Violence, Brotherhood, and Life in the North Country
Zak Breckenridge on Coming to Terms with Family and Belonging
He calls me and says, “I got a good North Country story for ya.” Then after the story he says, “I don’t know, man. I just feel like it would be cool to write something about the people up here. They’re such fuckin’ characters.” Or he’ll say, “If we could just write something about Mom and Dad, you know. I think our upbringing was super unique.” He has also talked about writing rants about people who don’t know the fucking speed limits around here, who hold him up on the two-lane highways that wind through our mountains. Or about making a website that would provide snarky news about the North Country, with headlines like Wilburs Still Fucking Inbred and Way to Fuck It Up, APA. We’ve been having one-way conversations about his writing projects for years. Sometimes he talks about working on them together, and sometimes he talks about doing it himself. I tend not to say much.
When someone asks me where I’m from, I always speak in terms of distance—and up there, distance is always a matter of time: six hours from New York City, seven hours from Buffalo, two hours from Montreal, 45 minutes to the nearest movie theater. It is a part of the country that is not on the way to any other part of the country, a region of one-stoplight towns stretched along two-lane state roads. Places where a tourist might buy a flask of maple syrup, or might not stop at all. People say, “Oh, it must be very beautiful there.”
I say, “It is.”
If you ever went there, you would most likely come by I-87, which begins as a nondescript freeway at the New Jersey border and runs north through suburban sprawl and scrubby forest to Albany, where it crosses I-90. The first ninety minutes or so past Albany make for dull, crowded driving, and you would pass exits for places like Halfmoon, Clifton Park, Burnt Hills, and Ballston Spa. But after Saratoga Springs, the shoulder sweeps back to become fields of dull grass that stretch back to forests. There is a rustic sign near Lake George Village marking the boundary of the Adirondack Park. As you got deeper into the park, the sun would probably set, and your headlights would scrape across evergreens and rock faces, and you might start to feel terribly alone, terribly far from the illuminated world. But if you are headed to my home, you have a lot of time still on the road.
At this point you may roll down the window, air wobbling through your car, and notice the wind feels thick like cool velvet, and the night may seem more purple than black, now that you taste it rushing through the window. The last exits before you get there will seem impossibly far apart, as if the road were distending and slipping away just beyond the reach of your headlights. If you turn right as you come out of Westport and follow the dips and curves of Lake Shore Road, you will have to watch out for porcupines. Sometimes you will see them sitting in the road, gnawing on a fallen branch. The trees will be dense, and this road, short as it is, will feel long. When you arrive in Essex, it will be quiet. The red light at the bottom of the hill will be blinking, and the moon will paint the clouds with its own pallor. And when you pull into the driveway, there may be a light left on for you.
People used to ask us all the time whether we were twins, and if you look at the pictures from that time, you can see why. Fervent grins cluttered with little teeth and big round glasses stitching each face together. Aside from the two years he spent as an only child, we lived in the same house in the same town, where there was nowhere to go until we both left for college. And because we were homeschooled, we spent most of our early lives together, running and shouting and often breaking one another’s matching glasses.
At the Bundeswehr Military History Museum in Dresden, before entering their exhibit detailing the seven-hundred-year history of war in Europe, you are greeted by a statue of Cain and Abel. Abel is draped across a rock, and Cain leans over him, lanky and cruel, club in hand. They are the first brothers in the Abrahamic tradition, and their dispute over the love of the father ends in the first murder. Romulus and Remus, the primordial Latinate brothers, don’t fare any better. Pay attention to brother stories and you will notice the pattern. Thor and Loki are fated to kill one another when they meet at Ragnarok. Set dismembers Osiris and hides his body parts. Zeus and Poseidon banish Hades to the underworld. The statue in Dresden suggests that history can be read as a series of brotherly disputes. Edward Abbey says, “We are kindred all of us, killer and victim, predator and prey.”
The republican revolutionaries of the 18th century envisioned a form of government in which all men could be brothers and fought lengthy wars to realize this vision. For them, brotherhood was an ideal relationship between humans, a symbol of society organized on the basis of equality and freedom. But this vision came with an anxiety most acutely captured in Hobbes’s Leviathan. For Hobbes, equality among brothers also means equal potential to kill and be killed, and his political philosophy was designed to manage this mortality. For him, equality is a terrible fact of human nature that must be feared and controlled. It is a brotherhood inextricably bound up with violence and bloodshed. It had no beginning that I can remember, which is perhaps why I have turned to myth to make sense of it. I’ve been told that when I was an infant, with barely the motor function to scream, he would pinch me and twist my ears when our parents weren’t looking. Mom hadn’t stopped nursing him by the time I arrived, so he would push himself into her embrace while I was being fed, scrambling to shift me from her breast. I only remember being, around the age of five, all of a sudden bigger than him.
