what I saw, didn’t remember certain things that I remembered.”

What she describes to me is a kind of existential disaster—like a sailor looking up at the sky and finding all the stars flung apart, the constellations unfamiliar and impossible to navigate. But in that blank, black sky, her older brother Tom emerges as a new north star: “I’m going through this whole reevaluation that makes me think of Tom. Even as a very young child… I sensed he had this compass for good, a compass towards light.” Was it safe, though, to ask Tom to open old wounds with her? Would her brother enter the roil of memory and help her turn disorientation into revelation?

Not long after my first conversations with Mom, she contacted Tom and told him all the stories she’d been processing with me. When she reported back, she was almost jubilant: “I was so blessed by Tom, that he confirmed [my memories!]”

“After our conversation,” Tom said, as we both sat with him later, “over the next several days, I [also] had memories I was not happy with.”

That unhappiness steers us towards a night when Mom was 17, and Grandpa was especially drunk and vicious. He was always an angry drunk, but this time, his face contorted until it was almost demonic. “[Grandma] used to call him Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Mom says, “because when he wasn’t drinking he could be funny and imaginative and creative and kind. But when he was drinking, he was violent and mean.” As her Dr. Jekyll father disappeared into cheap booze, the Mr. Hyde who emerged couldn’t care less about the protests of his little girl. Mom had learned, by that night in 1967, to see her father as an enemy; and, like a warrior and freedom-fighter, she resolved to mount a defense.

“I came into the kitchen and I heard screaming and raving,” she says. Her little brother and sister cowered behind their mom, shielded by her body as she begged her husband to come to his senses. Tom, meanwhile, did what he always did: tried to study. Tried not to get involved.

Grandpa screamed at his wife—not just profanity, but filthy and degrading names:

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

I saw the degradation of a woman, of my mother, of my brother and sister in their terror, and I screamed at him to stop the filth that was pouring out of his mouth. He turned on me and said, ‘Who do you think you are?’

I remember standing straight and saying, ‘I am a member of this family, too, and I—!’

And that’s probably the last thing I said, because he pulled back his fist so fast I didn’t see. The next thing I knew, I was on my hands and knees, dazed and looking at a pool of blood from my face.

She bursts into tears. The chasm between the kingly man who called her princess and the thug who beat her to the floor is hard to face, even fifty years later. I feel I’ve done wrong, asking her to remember this moment, but she presses on, because there is a story here that she needs to tell: “When I looked up, Tom had flown from his desk. Dad was on the floor, and Tom was over him with his hands around his throat. I’d never seen Tom like that.”

After that, my Grandma ran to a neighbor’s and called the police; Grandpa told them what an uncontrollable teenager he had, and the police officer said, “Just wait a year and then kick her out.”

Mom reflects on the scandalous truth that her counter-attacks terrorized her family almost as much as her father did: “As adults, my little brother and sister have said that what terrorized them more [than Dad] was me entering in. They thought—they knew—that something bad would happen.

“I was very mouthy about it,” Mom says, “and very justice-oriented,” while her brother Tom refused to take sides. “When I wanted to challenge Mom or Dad, he would hear me out, then say, ‘Sharon, you’re going to make it worse.’”

The Tom my mother remembers is the Tom who sat in his study, letting the fights burn themselves out, oblivious to the point of surreality. But he was also so much more than that. Scandalized by her own role in her family’s violence, Mom doesn’t remember Tom as passive or neutral, but as the peacemaker who saved their lives: “He saw our value and he believed we were valuable and worth his sacrifice. That made us feel like maybe we were [valuable], too. That’s why I want this story told: because there are Toms out there…who change the atmospheres of homes where rivalry starts, who make a difference—and who don’t know it.”

What follows is a story compiled from multiple conversations with my mother, and from a long overdue reconnection with my uncle. It’s a story about “changing the atmosphere,” which has become a rallying cry for Mom as she enters her seventies. It’s become a reason to sift through dark and violent memories for a new form of life. For these reasons, she says, this story can’t stay confined to our family any longer. Her memory winds from her childhood into the present, as her brother’s role as peacemaker causes her to rethink COVID, the 2020 presidential election, the state of Christianity in America, and her own relationship to a faith that keeps transforming.

It begins, however, in the Civil War.

