By Kim GordonDecember 29, 2023
I KNOW EXACTLY when the myth of my brother started. I remember my parents talking about the day I was born. My brother, who was three and a half years old, went down to the corner store with his neighborhood girlfriend and they shoplifted things. Of course, they didn’t exactly know what they were doing, but it began a pattern of my brother getting into trouble and getting attention for it. When I look at his baby pictures, he had a giant head. There’s a picture of him wearing a pair of my dad’s black-framed glasses. He looked like a scholar.
My brother became king of the nerds in junior high. He drew them to his chest—they were outcasts, socially awkward, nonconformists really is what they were. They made an early mimeograph zine called The Fiend Thinker. They had their own vocabulary and interviewed different socioeconomic groups in their middle school: surfers, socs, jocks. It emulated my father’s dissertation, the first study of a social system for a high school. My father and others were very impressed.
We were at war then, my brother and I, since the time I was six or so. The relentless teasing and arguing. It was a fight I would never win. At the hint of any vulnerable moment on my part, crying during a movie, he would unleash a wave of ridicule and threaten to tell everybody. I would never be stronger or smarter or more verbal than him, more cutting in my delivery. I wanted his approval so much, probably like any little sister would looking up to a big brother. When I didn’t feel hate for him, I felt such a strong bond—like we could read each other’s minds.
As teenagers, we became co-conspirators against my parents. The ’60s were the perfect landscape for tossing aside my childhood striving to be good, to be “normal.” As a young girl, I had seen how much anguish my brother caused my parents with his refusal to do anything they asked of him and his abusive language, and it made me want only to be the opposite, to not cause any waves. But at 13, I decided it wasn’t getting me anywhere. By the time he was 17, we were getting high together, smoking pot. But I still never knew when he would turn on me. Out of nowhere, he would call me stupid, accuse me of not really understanding Bob Dylan lyrics, accuse me of being a “weekend hippie.” I didn’t realize at the time that Bob D was not an easy thing and was up for wide interpretation.
I remember being really stoned, with him and some girl, in this giant closet he had in his bedroom. I don’t know what prompted it but she looked at him at some point and said something about him being the devil. He had this big smile on his face and looked incredibly arrogant. It sparked a sense in my mind that there was something dark in him, that maybe he didn’t care about other people. As I laughed along, pretending I was in on the joke or whatever it was, I felt uneasy.
The nicest thing my brother ever did for me was take me to see Pierrot Le Fou when I was 14. It was playing at a little art theater on the east side. Seeing it opened my eyes and changed me in countless ways, but even more than that, the gesture on his part made me happy for days. It was so unexpected, out of character. Mitch, who was living with us at the time, was a friend of my brother’s that we met in Hong Kong during the year we lived there. Mitch was the nice one of the group. His parents, who were missionaries, remained in Hong Kong but wanted him to finish high school in the States. So he came and shared a room with my brother. Mitch and my brother had black light posters all over their room and took lots of acid. As things were murky then, in the late ’60s, I don’t think our parents knew exactly what was going on. Anyway, the parenting style of their generation was very hands-off. They were liberals, not the type to try and institutionalize their son or daughter for taking LSD or smoking grass.
We sometimes got stoned and listened to recordings of Macbeth or King Lear, lying on couches in the living room in the dark. My brother would often get excited about a sonnet he wrote and want to recite it. To me, these were the best moments with him. Although I wondered why he was following a form that belonged to a different era.
He always had a beautiful girlfriend. First it was Kumiko, whom he met in Hong Kong. Then there was Marina, who was found murdered lying on top of her red sports car in the Palisades. It was long after they had broken up, but the police did come to question him. I remember seeing her name in Ed Sanders’s book [The Family], listed among people whose deaths were linked to Charles Manson, but this couldn’t be proved. Later, when my brother had dropped out of college and was living in my parents’ trailer in Malibu, he adopted the sort of Jesus/Manson look, longish hair and a scraggly beard, so prevalent at the time. His all-white attire made him stand out as he hitched around Malibu carrying a Bible—not for religious reasons but, he said, as part of his study of the classics, although he had already dropped out of college.