Our parents are not the kind of people to claim favorites, to say that one of us is dearer to them than the other. We were taught to take pride in the love we all shared—We are the richest family in love that I know, I remember Dad saying. But despite the fact that Ben was always, every time, the one who got hurt, I think we both believed they were on my side. They knew him. They knew he had trained me. They were accepting of my violence. I could tell them it was his fault, and they would believe me.
Ben gives me a lot of advice, and offers to help and protect me almost as often. But as much as he wants to be the older brother who guards and provides, we have spent most of our lives as bitter equals. As the younger brother, it was easy to feel subordinate to him, and I am only now coming to grips with the power I have always held in our relationship. Back then, he could twist whatever I said, cut me into whatever he wanted me to be with his words. To protect myself, I acquired a short fuse. I cultivated rage, kept a reservoir in my belly. I learned to explode at any sign of danger, to escalate quickly. Rage was the barrier I raised against my brother’s quiet, emotional warfare. I have thrown him into the rough stone wall behind our house, giving him a cut in his scalp that needed six stitches. I have pushed his face into the snow and held it there. I have hit his gut and head first, because they are weak points, over nothing more than a sentence from his mouth. I have broken my toe on his tailbone.
Most of the fights are gone now, reduced by forgetting to a residual paste of ugly feeling. There is one that has stuck. The cause is gone, but the aftermath is not. He was curled over, head down, knees and elbows beneath him. My fists were working up and down his back, seeking organs and muscle knots. I was perhaps ten. I had spent half of my life beating him up, saving up my rage. I had been told before that I could really hurt him, that I was getting bigger and I might do some real damage. It was the first time my conscience won against my rage. I sobbed partly from guilt over what I had done, but more out of fear of what I might do.
When we were beginning to cultivate a friendship, Ben told me that he had once drawn a Civil War army guy on an apology letter for me. I had told him it was a bad drawing. He claims not to have drawn since. Who knows how often I have wounded someone without thinking or noticing, but the wounds inflicted on my brother are the ones I am not allowed to forget.
Recently we were hiking up South Bouquet, a hike we have taken a dozen times together. The day was hot but a breeze was blowing in off the lake, making the trees and their dappled shadows tremble. I had started an argument about money. We walked fast, enjoying the day and the disagreement. “I really think,” he finally said, close to the top, “that you have to fight all the time to go up the societal ladder, and if you don’t you’re gonna get sucked back under.” For him the world is all aggressive verticality, a claustrophobic tube of upward and downward pressures. It is a worldview built of the endless violence he reads in the news every day, the poverty surrounding our home, and the cocksure privilege that suffused the college he graduated from. He has told me that he feels a sort of moral duty to look at the cruelty and suffering embedded in the daily news, as if he secretly believes that he is the last person in the world who still cares. This tubular world is probably a harsher, more uncompromising vision than I will ever be able to stomach. But I also cannot shake the feeling that I laid its foundation with my knuckles and the bridges of my feet.
Ben can sweet-talk a rich tourist into buying the most expensive dish on the menu, and he can talk guns and deer at the Fish and Game Club, but his unfiltered thoughts rarely find expression outside the immediate family. I sometimes wonder whether I am the only person with enough practice to follow their movement. He thinks in swooping, repetitive arcs and spirals, though his opinions are rooted in statistics and facts, and his diction is blunt and hard, full of cunts and fucks. Listening to him is disorienting, sometimes gross, and rarely uplifting. But there is a poetry, an ethical kernel beneath the chaos of his speech. In his vertical world, injustice is always justified, a side-effect of the universal need to claw up the ladder. But he also documents, obsessively, to himself, every instance of injustice he can find.
He told me this: a teenage girl in Potsdam is strangled to death. The community decides, collectively, that (in Ben’s words) “the one black guy up there did it.” He is tried, let off, then tried again. Their bloodlust not yet sated, the locals demand “justice” for the girl in a thinly veiled call for racial retribution. Not long after, the DA in charge of the case is pulled over for a DUI with her kids in the car (which New York State legally has Zero Tolerance for) and gets off with a few months of probation. How fucked is that?
Which is at least how Ben tells the story. I may be the only one he has told it to.
He looks at the soul of the region closer and harder than I ever have. He wants to belong, but he carries spite for it as well. Amid his chaos, he can do both. I admire him, grudgingly, for being willing to look. But I worry that he hides this dimension of himself in part because I, long ago, told him his drawing was bad.