II. Civil War
Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

Tom led the neighborhood in constructive things. We would spend the day building underground bunk[er]s or tree forts or playing army. I remember him putting on plays in our garage, giving all the kids lines and hanging sheets for curtains. He went from neighborhood to neighborhood selling one-cent tickets, and the kids in this blue-collar neighborhood in Madison Heights would gather and watch. [Those were] the good times.

Thomas Raymond Collins was born in 1942, the firstborn of Raymond Collins and Thressa Collins, née Simms. She was from a farming family in Wichita Falls, Texas, while he was an enlistee from a mining town in northern Michigan. Two people who couldn’t have been more different met at Sheppard Air Force base, fell in love, and started a family.


“That’s kind of the story of World War II marriages,” Mom says. “Everybody getting married fast, for fear they will never get married at all.” But while the children in this union awkwardly blended North and South—“The neighbor kids thought we were from Boston because we had a mixture of a southern and a Yooper accent”—Raymond and Thressa’s marriage was another story: “Throughout our childhood,” Mom says, “we saw the differences and the prejudices between their regions coming out in their misunderstandings of each other. Tom used to say that the Civil War was not over, that it continued to be fought in the Collins house. [So] I was thinking about how that relates to power struggles beginning in the home.”


Like all power struggles, it took time for this one to work its way into the open. When my grandfather barraged my grandmother with insults—“hillbilly” or “worthless southerner” among the more repeatable ones—he tied her identity as a southern woman to stereotypes of air-headed girls with accented speech who weren’t good for anything except quiet, domestic servitude under a man.


In fact, Grandma was better educated than Grandpa, and that drove him crazy: “He always felt inferior,” Tom says, “because he only had a 7th grade education. [His] assumption was that everybody thought they were better than him.” Those insecurities took root and grew alongside heroic expectations; just as speedy courtships and marriages were common during World War II, so were fantasies of young veterans that their wives and children would reward them for their service by enthroning them in their homes like kings in their castles—a metaphor my grandfather often used when drunk. When that fantasy didn’t play out according to script, the resulting resentment simmered alongside trauma and alchemized into vice.

This, in a few inadequate words, is what happened to my grandfather. Any vulnerability about his resentment was always already steeped in anger and alcohol, sterilizing any possibility of help or healing. He made enemies of his family—first of his wife and then, as the years went by, of his oldest son:

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

When Dad was drunk, sometimes he would accuse Mom of depending more on Tom more than him. I remember finding a letter Dad wrote to Mom much later—I think they were in their 60s—trying to help her understand him. He said he always thought, because Tom had a college education, that Mom had more respect for Tom [than she had for him]. Mom depended on [Tom] a lot, and I know Dad did [too], but I also knew Dad resented [it].

Mom tells me later that she found that letter amongst my grandmother’s things. Grandma kept it, a decade after he’d written it and more than that again after he died. They never brought it up again, never discussed it while they were still together. But in a quiet, private moment, she also took a red pen to it, correcting and criticizing his grammar.


This was how she took revenge, how she continued to hit an insecure and uneducated man where it hurt by effacing one of his few artifacts of vulnerability. Those things that would have sparked deadly rage in him if said to his face, she said to herself. Indeed, the Civil War never really ended between them. “I think Mom and Dad seemed to get worse as they got older,” Tom says. But Mom also says that correcting her children’s and husband’s language was one of the few ways that Grandma could communicate hope; it helped her to insist that irrationality and anger and fear oughtn’t go unopposed, and that things should have been different.

Many readers might wonder—as I did—why this woman stayed with a man like my grandfather, stewing in their mutual resentment. The answer, again all too common for the time, is as simple as it is horrifying: sometimes enduring actual violence saves you from the potential violence lurking in the shadows, in the cruel sobriety staved off by routine booze-ups. Grandma received a cold corroboration of this, the one time she consulted an attorney about divorce:

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

The lawyer asked Mom to tell him about Dad. Mom told him Dad had one friend—a drinking buddy—who had died, and that he was estranged from his family. He drank in the basement; he didn’t go to bars; he brought the booze home. [The lawyer] listened for a long time. Then he said, ‘Mrs. Collins, I can write up this divorce for you; you certainly have grounds for it. But I’ll tell you this: the divorce won’t end your problem, because from what you tell me about your husband, he will either commit suicide or he will kill all of you.’ Mom said that she’d always known that was true. So she didn’t file for divorce. I think that Tom saw [all] that, too.