He never ever worked or held a job and probably survived on money our parents gave him. He only came to visit when he needed money. During the time he lived in Malibu, he had a girlfriend who was my age, and we hung out some. Amy was all blonde and golden brown, very pretty. She lived up in one of the canyons. One day, we trekked out to a pond with a small waterfall at Cross Creek in Malibu, carrying a cherry cream pie from the Apple Pan that I had picked up before hitching out there. It was very hot on our walk; I remember the cream melted. We got stoned and shoveled the pie into our greedy mouths with our hot, sticky hands, then dove into the water to rinse off. She used some made-up words that my brother had come up with, like supra. It didn’t sound like Greek or Latin, more like acid-speak. I thought that by hanging out with her I would get closer to him, who at times seemed magical and other times worrisome.
He liked to give people names. He had one friend from college that I hung out with a little that he called “Young Boy in the Forest” because he had a sort of disoriented look in his eyes, as if he was lost in the woods, whenever he looked up. I thought it was from taking too much LSD.
One evening, my brother showed up at my apartment, where I was living with a boyfriend, and said how deeply unhappy he was. He said that he had become unsocialized. He had broken up with Amy and pushed his friends away. Maybe he realized it was unhealthy to surround himself only with people who idolized him. He started crying and I was shocked. My brother, whom I had always looked up to, was looking to me for help. I felt like our roles had switched.
I don’t remember where he spent the night after he left. I lived near my parents’ house, but I know he didn’t go there. I remember thinking about tales of Dennis Wilson seen roving around the corners of Pico and Westwood Boulevard near the theater and bowling alley, which had a coffee shop that was open very late. The stories reminded me of my brother and other lost souls wandering around this middle-class suburban L.A. neighborhood on the empty night streets, where police would stop you just for being out late. I told my parents the next day that I thought my brother needed some help, but they were unbelieving. They thought he was just lazy and didn’t want to work for a living since dropping out of college. Psychiatrists were for rich people in Beverly Hills. My father, a sociologist, described my brother’s state as a sociological problem—another way of saying lazy. Soon my parents came to see it was more.
He moved back home, bringing along their small trailer, which now sat in their driveway. He must have been put on some meds as he seemed to be more functional. Or maybe he lived in the trailer in our driveway while I was still in high school. I remember sitting in it with him, smoking hashish while he read me poems from Flowers of Evil by Baudelaire. The chronology of events during this time is kind of a blur, as he was always leaving my parents’ house or just showing up. Maybe at some point he moved out to Latigo Shore Drive, near Malibu, where my parents had bought a lot but couldn’t build because of the new sewage laws.
He somehow managed to go back to school, first at UC Irvine, then transferring to Berkeley. He had his first full-blown psychotic episode the day he graduated. All they told me was that he lunged at a girl in the cafeteria. In his eyes she was a “maiden.” He had studied the classics and Shakespeare, Chaucer, and somehow it was all part of his psychosis and delusions of grandeur. He now had a diagnosis, “paranoid schizophrenia,” which meant that he could be aggressive and violent. The day it happened, or the day my parents told me, was also the day I got into a car accident as I was waiting to merge into traffic. A car was speeding and I watched as it hit another car and then veered onto the sidewalk and continued until the driver hit me, throwing my VW Bug into the adjacent building. I wasn’t too hurt—a sprained back, a few stitches above my eye—but I was in shock when my parents called, my mind screaming, “How could this have happened?” I couldn’t believe that he had had a mental break, had committed violence. This, along with the accident, jolted me as possibilities I had never entertained, a reminder of how life can change in seconds.
Once my brother was ensconced back at my parents’ house and fully medicated, he was more pleasant than he had ever been. He could be funny and charming, but the meds made him crave caffeine and nicotine. He lived in my old room, since our mother had turned his into a sewing room. I could still forget that he was sick and irrational and get sucked into an argument about something. He still knew how to push my buttons then, by saying something hurtful.
