When I was six years old my best friend’s father killed himself. I remember overhearing my mother on the phone—things I wasn’t supposed to hear. Something about bloody glasses. Something about a gun. I didn’t know what it all meant until my mother sat me down. Suddenly, I was terrified that my dad would kill himself, too.
I remember standing on the entry stairs of the split-level home that my mother, my sister, and I had moved into just a few months earlier. With my parents freshly divorced, my mother had to pare down. Gone was our sprawling suburban home, tucked into four acres in the woods at the terminus of a dead end. Now we lived in a neighborhood where the houses were so close together that they had no windows on the sides.
I stared at my dad, who had come in the front door. My mother had called him at work because I was so upset. Winter was settling into Chicago and the trees behind him stood naked, braced against the wind and cold. My father, in his suit and cashmere coat, knelt on the step below me, so that we were at eye level.
“What’s the matter, kiddo?” he asked me, as he placed his ape-like hands on my shoulders.
“Daddy, I don’t want you to die,” I cried. “I don’t want you to kill yourself.”
“Karla, I’m not going to die,” he said.
“Promise. Promise you won’t kill yourself,” I said.
“I promise you,” my dad said to me, looking me in the eye. “I promise you I will never kill myself.”
I didn’t believe him.
Too frightened to let him escape my sight, I went to work with him that day. We visited a wire factory where my father had a client. I hung onto my father’s coat as we walked through the cavernous warehouse, cold and gray like the sky outside. A man at the factory gave me a spool with red, green, and gold insulation wire woven around it, like shiny, moldable thread. It was November, but the batch date on the top of the spool read “6/25/84.” I played with it. I stroked the ridges of the wire, cool and prickly against my skin. I put it in my nightstand along with my rosary, prayer books, and piggy bank—prized possessions. And I saved the spool, because it reminded me of that day. It reminded me of my father’s promise.
He broke that promise. He just did it slowly.
My father was pronounced dead at 11:28 am on October 11, 2003. He was fifty-eight years old. On his death certificate, the coroner in Downers Grove, Illinois listed the immediate cause as “End Stage Liver Disease” and the underlying cause as “Chronic Alcohol Abuse.” He bled to death. His esophageal veins ruptured, a common complication of liver disease. He was found on the floor of his living room, where he had hunkered down for months, unable or unwilling to drag his dilapidated body up the stairs to his bedroom. His ruddy face was overgrown with an equally red, but graying beard—untrimmed, unkempt, and uncharacteristic of him.
A self-made millionaire who once headed a $534 million banking company, my father was also an abusive alcoholic tormented by a past he couldn’t escape, and by secrets he was desperate to bury. He was a wunderkind—he graduated high school at the age of sixteen, became chief executive officer of his first bank at the age of twenty-seven, bought his first bank at twenty-nine, and eventually made millions as president and CEO of a banking conglomerate in Chicago that he built from a single little community bank in Countryside, Illinois. He was boisterous and fun loving, the guy everyone wanted at their party. But privately, he wielded an explosive temper that turned to violence at its worst—usually his drunkest. Angry and depressed, he died jobless and on his way to broke.
And he was alone.
My father was found lying on his right side on the formerly ivory carpet directly in front of the sofa, wrapped in a blanket of his own blood. It was the same sofa he’d had since the 1980s when he redecorated his home as the model of well-heeled living— peach, celadon, and white geometric fabric. His house reeked of an unholy mix of death and excrement compounded by rotting milk in the fridge. Decay was creeping in from every corner. He wore multi-colored shorts and a T-shirt.
The coroner’s report is meticulous: “It should be noted that the deceased’s legs, and entire torso appeared to be covered with his own dried feces,” the deputy wrote. “It had appeared the deceased had been sitting in his own feces and urine for some time. His clothing as well as his furniture was soiled. It appeared as though he had apparently been in the same clothes for some time….”
I’d spoken to my father a few days before his death, but I don’t remember the conversation. Before that, I hadn’t seen him for a few months, since I had flown in for a visit. At that time, his front door had been unlocked, and I had walked in. He sat on his sofa, clearly unable to get up without difficulty. One too many drunken falls had taken a toll. He was walking with a cane on his good days, a walker on his bad, and not at all on his worst.
Now my father’s corpse was placed in a white body bag and taken to the morgue, where his right big toe was tagged. He was number M03-301, weighing 205 pounds. The coroner’s report ends with me: “According to Karla, although her father’s passing is upsetting, it has not come as a surprise. Karla and her mother will be flying in to Illinois later today,” the deputy wrote. “Nothing further at this time.”