What Tom saw, according to my mother, was a need to abstain from taking sides in the Civil War, lest a greater violence break out:

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

I never saw Tom disrespect Dad. I saw him argue, I saw him be mad, but I never, ever saw Tom disrespect Dad. He never pretended it wasn’t hard, but this is how he put it to me: ‘He is the papa, he is our father.’ He would defer to the needs of the family for the good of the family, and for Dad’s wellbeing. When Dad would rave, and take it out mostly on Mom, Tom was very watchful so that he could step in to stop any violence. But he was very choosy about what that looked like. He let Mom know he would not choose between them, because Dad was our Dad and because she married him. But he supported her, he watched over her. He even watched over Dad. He was kind of the guardian of the family. He was always looking out for us, and as we got older that took on new dimensions.

III. Culture Curator

Those “new dimensions” of Tom’s care included roles no child should ever have to play, such as watching an alcoholic for signs of a bender and waiting to grab the proverbial family backpack:

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

It’s An Al-Anon principle that you keep a backpack in your closet. You read your alcoholic, and when you are pretty sure that this night is going to become violent, you get in the car and you leave.

And that’s kind of what Tom would do. When Dad would get drunk, [Tom] would load us into the car and he would just tell Dad, ‘I’m taking Mom and the kids to the drive-in to see a movie.’ He took us so we could sleep, because Dad would rave all night long. After the movie, he would drive us by the house to see if the lights were still on. If they were, and he could see Dad moving around, he would keep going so we could sleep.

When escape was not feasible, Tom created pockets of calm in the house while he isolated his father from the rest of the family, letting him burn his anger out. To do this, Tom turned to the best remedy he knew:

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

Tom… would put on the New World Symphony or Scheherazade. He introduced [us] to Sibelius, his Finlandia, but also the Hungarian Rhapsodies, and to Bernstein’s Kaddish… Tom would stay up through the night playing records over and over again. He would keep changing the record and putting the needle back on to keep the music going. Then we could sleep. The music was beautiful, and it took me to a different place.

Throughout much of our conversation, Tom has been content to let his sister unspool the story. Now though, at the mention of music, he sits back with a smile. “What you don’t remember,” he says to Mom, “is me babysitting Dad all night.”

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Tom Collins

I’d be down in the basement with him. Nothing would be worse. Oh, man, nothing would be worse than sitting and listening to his insanity until dawn, until he was tired enough to go to bed. It was always the same pattern repeating: ‘Poor old me, everybody’s against me, everything happens to me, all bad things happen to me. And I hate everybody. I hate Irish, I hate Italians, I hate Jews, I hate blacks, I hate everybody.’

It’s an unexpected image: the eldest son of a blue collar family in southeast Michigan playing Dvořák and Rimsky-Korsakov as his alcoholic father raves in the basement, the swells and triumphs rising and lulling the children to sleep. But such pieces comprise some of Tom’s earliest memories:

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Tom Collins

[My grandparents] had a Victrola—a wind-up record player. I was between 3 and 4, and I learned real quick to read and recognize the labels and associate [them] with the music. If I didn’t like it, I would put it in one pile and wouldn’t listen to it anymore. But I [also] had my pretty-much favorite pile. One of the records was Strauss waltzes; I put on the Blue Danube, and it started to play, and chills went up and down my spine. Oh, I wore that record out!

Whereas repetition was a symptom of his father’s resentment—of hate stuttering like a broken record—it also probably kept Tom’s mind together. Whether it meant wearing out Strauss’s Blue Danube or running to the television to hear Liszt’s Les Preludes play over Flash Gordon episodes, Tom never missed a chance to hear his favorite music again and again.

Not only did music help him endure his intercessions into his father’s ravings, but as Tom grew up and embarked on a career in law, his newfound means allowed him to become a sort of curator for his family. Mom remembers, “He took us all to the Michigan Opera, and I saw Fiddler on the Roof at Fisher Theatre, and when we didn’t see [shows] there, we’d see them on PBS.”

Experiencing education as a path out of his tumultuous home life, Tom did not ride that momentum all the way to escape; rather, he turned back to try and provide the same motivation to his siblings: “He was always talking about what we wanted to be when we grew up,” Mom says, “asking, ‘What college do you think you’re going to? I’ll help you.’ And he did. He helped all of us get our education.”