Every August, my parents would go up to their spot in a campground at the Klamath River. It was like a camp within a camp. Their friends ranged from UCLA alumni to documentary filmmakers to other bohemian types. Their friends, the Bentzens, had started the camp in 1953 when they pulled their station wagon into the empty area. They were real fisher/hunter people but also intellectuals. They were people my brother and I knew all our lives; they were family. We would stay at their house on Latigo Shore Drive before they sold it—the place was slipping into the ocean, and anyway L.A. was becoming too much of a rat race for them.
Around the Bentzens, a more conventional trailer park sprung up, filled with rednecks and more conservative-leaning folks, a couple of whom were deemed cool and allowed into their circle. This area is one of the poorest in the country. Chainsaw furniture shops littered the highway. South of there is Humboldt County, the seat of marijuana cultivation, California’s number-one cash crop. North of the Klamath is Crescent City, where they had rodeos and a new prison they said would revive the economy.
My parents and their friends had made a kind of compound with tarps encircling the tasteful cedar porches built around the trailers that were kept there year-round. My brother had set up what looked like an old army tent in my parents’ area, and seemed quite jovial when he was there. Sometimes there would be an outburst or an instance of him being inappropriate, but I remember it as a good period for him.
When I moved to New York in 1980, he would write me beautiful letters, sprinkled with poetic verse, that seemed incredibly coherent. They surprised me by how much love he directed towards me. It was as if he was a different person than the one I had grown up with, not the torturer or the bully or the inspiration, but someone adjacent.
As my parents aged, they couldn’t take care of him any more and tried placing him in various halfway houses. Some were better than others. They didn’t really cater to people with mental illness. They were mostly populated by people coming out of prison or rehab. He would inevitably go off his meds, as no one was closely monitoring him, and end up back at my parents’ house, scaring them with violent threats. They would call the police, who would take him to the Neuropsychiatric Institute at UCLA where he could be held for 72 hours without his consent and be put back on his meds. He said a lot of the other patients were teenage girls with anorexia. This cycle would repeat over and over, sometimes landing him in jail.
Eventually my parents hired someone who helped them navigate the system. The only way he could be placed in a locked facility was if he became a ward of the state. They had been reluctant to do this, as it means you relinquish control over what happens, and obviously involves a ton of parental guilt. So began my brother’s life in a series of what are called “rehabilitation centers.”
The first one was the harshest as there were ex-cons and recovering drug addicts, and people would always steal whatever my mother brought: clothes, radios, cassette players. She would shop for him at the Beverly Hills or UCLA thrift stores where she bought all her clothes, looking for Oxford button-downs and corduroy jackets with elbow patches. He was very particular about his dress and definitely knew who he was, or wanted to be, playing up his idea of the scholar/poet, not exactly living in this time. He never wore a T-shirt, sweatshirt, or jeans. He was always a snob about anything that was too commonplace. When I was in seventh grade, he would rip me for using slang, saying I was so conformist.
My parents had this hope that one day he would wake up and be recovered, and I thought they were so unrealistic. It was something I never understood until I became a parent myself. You just never want to give up on your child. Eventually he was placed in something more like a glorified nursing home, which he actually could have walked out of, if he’d realized it. On one of their outings at a park, he wandered or ran away and was missing for 24 hours before they found him.
Years went by and my parents passed away. I was it, in terms of family. At first the conservatorship was still in place, but then one day I was informed that it was being terminated, so I became the sole responsible party. All his care really took place at his residence anyway; the conservatorship was basically just paperwork. I once tried to find out who was in charge and just got passed around a series of offices. At this point, he had mellowed with age and wasn’t going anywhere. No dream of escape. I would visit, always with the requisite carton of unfiltered Camels, a six-pack of Cokes, and potato chips complete with onion dip, the way my mother always did. It always made him happy; it was all he wanted, or at least that’s all that he asked for.