As far back as I can remember I was aware that my dad was a drunk. By the time I was sixteen his death seemed inevitable. Nine years later, when the coroner needed to speak with his next of kin, I was the first one to get the news the following evening. It was a brief conversation. The coroner relayed the basic circumstances of my father’s death, asked a few questions about his alcoholism, and decided an inquest wasn’t necessary. Open and closed. He lived a drunk. He died a drunk. The end.
But the story of a life is never that simple.
As I cleaned out his belongings, I found an old steamer trunk that I never knew he had. In the trunk was a long-forgotten scrapbook full of odds and ends—photos, letters, and a multitude of newspaper clippings from his evidently dazzling teenage baseball career. Next to the scrapbook was an old, battered glove and a collection of baseballs signed by teammates, inscribed with the dates of the no-hitters he had pitched. This was news to me. I didn’t even know he played baseball. My father had a secret life that I never knew about, and I became conscious of how much I would never know. How much I wanted to know.
I had my suspicions about what initially drove him to drink—a brutally abusive childhood that I’d only heard about in hints and whispers. But I wasn’t sure what kept him drinking after so many hospital stays, so many promises. Was there more? I wanted to know: Why this gruesome, self-inflicted death? Was it even a choice?
James Baldwin, in Notes of a Native Son, wrote of his own domineering father’s death:
It was better not to judge the man who had gone down under an impossible burden. It was better to remember: Thou knowest this man’s fall; but thou knowest not his wrassling.
So I set out to find the man he was and the man he wasn’t. Who was Richard Alan Brown*? And what was the nature of his wrassling?
I started with the photos of my father’s life, the photos he’d never shown me. In one, he sits on his desk wearing a natty three-piece pinstriped suit. He is young, robust, and clearly enjoying his first taste of success as a newly minted bank president. In another, taken more than fifteen years later, at the height of his career, he strikes a similar pose. By then he was president and chief executive officer of a $500 million bank holding company, and he looks proud, like a man worthy of his title.
In the black-and-white pictures of his wonder years in Florida, an endless array of freckles hint at his strawberry blond hair and green eyes. Little Rick, all grins and gangly limbs, seems utterly unaware of what lies ahead. There he is, dressed as an Indian in a Boy Scout parade. There he is years later, dressed as a Roman charioteer in a college homecoming parade. Pictures of him and Jack, his older brother by two years, show the boys playing in the yard, riding bikes, riding horses, laying sod at the church. Boys being boys. There is a photo of Rick riding Blackie, his horse. Many of the photos have the words “Lazy Acres,” the nickname for the family home, inscribed on the back in his mother’s neat cursive. Just one—a picture of the boys on their bikes in the yard—is inscribed by a child’s unsure hand:
Jack and Rick and Boo my dog. Jack is 7 1/2 years old. Rick is 6 years old. Boo is 5 months old. And she says Hello.
But “Lazy Acres” was a place of torment.
Born in Miami on August 29, 1945, Richard Alan Brown was the second of two boys born to Carol Brown and Karl Brown, devout Catholics originally from Ohio. Carol and Karl raised their family in North Miami and then in a small town outside of Tampa called San Antonio. They attended church and sent their boys to Catholic school.
Karl was fourteen years Carol’s senior, and by the time Richard was born, Karl was fifty one and retired, a former building contractor, according to his obituary, a salesman according to my father’s college resume. Karl sat home most days; a real estate listing for the family’s house in North Miami states that both Mr. and Mrs. Brown were usually home until 1 pm daily and all day Sundays. Neither worked full-time, subsisting instead on family investments and, in Karl’s case, drinking all day long. “He didn’t want to work,” my uncle Jack told me. “He just wanted to drink.”
By all accounts, Karl, a World War I veteran who earned the nickname “Napoleon” from his fellow soldiers, was a cruel authoritarian. My dad told my mother that Karl tied him to a tree in the front yard as a punishment, leaving him in the hot Florida sun for hours. A neighbor brought him water, but when Karl saw Rick drinking, he took the water and beat him. My aunt told me that was a regular punishment for the Brown boys—being chained to a tree.
And that’s not all. They were beaten with lead pipes—that is, when Karl could catch them. He was often too drunk to outrun two young boys. In a rare unguarded moment, my father told my cousin that Karl kept the refrigerator locked and often wouldn’t let the boys eat. They’d get so hungry they’d eat the dog’s food. My Uncle Jack told me the same thing. “He was the meanest son-of-a-bitch that ever walked the earth,” my uncle said of his father. “He never once in his life—not once—told us he loved us.”
My dad kept a photo of himself and Karl framed in his house. In it, my dad’s first car, a red Ford Mustang Fastback—the same model that, when I turned sixteen, he wanted to buy for me—sits parked on the lawn. He stands on the driver’s side and Karl on the passenger’s side, leaning on the car. But my dad told my mom that one day, in a fit of rage, Karl slashed all the tires.