He helped by incentivizing his siblings. He used their material desires as soil for cultivating resilience, critical thinking, and self-respect:

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

Tom would always trade me something for doing something right. Like, Mom and Dad couldn’t afford my class ring when I graduated from high school, and that was a big deal to me. Tom said, ‘I’m going to buy you your class ring, but in exchange I want you to make me three shirts.’ We went and picked out the material, he picked out a pattern with a western yoke—which is really hard—and I made my first one. I worked so hard at it, and [when] he put it on [he] was so proud. He said, ‘You only need to give me one. This was hard, and it’s a good shirt.’ He wore it forever—and he bought my class ring.

I remember I wanted to buy the newest Beatles album, and Tom said he would buy it for me if I read War and Peace over the summer. He knew I was a reader; I had read Gone with the Wind twice, so he raised the bar for me and assigned me Tolstoy. It seemed like such a high cost, but I really wanted that record.

Tom reveals during our call that he didn’t actually read War and Peace himself until three years ago. His sister berates him, but reaffirms: “He introduced culture to our lower-class, blue-collar home and raised the bar for us. He introduced beauty and order into a chaotic situation.”

That exposure to culture was more than transactional. Tom modeled his desires without overriding his sister’s, even helping her fulfill those desires so long as she would share a little of his world in the process. Books, music and films provided an escape, but they also provided paradigms for that world their mother could not provide: a world of rational thought, where anger did not reign and where mercy seemed possible.

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

Some of the stories were absolutely wonderful, because they showed both sides—you know, like Les Miserables. The horror of the poor, but the possibility of good, and that good could change things, and that there is a reasonable and orderly way to think, and that there’s something beautiful about [such] art. I think that’s where [Tom] escaped. He wanted to take us to that place that he found, above the chaos where we could see beyond it.

But more than this—more than Tom’s love for art, more than his education that allowed him to think through the vagaries of politics in the 60s and 70s, Mom credits something else with his persistent, peaceful presence in their home. “I believe it was his faith,” she says; faith made everything else possible.

IV. The Peace that Passes Understanding

My family experienced a kind of revelation in the 1970s. It started with my mother, then unfolded between her and her brother, and its implications continue to echo through all five siblings into the present. It began in a house by Lakeside Mall, in Clinton Township, MI, where she and Tom reunited to lean on one another in a time of mutual loss and grief: Tom, over the sudden death of his fiancee, and Mom over the disintegration of a four-year marriage:

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

Two years before I moved back home [from Tulsa], I came to faith in Christ. It was Isaiah 54:1-6:

‘Sing, barren woman, / you who never bore a child… Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame… The Lord will call you back / as if you were a wife / deserted and distressed in spirit—/ a wife who married young / only to be rejected,’ says your God.

God just grabbed my face and said, ‘I know who you are, I know what you’re going through; I know you and I want you to know me, because I’m your husband.’ It was a time of despair and hopelessness, and God met me individually, and just told me that he knew what I was feeling.

So, that’s why I moved back to Michigan, and Tom told me if he didn’t believe in God he could never make it through. That’s when he shared with me that he knew the Lord. Immediately I started thinking of how well he knew the Bible when I was growing up. That’s when I knew the difference: he was the compass, and that was what Christ became to me. Tom was the [model] to me. It all makes sense now. 

What made sense, according to my Mom, was Tom’s ability to resist the pull of violence in a way that the rest of them—especially her—could not. Tom’s almost surreal ability to endure his father’s ravings, to resist the call of rivalry and to provide safe havens for his family—in all of it, my Mom recognized the same God who had shown themselves to be on the side of victims, of those who’d been ashamed and humiliated. In short, God was on the side of people like her—and on the side of little six-year-olds, who loved Jesus so much but who also wanted their father dead:

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Tom Collins

I was in 3rd grade. I think high-school girls from Calvary Baptist Church in Hazel Park started conducting Bible classes at our school, so I started going. That’s where I accepted Christ.

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

He was filled with such happiness and joy and hope for the future. He says he remembers that, even as a six-year-old, there was so much hope because of Jesus. When he got home, he couldn’t wait to run into the house, to tell Mom, but she wasn’t there. But Dad was there, and he was drunk.

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Tom Collins

I remember getting berated by Dad: How dare I do that? ‘Where were you?’ Well I was at Bible school. And he started cussing me up one side and down the other: ‘Oh, so you think you’re a holy little Christian? Well I’ll teach you.’

