Judy Brown wrote the con­tro­ver­sial nov­el Hush—a final­ist for the 2011 Syd­ney Tay­lor Award for out­stand­ing book on the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence — under a pseu­do­nym because of feared back­lash from the Chas­sidic world. Brown’s iden­ti­ty has since been revealed and she has left Chas­sidism. Her new book, This is Not a Love Sto­ry, is now avail­able. She is blog­ging here today for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

You can’t call your crazy broth­er crazy.”

My agent told this to me — the very first thing he said when read­ing my man­u­script about my autis­tic broth­er. Alright, he said it some­what more tact­ful­ly, some­thing like — your ide­al read­ers will have very strong feel­ings about these issues,’ dron­ing on about how and when to use the word crazy’ ” which sound­ed like gib­ber­ish to me because my broth­er was def­i­nite­ly crazy. 

When I was eight years old my moth­er told me the same. Stop call­ing your broth­er retard­ed,” she said, after I’d asked her when my retard­ed broth­er would stop being retard­ed. She winced at my casu­al use. But for me it wasn’t an insult. It was sim­ply a fact, a way to describe the strange and unsolv­able mys­tery that was my younger sib­ling; a boy who could not speak, who flailed his arms like a fran­tic chick­en if you got too close to his face. 

And now they were at it again; edi­tors and agent telling my eight-year-old nar­ra­tive voice what I could and could not call my own brother. 

So we com­pro­mised. I would call my broth­er crazy as often as I’d want, but cut down on the word retard­ed, replac­ing it, at least some of the time, with the more ele­gant (diplo­mat­ic?) strange,’ or odd,’ and oth­er such adjec­tives to make peo­ple I did­n’t know or care for, feel bet­ter. Yeah what­ev­er. My broth­er was nuts. 

It’s fun­ny. Because he and I laugh about it today, all those years and so many changes later. 

Nuu,’ he says chuck­ling, when insist­ing on a par­tic­u­lar way of doing things,” — what is there to do? I am your crazy brother…” 

So we agree. We are all a lit­tle crazy — the bus dri­ver talk­ing to him­self when he thinks no one’s look­ing, the man danc­ing down the street like there’s no tomor­row, the peo­ple who spend fif­teen mil­lion on a house. It’s a crazy, crazy world, and here we are scared to call it just that. 

But you can’t tell an eight-year-old how to talk, how to put pret­ty lit­tle lies on every­one else’s thoughts as they move cau­tious­ly away on the bus or at the piz­za shop, try­ing not to stare at that-retarded-boy. 

It was hurt­ful as a child, lis­ten­ing to the coun­selors in sum­mer day camp laugh at his strange behav­ior, watch­ing a fam­i­ly friend shoo him away as if he were a cat, while I could nev­er do the same. There was nowhere to hide, not when we were bound tight by the eter­nal and impos­si­ble cords of fam­i­ly. Because this was my own flesh-and-blood broth­er, so strange, so mad, so crazy, and nobody was gonna tell me how to call it, not then, not now. 

I remem­ber my daugh­ter com­ing off the bus at age nine, and telling me about a new and sep­a­rate class which just opened up in her school for dif­fer­ent-kind-of girls. The teach­ers had each gath­ered their stu­dents around them, explain­ing that they must be extra nice to these oth­er girls. 

What kind of dif­fer­ent-kind-of-girls,” I asked. 

… retard­ed girls,” she said, then quick­ly changed her mind. I mean, I mean, not retard­ed — just diff — .” She stopped, try­ing to remem­ber. Then remem­bered. Dif­fer­ent.”

Dif­fer­ent?” I asked, as if I could­n’t under­stand. What, like they have peach hair?”

No, no,” she said. Dif­fer­ent like dumb. I mean, I mean, not dumb, just — slow.” Again, she stopped, think­ing. Slow-er…?”

She looked up at me, a big and wor­ried ques­tion on her face. Or not?

I laughed watch­ing her stum­ble over the instruc­tions giv­en by her teacher, labels laid out like del­i­cate pieces of porce­lain, slow­ly, cau­tious­ly on the table: this is how you say it. Care­ful, or it will shatter. 

But not for me as that child. Porce­lain words mean noth­ing when right behind them were the thoughts laid out across their eyes — pity, curios­i­ty, unease, revul­sion. We all know your broth­er is retarded. 

So let the rest of the world dance and stum­ble over how and what to say of their own fears, as I tell the sto­ry of one crazy broth­er, just the way it happened. 

Judy Brown has been pro­filed in The New York Times Mag­a­zine and has writ­ten for the Huff­in­g­ton Post and the Jew­ish Dai­ly For­ward. She holds a mas­ter’s in cre­ative writ­ing and lives in New York City.

Relat­ed Content:

Judy Brown wrote the con­tro­ver­sial nov­el Hush — a final­ist for the 2011 Syd­ney Tay­lor Award for out­stand­ing books on the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence — under a pseu­do­nym Eish­es Chay­il. She has been pro­filed in The New York Times Mag­a­zine and on Rock Cen­ter with Bri­an Williams, and has writ­ten for The Huff­in­g­ton Post and The Jew­ish For­ward. She holds a Mas­ter’s in cre­ative writ­ing and lives in New York City.