On August 21, 1966, as he left for his final year at Florida State University, Rick wrote to Karl: Dear Pop, It is gratifying to know that I can leave home on good terms with you. You don’t know how much it means to me. Karl died three years later.
Karl is my namesake, and I share a birthday with him. But no matter how many times I asked, my dad never told me anything about him. “He was a great man,” was the pat response I’d get. For a man who always dominated a conversation, a lot went unsaid.
I certainly never heard from his mouth that Karl was also a drinker—my mother and my uncle revealed that secret, along with all the others, though my dad’s medical records show that he had told his doctors as much. In fact, Karl used to send the boys to buy his liquor.
My grandmother, Carol, would also hit the bottle. It was a habit she picked up later in life, after Karl died and her sons were grown. She drank what she called “special water”—vodka, sometimes with orange juice. “She had serious mental problems,” my uncle told me. “But she was a smart lady.”
She died in 1987. I remember her as a mean woman with slurred speech and a crooked smile who wanted nothing to do with my sister or me. We walked on eggshells around her, except when she asked us to pour another glass of her “special water.” That was the only time she spoke sweetly to us.
Carol once worked as a reporter for The Florida Catholic and taught journalism at a local community college. But even though I was an aspiring journalist, my father never told me any of this. My dad never talked about Carol.
Once I began investigating my father’s life, however, my mother told me about Carol. She said she once caught my grandmother pushing my sister, then a small child, down the stairs. Carol once tried to convince one of my cousins, also a child at the time, to run away from home. My father, my mother told me, said Carol was “the meanest woman you’d ever meet.”
Yet she seemed to have different faces for different people. My Uncle Jack describes Carol as a kind woman who often did little things for her sons behind her husband’s back. And my aunt—Jack’s ex-wife—remembers Carol as a sweet woman who loved music and culture. No doubt she was complicated. She certainly had a complicated relationship with her son, Rick. Deeply complicated, as I would learn.
During the first year my parents were together, my mom bought my dad a cake for his birthday. He started crying. It was the first time anyone had ever gotten him a birthday cake, he told her. His family never carved pumpkins or colored Easter eggs or any of the other holiday traditions. “He said nobody ever came to their house—relatives, neighbors,” my mother said. “They never had kids over. His parents talked to no one else but to each other. So he felt extremely isolated.”
Compounding the problem for Rick was that my dad was the youngest person in his class, graduating high school at sixteen. “He always felt like a misfit because of it,” my mother said. He never talked about friends from his youth, either to my mother or me. It seems he didn’t have any. Only a handful of kids signed his yearbooks. Those who did called him “Rickles.”
My father’s report cards portray an inconsistent student, alternately making the honor roll and then suffering summer school after failing history. My uncle said their father used to promise them prizes—like a .22-caliber rifle—if the boys got straight A’s. One year, my dad earned his rifle, my uncle told me.
He excelled in sports. As I learned from the newspaper clippings and yearbooks I found, he led the baseball all star team of his league to victory in 1958 by pitching a no-hitter, in a 3-0 win. The team went on to the Florida state tournament. He could hit, too: he was the batting champion of the Dade City Babe Ruth League when he was thirteen (hitting .405) and fourteen (.522). A towering southpaw, he was the only player to hit a home run clear out of the park, according to The Dade City Banner. In 1960, it was the park’s longest hit to date, traveling more than 350 feet.
Of all the things my father did with me when I was a child—riding bikes, playing golf, shooting hoops—we never played catch. I don’t remember ever seeing a baseball or a glove. Nothing.
He played basketball, too. At six foot three, wearing jersey number eleven, sixteen year-old Rick was Dade City’s basketball star. In one game, he scored twenty points and collected thirty-one rebounds, as chronicled by The Tampa Tribune. In his 1962 senior yearbook at Pasco High School, his classmates prophesized that in twenty years he’d be the nation’s “most widely known basketball player.”
But by 1982 his life was different.
By all outward appearances, he was a success. After earning two separate associate’s degrees at a local junior college, he entered Florida State University’s College of Business, where he regularly made the dean’s list before gaining acceptance to the MBA program at Indiana University. He put himself through school, earning scholarships, working as a dishwasher at his fraternity house, and later as a graduate assistant. He worked briefly as an operations consultant at Irving Trust Company in New York City, and then as a senior accountant at Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co. in Chicago. Then, at twenty-five, he became an executive vice president at Schaumburg State Bank in Schaumburg, Illinois, north of Chicago. After internal turmoil at the bank made him the highest-ranking executive left standing, the board of directors made him the CEO. In 1975, he left Schaumburg to become president of Edgewood Bank in Countryside, Illinois, at the age of twenty-nine.
