There are certain things I’ve witnessed in my life that I will never forget. And if they never happen again in my lifetime, it will still be too soon.
I didn’t know anything was different about my older brother Michael until I started first grade. Michael was held back to repeat second grade, so he was only a year ahead of me. It was the first time he and I attended the same school.
My parents tasked Michael with walking me home from Hatch Elementary School every day. I learned he was different on our very first day of school. As we were walking home together that day, a few kids from Michael’s class followed close behind. They started yelling a word I had never heard before. Retard.
One boy began gesturing wildly with his arms and hands as though suffering from a physical disability and slurring his speech as we turned to see if they were talking to us. His gestures and words were met with a chorus of laughter from his friends.
I can’t quite describe the gestures, but this is what they were doing.
To me, Michael was just my normal older brother. The person charged with such big brother jobs as walking me home from school and protecting me from anybody who intended to do me harm. It was clear in that moment that my protector Michael needed protection himself.
I grabbed Michael’s hand. We turned around and picked up our pace. I didn’t know what the word retard meant. That night I asked my mom about it. That’s when she explained to me that Michael was different from the other kids.
She explained to me that Michael has autism. He is very social, his memory is incredible, but he struggled with delayed cognition and comprehension. I didn’t see how that changed the brother that I’d always known, but apparently it set him apart as far as the other kids were concerned.
I also remember her telling me that those children were being very cruel and that if it ever happened again, to just ignore it. She would call the school and deal with the problem, but if it happened again, just walk away.
I think most of us were told something similar when we grew up. If we encounter a bully, ignore them. Rise above it. Kill them with kindness. Turn the other cheek. Take the high road. All various iterations on the same sentiment. Eventually they’ll go away.
But the next day, it happened again. This time there were more kids. Michael and I turned away and pretended not to hear it.
It happened again and again. I kept asking my parents if we could fight back. If we could do or say anything. They reiterated to us that we will never regret taking the high road.
They were half right. The high road should always entail demanding accountability for actions.
So throughout that school year, it would come and go. My parents called the school to try to stop it, and it would cool down for a few weeks, but then it would crop back up again. Michael and I would take different routes home, but they would eventually find us and follow us. We would wait around in the playground a little bit longer after school let out, but they would wait too. If they didn’t do it after school, they would do it at lunch or recess. We couldn’t hide.
It was also increasing in intensity. They were following closer, yelling louder, using far fouler language. One kid snatched Michael’s winter hat off of his head and yelled as he threw it on the ground at Michael’s feet that the hat made his head look like a doorknob. Michael never wore that hat again.
Throughout all of this, the one thing that would get the biggest laugh was when one of the kids pantomimed having a physical disability and slurred his speech in an attempt to mock Michael. We often came home crying. In fact, I’m close to crying now as I retell this story.
It finally escalated one winter day after school. We were making our way home particularly slowly because there was snow on the ground. The group of kids caught up to us and began laying into Michael and me. But this time, one of the boys, Stuart, ran closer to us and shoved Michael.
Michael stumbled forward and they knocked his backpack off of him. Ignore it. Stuart threw it to the ground and spit on it. Take the high road. His friends laughed louder and louder. He spit again at our feet and exclaimed, “that’s for you!” Let it go. He spit again, this time for me. Rise above. He spit again, this time for our kindergarten-aged younger brother TJ, and a final time for my parents.
Seeing the spit trailing down Michael’s backpack into the snow, I looked into Stuart’s eyes and yelled Fuck you!
There was a hush that came over the crowd that had gathered around us. The kind of schoolyard hush that only follows the utterance of a bad word.
I knew I was in trouble. I felt terrible. Michael grabbed my hand and we ran the rest of the way home as best we could in the snow.
Michael and I ran into our house in tears. My mom asked what had happened and we told her the story. I’ll never forget the look on her face as we recounted what the boys had done that day. I told her there was something else to tell her too. I had to confess. I didn’t want another kid who had heard what I said to tell on me. I told her I said the F-word.
She had a serious look on her face. She told us we’d be okay, but she had to go make a quick call to our father who was still at work.
I begged her to let me be the one to call him and tell him. I thought she was just calling to tell him I’d said a bad word and that they needed to punish me. She let me take the phone and tell my dad the whole story. I told him I’d said the F-word and that I was very sorry and I’d never say it again. He asked me to put my mom back on the phone.
They didn’t punish me.
I don’t know what she told the school or those children’s parents that day, but I know that the violence certainly stopped. The mocking didn’t, but it slowed down a great deal.
I still felt guilty about yelling back. I felt dirty. I had gone down to their level. They were in the wrong, clearly, but nothing good can come from meeting nastiness with nastiness.