About 10 years ago, the nursing home wanted his bed so they suggested he would do better in a smaller setting. The social worker found a house run by a Christian woman who only had two other clients. One of them was comatose and I only ever saw her lying on her bed, staring at the ceiling. The woman who ran it bought my brother a keyboard, as he had told her he liked to play piano. He was a very convincing improviser, and would claim to anyone listening that his opera had been performed in London the night before. And maybe additionally, that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for writing. As teenagers, we had played around with an upright piano that our parents had rented for him, along with an old African drum, and a big gong from Hong Kong. We listened to a lot of free jazz during that time, in addition to Buffalo Springfield, Dylan, Janis Joplin, Neil Young, Cream, and so on. I credit my brother with turning me on to improvisation, and showing me the freedom and joy of it.
The house run by the Christian woman closed mysteriously and he was moved to another. My old friend Margie, who knew my family well, would go out with me to visit him. We always thought there was something fishy with the whole operation, like it was a real-estate investment based on future development in the area. But we could never find anything wrong. Just neglect. I didn’t even know how to refer to the situation he was living in. I suppose it falls under board and care. They took his government check, which I supplemented. There were maybe nine men living there. When the pandemic came, just as the vaccines were made available, my brother got COVID-19 and ended up in the ICU. He was in the hospital for a month, and then a rehab place. It was incredible that he survived. A couple of years later, the nurse practitioner who owned the house told me that every other resident of the home had died of COVID during the period that my brother was infected.
When he was released from the hospital, he went back to the home (now moved, without explanation, to a different location) and was put into hospice care. The doctor had told me that my brother could never be intubated. He had some breathing issues and needed to be given oxygen periodically. The hospice person came to the home once a week. My brother was frail and skinny, but would still walk quickly to get outside for a smoke. He loved to sit out there and smoke. He supposedly was only given eight cigarettes a day. On one of her visits home, I brought my daughter Coco to see him. She hadn’t been around him since she was little. I said she wrote poetry and he smiled and said, “Ah, we need more poets.” He was very polite to the people who worked at the house, but he would get angry if you tried to take his cigarettes away or get him to do something he didn’t want, such as wear a hat in the sun or put on sunblock. He would need help getting in and out of the car but resented it and would flail his arms, yelling “I can do it myself!” but then apologize a few minutes later.
As he sat out in the sun smoking, two big squamous cell cancer growths grew on his head and a melanoma on his cheek. By the time I saw him, after returning from a tour, they were quite large. For the next seven months Margie and I ferried him to various doctor appointments. A dermatologist in the Valley removed the superficial melanoma, but the other growths would require UCLA. He ended up doing radiation five days a week for three weeks. He was always pretty with-it. He flirted with the female nurses and doctors, laughing at this or that. He sang along to Neil Young in the car ride over the 405 to UCLA and back to the Valley, often in agonizing traffic, oblivious to his incredibly off-key voice but filled with joy. My friend was a saint about it and split up the driving.
On a very hot fall day, as I handed my brother a cold can of Coke, he leaned back in the passenger seat and said, “AC and a can of Coke, this is living the dream!” He told me stories about how at night they would put wires into his head to translate his thoughts into a book, which he claimed was even better than Baudelaire and had just been published that day. In reality, they were putting a fitted cap on his head to focus the radiation in the treatments. He was still skinny and frail as he had been, but he was healing.
A couple months after the treatments ended, he was found not breathing, lying next to his bed on the floor. I got a call early that morning from the police. Bill Nace and I, as Body/Head, had played the night before in what felt like a celebration of coming together after a long pandemic pause. In that moment, the contrast between my life and my brother’s couldn’t have been more startling or defined. It was assumed that hitting his head was the cause of death, but no autopsy was performed. When the man at the crematorium was filling out his death certificate, he asked, “What was his occupation?” and I said he never worked, he was schizophrenic. The man pressed me on it and said my brother had to have an occupation, so I said he was a poet. Next question: “How many years did he do that for?”
From the book Keller by Kim Gordon. Copyright 2024 by Karma, reprinted with permission, New York, US. All rights reserved.
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