My Brother Burned Our House Down—and Now I Understand Why

Years of drug addiction, mental illness and incarceration sent my sibling over the edge. A decade later, when I spent a night in jail myself, I finally saw what lit his fire.

My Brother Burned Our House Down—and Now I Understand Why

This is the eighth story in Pain of the Prison System, a series proudly presented by Narratively, written by high school students for POPS the Club– a nonprofit dedicated to providing a safe space for high schoolers whose lives have been impacted by incarceration.

I got the call from my sister, Lisa, at two a.m. As usual, it was her job to call me, and as usual, she got right to it.

“Randy burned the house down.”

I was born nine months after my brother, Randy.

My earliest memories of us involve dressing like twins, doing dance routines for company in the den. He taught me math and common sense. He was funny and worldly, able to talk his way in or out of any
situation. He taught me how to evade the police by dipping off into the hilly red clay between houses on the motorcycles our father bought us.

I learned early to conform, to be obedient, to disappear. Randy learned the opposite lessons. We stopped dressing alike. The older we got, the more different we became. I was the nerdy, scrawny loner; he was the charming, athletic socialite.

Randy first went to prison when he was fifteen. For a while, every Saturday morning our family piled into the car to drive two hours to see him, until one day when I was sixteen I decided I wasn’t going anymore. I didn’t like the way we were treated there – the long waits, the searches, the rules about what we couldn’t have in our possession, constantly being watched by guards. I hated seeing barbed wire, watchtowers and uniforms. My mother tried to shame me for not going, but I didn’t care. The academic and musical awards I won in high school went largely unnoticed. They were unable to soothe the heartache of losing a first son to prison.

Randy came home from prison when he was eighteen. After my father died he started stealing and threatening my mother with violence. She slept with her purse and feared for her life. By then I lived far away, working to create a life so pure it would counter the depravity of my brother’s.

Lisa wasn’t at Sunday dinner the day Randy burned the house down, but she was the one who called to tell me the story. It ended with Randy filling a gas can from the pump, dousing the house, fixing a plate of leftovers from Sunday dinner, eating at his leisure, striking a match, and walking out.

Over the years, as I lived in different cities, that house was what I meant when I said “home.” My baby pictures, the afghan my grandmother made for me when I was born, my school trophies, the poster-sized pencil drawing of an old boot I’d sketched in art class burned up in that house.

So when Lisa told me the news that Monday morning at two a.m., Randy ceased being my enemy. He ceased to exist.

Eleven years later, despite my best efforts, I found myself in Randy’s shoes when I was arrested for paying a business tax late during the recession. As an indifferent corrections officer led me down a depressing corridor, for the first time I wondered if Randy had ever been able to recover from years in prison, years of not being trusted, of being treated without dignity. I wondered if anyone could. Listening to the recorded voice announcing a collect call from me –

“an inmate at a correctional facility,” I flashed backed to those time- and money-sucking calls that came regularly during my teenage years. I stood uncomfortably in a tiny cell waiting for the call to connect, and I understood why my brother had desperately needed those calls.

Until that day, I never felt called to do anything about our nation’s habit of incarcerating people – particularly young men of color. Like most people, I decided the solution to the problem of astronomical incarceration rates, the marginalization and mistreatment of people on the wrong end of the criminal justice system, was to make sure I never got incarcerated.

Had I bothered to think long enough about it, I would have recognized that it becomes harder every day in America to make sure one never goes to jail.

Randy died early in the morning, sitting in a chair. He’d refused to go to bed the night before, perhaps thinking if he didn’t close his eyes, death couldn’t take him.

At the funeral I sat dead center of the first pew, looking into his open casket and his lifeless face three feet away. Friends stood up to say words of remembrance, speaking fondly about how incorrigible he was, how hardheaded. In the same breath, they spoke of his loyalty, his sense of humor, his philosophical musings. They spoke of my brother’s flaws and virtues with equal fondness. I realized then that I’d never given him the gift of understanding and of nuance, and that I’d never accepted that gift for myself.

As the preacher flailed his robed arms I realized that in the eyes of society, my brother and I were the same: dangerous black men. We’d been trying to outrun the same fire – the fire we’d been born into – using different tactics. Neither of us had succeeded.

Until that moment I’d neglected to understand how easily I might have been the one lying in that casket, if only the gasoline of mental illness, drug addiction, and incarceration at age fifteen had been poured on my fire.

I looked into my brother’s face and made a promise:

I will not disappear.

I will be who I authentically am.

I will fight to stop this pain.

Even if it burns the house down.