When Michael was in high school, my dad took us to my cousin John’s football game. As we were standing in line for tickets, my dad and Michael both facing the ticket window, I saw the other high schoolers behind us begin to do that same mocking motion with their arms. One of the boys pointed to Michael and let his tongue fall out of his mouth as he made the mocking gestures. His friends all snickered behind us. My dad turned around and the boys quickly stopped laughing and gesturing. I wanted to punch their lights out. I ignored it, but I’ve never forgotten it.
John F. Kennedy once said, on diplomacy, “we do not need to use threats to prove that we are resolute.” I’ve always liked that. Bullying, threats, bombast, cruel language. Those things have no place in civil society. They will never elevate our level of discourse, nor will they ever make any of the participants feel good.
But what do you do when rising above doesn’t stop the bullying? When it doesn’t stop that bully from escalating or spreading the cruelty?
I’ve encountered many bullies in my life. Even as an adult. If ignoring it is hard, then rising above is even harder.
A few weeks ago, my older brother disappeared. He lived in an adjoining separate-entrance apartment next to my mom and her partner’s house in San Diego. He works full time in a supervised environment in the mess hall at the San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot serving food to the hundreds of recruits every day. He loves the job.
These recruits are often young 18 year old kids, many just leaving home for the first time ever, and they are in a new environment. Michael gives them a sense of calm and respect every single day as he greets them all by name with a smile. He makes conversation with them as he serves them food. It’s great for him because it helps him with his social skills. It is great for the recruits to have a smiling face three times a day who cares about them in the middle of their intense boot camp experience.
My moms got home from work one day and Michael was gone. Many of his things were missing too. His phone was off and the location services were turned off on his iPad. He had surgery less than a week before and so he was medically fragile. We didn’t know if he had his medication (his SSRI he takes for his autism symptoms as well as his post-op antibiotics), his C-PAP machine for his sleep apnea, or any money to feed himself.
As days went by we learned that a man had met up with Michael at some point and convinced him to leave home and sign a lease for an apartment with him. He took Michael’s phone and turned it off.
We had no idea where he was. None of slept or ate for days. I sat watching the “Find My Phone” app wondering if he’d turn on the iPad he shared with my mom and it would give us a location.
I looked into his recent calls and found the last number he called before he disappeared. I called that number and it went to voicemail. The outgoing voicemail message gave the man’s full name. It sounded like a familiar name. So I looked into him, found that he was a friend of Michael’s on Facebook and then searched his background.
As soon as I saw the photo of that man with the familiar name, I realized who it was. It was one of the boys who used to make fun of Michael after school.
He had a criminal history. Three prior convictions. His interests included “shooting” on Facebook. Was this the man who took Michael? Did he have a gun?
I began calling and texting the number off the hook, but he wouldn’t tell us where Michael was or whether he was safe and had his medication. I’ve never texted someone “I love him, I beg of you please don’t hurt him” before, and I hope none of you ever have to do that in your lives.
Finally, after days and days of searching for him and watching Find My Phone, he turned his iPad on. We had a location. My mom left work and went to the location immediately. Nobody was home, but she saw Michael’s things as she looked over the fence in the backyard. There was a stuffed animal that Michael loved and it was laying on the grass in the backyard. That was it. She waited and waited but nobody came home.
Michael was able to contact us via Facebook messenger but he kept telling us he couldn’t tell us where he was and not to come find him. We were baffled. The way he was talking was unlike any way he’d ever talked before. Telling us to leave him alone, don’t come to his house.
We soon found out why.
At some point during the 12 days Michael was missing, he went to urgent care for an infection. We had no way to contact him because he wasn’t technically missing. He was a 32 year old man who, as they saw it, left of his own free will.
He hadn’t shown up to work the entire time he was missing. He missed all of his doctors appointments. Nobody was able to ascertain whether he was really safe or where he was.
As each day passed and Michael’s very brief contact with us showed more signs of his extreme anxiety, we had to act. We called a friend of his, a SDPD officer, and my uncle, a retired Navy captain and former Navy SEAL. They showed up to the address we had recently found and rang the doorbell early on the morning of July 8. He had been gone since June 27.
A young man answered the door and as soon as he saw who was there, he slammed it shut again. The officer and my uncle noticed that all the shades were drawn shut. They convinced the man to reopen the door and asked to see Michael. The man said Michael doesn’t have to go with them, he’s fine. They reiterated that they were there to see Michael. Michael woke up and made his way downstairs to the front door. A look of extreme fear came over him. The man blocked the front door between the officer and Michael and he wouldn’t let Michael answer questions they were asking him.