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

‘You self-righteous, little, namby-pamby goody two shoes Christian.’ He started calling [Tom] filthy names, and telling him how pathetic he was, and it just sucked all of the hope out of Tom; it broke his heart and he ran out of the house. There was a shed in the back, and he ran behind that shed and he was crying, weeping, his little fists all clenched up—his whole body was clenched up and he was saying, ‘I hate him, I hate him, I hate him!’

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Tom Collins

I was so mad, I was crying, and I prayed to God to strike him with lightning. I remember hating him so bad. But the hate went away, of course.

“The hate went away, of course.” Uncle Tom says it with a chuckle, as though it’s a foregone conclusion. That’s what hate does, he seems to say; it goes away, if you let it. But hate does not simply “go away”, and Mom recounts more precise details:

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

He said this beautiful warmth flowed over him. It began restoring him, and he knew that Dad was sick: that it wasn’t because he was a bad man, it was because there was something wrong; something had happened with him and he was sick. He knew from that moment that [Dad] wasn’t somebody to face or to hate. He knew that he was to be pitied, and it changed his relationship with Dad and he knew that it was God. God was with him, and had flowed over him. God had come to me that way, too.

Tom does not contradict her. His conversion experience, even at that young age, put him on a path of learning not to repay evil with evil. This was not self-righteousness, but hope and survival for his family. Though his spirit convicted him that his father was to be pitied, Tom learned the hard way what he tried to teach his firecracker sister:

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Tom Collins

Of course, I didn’t want [Dad] dead. I had a small child’s understanding of God but I can look back and see the Holy Spirit guarding me forever after that. I think there was a ‘peace that surpasses all understanding’ that I didn’t understand at the time. 

But I’ll tell you, the chaos that we lived through was no less easy. It was still outlandish, irrational, and it would make me angry so many times. I remember one Christmas, when I was in 8th Grade, Dad got drunk and dumped over the Christmas tree and I cussed him out. I used every word I ever learned from him back at him. I think he chased all of us out of the house. I think my behavior upset Mom more than his behavior upset her. Then I felt really terrible about how I had behaved.

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

That was my mode of operation. It happened to Tom once in a while, but I was always operating out of that. [And he’d tell me], it doesn’t help. It doesn’t do any good.

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Tom Collins

It doesn’t. It didn’t. I lost control—I just got so angry. I felt—it was so unnecessary. It was always unnecessary.

He shakes his head and laughs as his words run out. “Lyle, you’re getting a case study in dysfunction, and irrationality, unreason, and craziness.”

That I am. But I’m also getting a case study in the ways that mercy can educate us, can teach us that greater forces of anger and retribution and punishment do not overcome those that oppress us. I am learning how truly divine it is to interrupt the desire for death, and how mirroring dysfunction does nothing to alleviate it. What might have looked like complacency and passivity to an outsider was actually my uncle’s keen and hard-earned insight that his family’s safety depended on him not becoming the double of the father who resented him for his wisdom and resilience. “I’ve departed from [that peace] from time to time,” Tom says, “and bore the consequences of it. I can see the lapses and understand why the consequences are what they are and understand the restoration. [And that restoration is] never punitive.”

V. American Jesus

As we talk, Mom and Tom reflect on what this non-punitive nature of divine love has meant to them, and how it differs from the religion they see represented in politics today. Mainstream American Christianity, Mom opines, looks a good sight more like the dysfunction in their household than like the sheltering, interruptive love of her older brother:

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

Tom and I are both concerned about our culture and our democratic system. We both know that Trump isn’t the answer, that he is the problem. And so we’re nonplussed at the Christians who are so behind him with all these conspiracies going on. The Republicans certainly aren’t who these Christians think they are, and now these Christians aren’t who I thought they were, either. Tom is [also] disenchanted with the [Democratic Party], which isn’t the liberalism we defended and even fought for in the 60s and 70s.

These kinds of conversations go back decades in my family. Concerns for just action, just government, and the cause of peace go all the way back to their coffee table discussions of Tolstoy and Leonard Bernstein:

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

We didn’t sit around the table and talk about our day; we sat around and talked politics and fought with each other. I remember [Tom] unfolding the history of how we got into Vietnam and why he was against the war. He took us to a protest rally for Eugene McCarthy, who was running on the platform of ending the war. People talk about how hard and contentious this time of COVID and the elections has been for young people, [but] when I was in high school, students took over the universities. Then McCarthy backed out and Robert Kennedy walked in, and then in 1968 he and Martin Luther King Jr. were both assassinated. You talk about a contentious election; they weren’t just saying it was fraudulent, they were killed.