Article XIV of the New York State Constitution reads: “The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.” By calling its Forest Preserve “forever wild,” the state of New York put in place the most stringent and longest-standing wilderness conservation law ever penned in this country. The region we come from, the Adirondacks, is more than eight times larger than the forest preserve’s southern portion, the Catskills. Because it is one of the few sections of the eastern seaboard not stripped bare in the scramble for resources, the land and the flora feel old. It is a place of deep greens and soft browns, a place where clouds cling to mountains.
The culture of this place, a consequence of the land’s legal preservation, has hardly been documented. It is perhaps known to some as the home of the Great Camps, those sprawling playgrounds of downstate wealth. But because the region is so meticulously protected, no industry has ever flourished and no fortune was ever made there. Only Russell Banks, as far as I know, has presented the region to the outside world as anything other than a vacation spot: in Rule of the Bone, a glue-sniffing teenage pot dealer, kicked out of his mom’s trailer for stealing from his stepdad’s coin collection, ends up crashing with a white-supremacist biker gang living above the video store in Au Sable; The Sweet Hereafter begins with a bus full of schoolchildren plunging into a lake, drowning all but the driver. The last time I was at the Meat Market, the closest grocery store now that the Grand Union has gone out of business, the women behind me were talking about how he beat the shit of out of ’er again, but she still won’ leave ’im. They caught me eyeing their twelver of Twisted Tea and told me to keep my hands off it, get your own. They were grinning. They seemed like they’d already had a couple.
The way they tell it, our parents’ discovery of Essex becomes a kind of love story. Dad says he “tried to grow up” on Long Island and spent his youth hopping freight trains, living in teepees, and listening to Bob Dylan. Mom comes from Oregon and still describes herself as a “flower child.” They came to the North Country, like many of their friends, as perpetual vacationers. They took on the financial challenge of living there in the name of love for the place. The cultural geography was a nonissue for them, something they accepted but never identified with. Rather, the North Country would serve as the setting for their lives. The pastoral backdrop to their nuclear family.
We were raised like plants watered too often and left too long in the sun, bloated on the light of affection. Ben says things like “Mom is the ultimate helicopter parent,” or “Dad is the whitest dude on earth.” We don’t use the same words, but he’s not wrong. Though they were products of the counterculture, when they became parents, the safety and intellectual cultivation of their children became their top priority. If there was violence in this, it was that we were so well-protected and nurtured that we never had to struggle for anything, so that now our too-glossy leaves droop under their own weight. Or perhaps the violence was that we were kept too long together in one house, our coming and going always mediated by our parents. I learned recently that we were homeschooled because Mom was worried that Ben wouldn’t hold up under the pressure of public school. The first day of kindergarten, once he was finally talked into entering the classroom, Ben built a wall of blocks around himself and refused to come out. He was smart, and weird, and fragile, and she wanted to keep him safe. You never met two children who were better protected from everything except each other.
I learned from them that the world was a backdrop for my fulfillment. Growing up in one of the oldest and most majestic nature preserves in the country, I was most interested in TV shows, computer games, and books. Home was important to me only insofar as it was nowhere, a kind of tabula rasa from which I could approach the rest of the world. Without planning to leave Essex, I assumed I would not always be there. I saw it as a non-place, where I did and experienced little.
We went back to school when I was 13 and he was 15, and by then I had already begun to cut him off. As I disassociated myself from my brother, I also disassociated myself from my rage. I had begun to understand myself as a ruthlessly rational person, and part of that rationality was a studied distance from my feelings. I could hardly muster enthusiasm, let alone rage. And as I became cold, I settled into a cold war with my brother. We did little together. We did not have many interests in common. When Ben got into rock climbing, eventually building a bouldering cave in our shed, I never climbed in it. It was his, and I wanted it to be only his.
When he was 16, he studied abroad in Geneva. On a late-night walk, after he was back, he offered me a cigarette. I was mortified. Ours was a family that did not value intoxication. To our parents, smoking was a good way to kill yourself (Like lighting a pile of toxic waste on fire and breathing in the smoke), and drinking was a tool that other people used to impair their judgment. I went to college early because high school was choking me, not to escape the restrictions of my parents, but I found myself in an environment with a different set of standards, in which there was as much profundity to be found in an acid trip as in the Complete Works of Walter Benjamin. The summer after my first year, the summer I turned 17 and Ben was 18, he offered to smoke me up, and we started smoking together after our parents went to bed. He was providing the pot, so I couldn’t complain about hanging out with him, and I was hanging out with him, so he couldn’t complain that he was providing all the pot. I was still in the cold war. I would have been fine to carry on without him. We likely have a relationship today because he wanted a smoking buddy, wanted that person to be me, wanted my company. This became our institution. We would smoke and he would speak and I would listen.