My uncle asked him to come out of the house. As Michael began to walk through the door, the man blocked him again and said no, let me talk to him. He shut the door on my uncle and the officer. Behind the closed door, he spent ten minutes trying to tell my brother not to go. My brother later told me the man seemed very scared. They reopened the door and the man said Michael would not be going and he wanted to be left alone. My uncle asked him if this was true. Michael’s hands began to shake and walk toward my uncle. Michael kept repeating “it’s fine, I can go, I’ll be fine.” He walked out safely with my uncle and the officer.
We got him.
This photo was taken minutes after my uncle drove him away from the house he was held in. As soon as my uncle told us he’d had Michael in a safe place, I got in the car and drove with Michael’s autism assistance dog Rocco. It was the first time he saw Rocco and me after having been gone for 12 days. He was finally safe.
We found out from Michael what had happened. The man who took Michael had convinced him to open up a joint checking account with him. They signed a lease together for an apartment, using Michael’s social security number and good credit. He took Michael into the local social security administration office and filled out a form to make himself Michael’s new representative payee on all of Michael’s future monthly SSI payments. He even tried to get Michael’s work to put direct deposit payments of Michael’s paychecks into their new joint account.
The man had also told Michael that he had a gun in the house and would hurt or shoot anybody from Michael’s family who tried to come take him out of the house. He kept all of the windows shut with the shades drawn. He had even covered up the apartment’s intercom/doorbell system so that when somebody rang the bell, Michael wouldn’t hear it. He told Michael his family didn’t care about him. Michael was very confused and very scared.
It made sense now why he kept telling us not to come to the house. It made sense why Michael was shaking when he saw the officer and my uncle standing at his front door that morning. The man had told him repeatedly that he had a gun and would hurt anybody who tried to take Michael. And Michael had been watching the news. The night before, several Dallas police officers had been tragically shot and killed. When he saw his uncle and that officer at his door talking to the man who had taken him, he was sure that he was about to watch that man shoot my uncle or the officer for trying to take him.
It is a miracle that he walked out of the door that morning. I don’t use that word lightly.
In the few weeks since we found him, his anxiety has been through the roof. He is having severe flashbacks and panic episodes. I talk to him for hours on the phone trying to keep him calm and tell him he’s safe and it will never happen again. I hope he believes me.
Having watched this whole process unfold, minute-by-minute. Remembering that man as the young boy who joined his friends in laughing at Michael after school. Knowing that he likely gained Michael’s confidence by letting Michael finally feel cool. Like he was finally friends with one of the popular kids from grade school who used to make fun of him.
The word angry is not strong enough to describe how I feel.
When it comes to bullies and those who wish to do us harm, ignoring it is not enough. Rising above is not enough. It’s just a start.
But it’s a necessary starting point. We have to start with respect, but continue to make people accountable for their actions. We have to question them when they act the way that they do.
Now, when Michael hears the word retard come from somebody’s mouth, even as a joke, he calmly and earnestly asks that person why they chose that word. He then politely suggests that they visit www.r-word.org.
I encourage you to do the same when you hear hateful language. Maybe they’ve just never have heard the words they use used against them or against somebody they love in a hateful way. How lucky they truly are. So, please, respectfully use it as an opportunity to bring something to that person’s attention and even to educate them.
If you see a presidential nominee mock a person with a disability by slurring his or her speech and stuttering and moving his or her body in a mocking way, all to get a laugh, hold that person accountable. Expect your media to do the same.
If you witness bullying, in any form, intervene. Respectfully ask that person what they are hoping to accomplish by their behavior. Let them know that that sort of behavior and language has no place in society. We are better than that and that’s not how we treat people.
The burden of defeating bullies is not just on the bullied. It is on the witnesses too.
And if we we’ve learned anything about bullies, it’s that bullying unchecked in children only grows with them.
If you truly want to make America great, start with the little actions you can take every single day to set a good example and to hold people accountable for their harmful words and actions.
We are all witnesses, so we all have some work to do.
I’ll close by showing you some of Michael’s artwork. Since he was a young child, he’s carried a small plastic briefcase with him everywhere he goes. It contains his sketchpads and art supplies so that he can stop and draw whenever he feels that he needs to calm down. Drawing has always been a common denominator throughout his life to manage his anxiety. His artwork is incredible. He draws what he sees in the world.
He has faced more bullying and cruelty and people taking advantage than most of us will ever face in a lifetime. And yet he draws what he sees.
He draws his friends, his family members, his heroes, saints, buddhas and bodhisattvas. His subjects all have one thing in common: they are calm and compassionate people who have sought to make the world a better place.
I want to be just like him when I grow up.