Thinking about political violence is not, for Mom and Tom, a digression from their memories about conversion, both in a religious sense and as regards their abusive father. The threads are all tangled up with one another. In the us-versus-them inanity of modern politics, my mother and uncle see the same, tired mechanisms of domestic dysfunction happening at a larger scale. The oppositional identities that produce political assassination brew and fester in suburban homes, in people who want for themselves the same level of reality—in the forms of respect, attention, or trust—that they see in television’s talking heads:

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

I remember watching the funeral for Robert Kennedy and crying. [Dad] was drinking, of course. All of a sudden he turned to me, and he had this angry look on his face, and he said ‘Who do you think you are, crying for Robert Kennedy? You think you’re better than me?’

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Tom Collins

He felt that. But it wasn’t true. He projected that onto other people: “You think you’re better than me.” He even told me that.

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

I think that’s held me back a lot, just that question: ‘Who do you think you are?’ As if you are nobody. And yet it was a projection, because he felt like he was nobody. 

It strikes me, here, that Grandpa displayed a perversely Christian spirit in these moments. Were he alive today, he might well have encountered a version of Christianity that held up a bullhorn to his drunken screeds: “Who do you think you are? You think you’re better than me?” But when he cussed out my uncle for becoming a self-righteous goody-two-shoes, he spoke from a feral conviction of his own weakness, and the threat which divine mercy posed to his violent pursuit of identity—a pursuit that Mom and I have learned to frame in terms of René Girard’s mimetic theory of desire and violence: 

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

[Girard says] we think that we fight because we’re different, but we fight because we’re the same. I know what he means [now]. He’s talking about human nature. We’re all the same. And so we fight each other because we’re all the same. We just want power over the ones that we’re the same as. And we want more sameness than they have, we want more human nature than they’ve got, which for some would translate into, ‘I want more violence than you because then I can terrorize you and have power over you.’

On both sides of the political divide, Mom finds voices that are hurting and disenfranchised, who recognize that their liberty—or something even more fundamental—is at stake. But securing your own identity, she observes, is often a recipe for oppression:

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

Even if we accomplish our goal, [without love] it’s going to be something that’s worse than what we have, or something as bad as what we had. We’re just going to change places. Martin Luther King Jr. went through this night in his kitchen [when] he realized, ‘This cannot be done without the love of God.’

She invokes King because, in the tumult of the last four years, she has come to believe that there is no more urgent task for the Christian witness in America than racial reconciliation. So flawed in the ways that we value persons, we risk violently “changing places” and blaspheming the name and reputation of Christ:

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

The greatest power that could be demonstrated is racial reconciliation between the black and the white church—for Jesus to really be the blood that runs through our veins. [John M. Perkins asks us] to recognize that we are ‘one blood’ through Christ. What a witness to the power of God that would be to the United States, which obviously is not as Christian as anybody thought it was. I’m hearing the protests of believers in Australia and England and France, looking at our election and going, ‘Were they ever Christians? We went there to be trained? We went there to prepare for the work we are doing here? We’re going to have to rethink all that of our training, because we don’t even know what they are.’

American Christians, it seems, have lost that resilience, permitting rote theological learning rather than the imitation of Christ to constitute their identities.

Mom is rethinking her own training, too—all those Bible classes she took in college, all those courses that cared more about properly regurgitating dispensational theology than they did about making disciples: “I felt the life of the scriptures beginning to go dry as it became exercises and assignments.” American Christians, it seems, have lost that resilience, permitting rote theological learning rather than the imitation of Christ to constitute their identities. Behavior produces character, but “statements of faith” can easily float free of their contexts and attach themselves to just about any convenient ideology. In conspiratorial hands, Jesus no longer saves us from our hollow, often violent pursuits of identity and into his own being, but rescues the faithful from the “deep state” or from an extraterrestrial reptilian elite. When that happens, the meek and non-punitive voice of the nonviolent Christ is easily muted: “I feel like I lost that [voice] in ministering to suburban Christians, many of whom are idiots,” Mom says, riling up. “Because they’re Trump supporters! They’re not really Christians! It’s like the face has been torn off the alien, and they really are lizards!”