When I left home, I did not think of it as a departure. My college was in the Berkshires, a quaint cloister of the New England liberal arts variety. For many of my classmates it was an exposure to wild rural life, cut off from the convenience and rhythms of the city. The Berkshires have a different texture than the Adirondacks. My new home, Great Barrington, Massachusetts, was not so much a rural village as an urban annex engineered to imitate the city-dweller’s idea of New England. It has coffee shops, a movie theater, a concert hall, several good restaurants, a used book shop, and a shopping plaza. Both New York City and Boston are about two hours away. It feels more like an escape than a backwater. Even the rolling hills and dense maples of the Berkshires seem, compared to the Adirondacks, tame, safe, and unimposing. It was, at best, an anemic simulation of home.
While I was in the Berkshires conducting careful experiments with psychedelics and philosophies, Ben first joined a fraternity at a small state university near home—in his words, getting blackout drunk four nights a week, blowing a bunch of coke, and yelling at black people. These brothers, driven by honor and liquor, picked fights in the streets with other bands of brothers. He then moved to a liberal arts school in the northwest corner of the Adirondacks and set about escaping himself with weed, booze, cough syrup. One night I get a call from him, and the first words out of his mouth are “Dude, I just jumped out a window!” When he finally reconstructs the story, I find out that he had been in a girl’s third-story dorm room and busted through her window screen to get out. He hadn’t figured out what happened in that room; his blackout had cleared when he hit the ground.
Back home, he would tell me stories in our shed late at night, so I hold ragged memories, which are really his, that are for me bound up with the smell of pot smoke and the feel of grime and sawdust beneath my palms. I would listen for hours, uncomfortable, staring at my boots, adrift in his internal chaos. He would tell me about the fights he had started, the girls his brothers had raw-dogged, and tell me that real men don’t cry. I was, at this time, a young and precocious college student, mired in theories of death, perception, and fear, and I was in profound, mind-altering love. I don’t know if I wanted to tell Ben any of this, but I never did. The words for all of it seemed foreign from the floor of the shed, as if written in the wrong alphabet. What did he think of me then, lanky, pale, and silent? We’ve since found a common language, but those nights beneath the smoke and the orange light remain untranslated.
I am now both the brother who got away and the brother who writes. Of the two of us, he is the one who knows where we come from, and I am the one with the words to say it. I listened to our parents, figuring I should go where I wanted to go and be who I wanted to be, and he fought them, thinking, on some level, that it was wrong to be from a place without being a local. So I am not the brother who drives a secondhand pickup truck and fixes motorcycles in his free time, and he is not the brother who graduated summa cum laude. I am not the brother who accidentally shot a swan while duck hunting, and he is not the brother who rented an apartment in Chicago with Mom and Dad’s money. I am not the brother who affects a North Country accent when I have to pick up a lawn mower or buy a bag of mulch. And he is not the brother who sat down to write this.
Home took on substance and specificity for me only after I started leaving. I studied abroad in England, ostensibly to write poetry, and after five months of damp air and thick, lingering hangovers, no sight could have been more welcome than the purple obtuse mountain angles and the flat blue lake I saw from the plane. The land and the lake were mine in a way I hadn’t known before I left. Perhaps something similar has happened between Ben and me. When I went to Chicago for graduate school, he called me for months before I called him back. Apart, we had more in common. What we shared was a home: a wild landscape and neurotically warm parents. I listened more than I spoke, but I was there to listen.
My brother and I were raised into a crisis of belonging, and while he labored to belong to that place, I drifted away. He tells me that before he’s 40 he wants to own a piece of land “up here,” so he can grow pot and ride his dirt bikes in the summer and snowmobiles in the winter. And while I can see myself visiting his camp, maybe following him on a bike down the single-track path across his land, I cannot see my future plot of land. I have always been leaving. My distant return home will be a return to my brother.
There is a thought experiment about a fly in a glass. The fly can see through the glass but cannot see the glass itself, because the glass is the condition of the fly’s seeing. Our parents always said Ben was the tone-setter of our family: he decided what we all reacted to every day. My brother is the world I grew up in. He was not a nurturing environment. From him I learned to hurt and be hurt. Words were his weapons when we were young, which is perhaps why I have dedicated much of my life to language.
My parents remind me that he would kill to protect me, and he would, but in my dream last night he told me he hates me. I ache with love for him, and I watch as, in my search to understand him, I dig into him, with words like scalpels, exploring his tender organs. Ben tries to process the world by coming up with things he could write about. He wants to know who he is and where he’s from and why he’s so fucked up, and not-writing is how he poses those questions. He will probably never write about home without my help, and I will probably never help him. My writing remains my own personal territory, as the Adirondacks remain his. His invitation to work with him might be another army-guy drawing, another peace offering in this old war we’ve been swept up in. And it may be the cease-fire I will not sign.
This essay originally appears in The Common, Issue No. 13.