She takes a breath as her grandson coos, and she looks a little ashamed of herself. Even now, with new perspective, the desire for justice and the gravity of rivalry prove hard to distinguish all of the time. She resumes with a quieter voice, reminding herself of her own complicity within this painful process: “[I also believed] there was justice, and that if bad people had to die for it, well, that was the price. Collateral damage. I didn’t realize that the Spirit of God in Mom and Tom [was teaching me otherwise].”

With this in mind, she softens her assessment: “It’s not all of them. There is a majority, a core at our church that is faithful, and alive, and I love them, and they’re always growing. But then, the periphery people—they’re so loud.” Mom has learned, through painful experience, that volume often correlates to irrationality. It was true for her father, and it’s true of those who defend God and country by taking to Facebook and spelling out, in excruciating detail, just how they wish their political opponents would meet gruesome ends. For these reasons and more, Mom isn’t precisely sure where she stands amidst her “brothers and sisters in Christ”:

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

There’s this real crisis causing me to reevaluate who I am. I think all the Christians in the United States need to sit before the Lord and repent and let him show them who He really is and how to follow the real God. I look at them and ask, ‘Well then, who am I?’ Because if I’m them, I need to get off the bandwagon and see what God is really [doing]. Because I think I went to sleep, through complacence. I’ve had a very comfortable life, and I’m almost at the point of being ashamed of that. 

VI. “He Took the Sword From My Hands”

There is a species-resemblance across all forms and scales of human violence. As my mother shares her stories and memories, I sense that there is real, analogical insight to glean here that will widen my peripheral vision and allow me to take in more of the world at once. There is something in my grandfather’s behavior and irrationality that also rings true for insidious and dictatorial forms of power elsewhere in the world.

But if selfishness and irrationality can scale until they swallow societies whole, then the same must be true of hope. “I’ve been thinking a lot about the Sabbath Year,” Mom says, as I ask how her ideas about politics have changed. “Everybody had to cancel everybody else’s debt. If you sold the land of your inheritance, it went back to you at the Year of Jubilee. God spelled out how he would provide abundance. But they couldn’t [follow through], so God couldn’t show them how he would keep those promises.” 

This social mandate to cancel debts and restore community feels impossible; indeed, it’s never truly been done. But when we balk at this idea, doesn’t that reaction itself teach us something about how hard it is for us to love the enemies already in our midst? The hope for political life must lie in a larger-scale performance of love; a love that can reconcile with a bitter old man who had closed off every path out of his personal hell:

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

I was thinking about one of my last conversations with Dad, when he was in the nursing home, and I found him in the wheelchair crying. He said he’d had a dream: ‘Your mother turned to me and said “I don’t want you to die.”’ And he said, ‘I’m not going to die.’ And then he really started to weep and he said, ‘But I was lying to her. I’ve been lying all my life.’

I know our memories play tricks on us, but I really hope this memory is true: I looked into his eyes and I said, ‘Dad, we’ve always known that, but we love you anyway. That’s why Christ died for you. You don’t have to carry that.’

And he just kind of pulled his head back and looked with wide eyes at me, and it was like I could either hold [him] accountable and make him say he’s sorry, or I could cancel the debt. And I canceled the debt. That was the thing Christ told me he was going to do: ‘I’m going to teach you how to love your father.’

I see how the purpose of God for all of us and our family was to teach us how to love that enemy in our midst. That realization, that I had to be taught how to love Dad, said that God knew he was somebody that couldn’t be loved on human strength. God would have to teach me how to do it—which was also an expression of his love for Dad. It was like God was pursuing him right to the end, and I believe he got him. He was pursuing that worthless, angry man—which makes him not worthless, right? Dad did not die a meaningless, hated scapegoat. Through our often half-hearted attempts, God chased him down.

That “worthless, angry man”, whom divine love pursued to the very end, found himself caught up in rivalry with the whole world. Feeling himself to be worthless, he projected feelings of superiority onto everyone around him. He lost himself in bid after violent bid for identity. In these ways, my basement-bound and alcoholic grandfather perhaps becomes a symbol that transcends generations. But so, too, does my uncle: his willingness to set aside his identity to protect his family—his kenosis, to use a theological term—paradoxically constitutes him as not only a person, but also a paradigm in my mother’s mind; her “broken, poverty stricken, anonymous family” becomes a universal model of hope’s long process and pursuing will. 

Decades ago, in that little home in Southeast Michigan that nobody was paying attention to, a drama unfolded that proved a microcosm of the whole human story—both its doom, and its glory. A battered woman insisted on reason and wholeness; an older brother’s leadership rescued his family from violence again and again. He smuggled truth and beauty to his siblings, and pulled them into drive-in movies so they could sleep. One of those films, however, kept my mother awake. It enthralled her, the way Strauss’s Blue Danube enthralled her brother. It called her back and has since become the pattern against which she sets her own story:

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

In [William Wyler’s] Ben-Hur, Judah seeks vengeance against his former best friend, and against all the Romans for destroying his family. But one of the servants from his house became a Christian, and he followed her to the Valley of the Lepers where he found his mother and sister. They begged him not to go back for vengeance. The servant talked him into taking [his family] to Jesus, saying He would heal them. 

So he is carrying his mother and sister, taking them to Jesus. But it’s the day of the Passion. It’s the day of the crucifixion, and they are marching Jesus through the streets [with the cross]. The servant girl is crying, saying, ‘We’re too late.’ But Judah hands his mother and his sister over to her, and says, ‘You haven’t failed.’ And he follows Jesus. 

Judah is watching the crucifixion and trying to understand. [The camera] flashes back and forth between the crucifixion and the mother and the sister and the servant girl in a cave, as a storm comes at the moment of Jesus’ death. Blood runs down the cross as rain pours into the cave, and then all of a sudden, [before] the poor servant girl’s eyes, the mother and the daughter get hot with pain and are restored completely.

Mom is weeping at this point, and I can’t help myself either. My son twists in her arms, confused by things I can only hope he will feel and understand one day.

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

Now Judah is making his way home, and he’s got this look of peace. Before he even knows his mother and sister can hear him, he describes the last moments and words of Jesus: ‘Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.’ He looks at the servant girl, and he says: 

‘I felt him take the sword out of my hand.’ 

That’s how I feel in my life: there was so much injustice in my family. If [Dad] understood how much chaos and hurt he was inflicting, he never said anything—and if he had, I would have beaten him back, all five-foot-two of me. But Jesus took the sword out of my hand; I stopped expecting from Dad what he did not have the strength or the wherewithal to give.

That’s not a big deal to the suburban church. They don’t get it. I can’t convince anyone that Jesus is real. But I can live my life demonstrating that He is real to me. I’ve got to get down to that place, where I am with people who know he is really alive. And I need to be around people who live their lives as if He is really alive, as if we can change the atmosphere in this world.  I hear God calling me to examine myself and to re-evaluate: Have I [so changed the atmosphere] in other areas of my life? Or have I played the game? Now, at 70, is it too late to recover? I have this sense: Lord, I don’t have that much time before you bring me home, but I don’t want to come home like this. I don’t know if we can bring peace to earth; but I know we’re responsible for changing the atmosphere in the places we live. 

I cannot help but believe that such lasting change will come through the persevering Toms of the world, their efforts witnessed by their mothers and sisters and nephews, their testimonies multiplying hope in knotted, thorny places. “I don’t know if anybody from our line is going to be a huge influence on history,” Mom says. “I know that it doesn’t matter to God.” And yet, to those who hear his story, Tom’s name is becoming shorthand for the needs of peacemakers all over the world:

Young Sharon
Sharon Enright

It strikes me that the world is getting to such a state that [the Toms] could become discouraged that what they’re doing isn’t enough—or that nobody is noticing what they are doing. It’s important they know that there are people watching them and that there are people that are getting it; they may not be getting it perfectly, but they are getting it; they’re in process. And they can’t stop.

“Those who know God,” Uncle Tom says, “and who rely on his peace, are to provide—to the extent they can—an atmosphere of peace and to bring God’s peace to others.” This, to him, is the whole of the Gospel, free of the politics and the exceptionalism that have impeded it. It is the Gospel of a God who sides with the victims of violence, who bends to be with the last and the least; so transformed, they may even teach dry bones to live, modeling what Judith Butler calls “the desire for the other’s desire to live. A way of saying: you are grievable. The loss of you is intolerable, and I want you to live. I want you to want to live, so take my desire as your desire for yours is already mine.”

“That’s Tom,” Mom says. “That was Tom. And that is Tom. That’s my big brother.”