Come 1982, he was a national figure in the banking community—a member of the board of directors of the American Bankers Association and chairman of its Community Banking Leaders Council. And as chairman, he was the ABA’s spokesman for community bankers on legislative and regulatory issues, leading a 235-member board with representatives from every state. He traveled regularly to Washington, DC as a lobbyist.
At the ABA’s annual convention in San Francisco, in October 1981, my father gave a speech about community banking:
Let’s stop talking about survival and start talking of winning. There may be some who see nothing in change but problems and headaches. Sometimes the temptation to give up the game and sit on the bench can be very strong. But giving up is not how you came to be head of your bank and a respected figure in your community.
He could have been giving a pep talk to himself.
While he was the head of his bank and greatly respected in his community, my father’s personal life was collapsing around him. He was in the middle of divorce proceedings with my mother. Their divorce became final in October 1982, the year The New York Times quoted a “sharply worded” letter to President Ronald Reagan that he had penned as a spokesman for the ABA.
Rick and Grace had met in June of 1971. He was commuting to and from his weekend National Guard duty in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Driving back to Illinois one day, something hit his gas tank. He left his car to be repaired and took a flight home from St. Louis instead. Grace was a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines, based at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. It was a short, night leg, Grace remembered. “He told the guy next to him that he was going to marry me,” Grace said. “He called and invited me up to Wisconsin to go boating.” He proposed six weeks later.
They married on November 7, 1971. Three weeks into the marriage, Grace realized she’d made a grave mistake.
“We were in a restaurant in Florida,” Grace said, describing a dinner with Rick and his mother. “Carol was taking his hands and fingers and kissing him and kissing up his arm, saying, ‘You’re mine.’” She seemed completely serious. “You can’t have him,” Carol said to Grace. She even offered Grace $10,000 to leave Rick, Grace said. “Right there in the restaurant.” Carol caused such a scene that the restaurant manager came over to the table and told the three that their car was waiting.
That was only the beginning of their marital problems. Grace realized that Rick had masked his persona in the few months they had dated. For one thing, it was soon clear: he was an alcoholic. “He always had two drinks on the nightstand,” Grace said. “When he got up in the morning, he would drink them down, take a shower, make a Bloody Mary and go to work.” His drink of choice was scotch on the rocks. Then it became scotch straight up. He also liked bourbon, gin, and beer. (By the end it would be wine and vodka, straight from the bottle).
And he was abusive. Rick gave Grace a strict set of rules. They included: no singing, no praying, no phone calls when he was home—the list went on and on. And this: no dressing or undressing in front of him. He regularly stayed out late, came home drunk, and verbally and physically abused her. On one occasion, when they were still newlyweds, he locked her on the balcony of their apartment for a few hours. On other occasions, she said, he would choke her until she was unconscious. Once he even played Russian roulette with a loaded revolver to her head. He showed her the bullet in the chamber.
After the fact, he would act like nothing had happened.
“Rick, this was a big mistake,” my mother told him in the first few months of their marriage. He responded: “Don’t you think I want to be a normal husband? I want to be normal more than anything, but I can’t.” My mother believed him. “It was one of those sincere moments,” she told me. “What went on with him before he met me, ruled him.”
Grace described another incident after they had been married, when they were visiting Carol. “We were sleeping in the bedroom at her house. And he woke me up. He said, ‘Shhhh…she’s coming. Stay awake and don’t move.’”
Carol came silently into the bedroom with a flashlight. “She looked at us and touched us and she stood there a while,” Grace said. At one point Carol tried to pull the covers back, but Rick rolled over, shielding himself, and Grace, from her prying. Carol was silent the whole time. After about fifteen minutes she left the room.
“I didn’t want her to come into the room and do that creeping she does with you asleep,” Rick said to Grace. “She always did that to me and I didn’t want her to do it to you.” Grace asked why not just lock the door? “No, she’ll get angry,” he replied.
My mother was certain that this had happened many times. And if Carol behaved this way with her grown, married son and his wife, what might she have done with a vulnerable child? Grace believes that Carol sexually molested Rick, though he never explicitly said so. He did, however, tell Grace that he shared a room, and bed, with his mother.
When my father was nine years old, he told my mother, he would lie in bed and imagine his life. He dreamed of having a family—a wife and children and a home to come to. “That was his dream. That’s what he wanted,” my mom said. But he didn’t know what to do with a family.
I have few memories of living with my father. He was the freckled lump lying next to my mother when I’d sneak into their bed after having a nightmare. But mostly, I remember him yelling, yelling, yelling.
It was an early morning in August 1981. My dad was still asleep. My mother was up with Kirsten and me. We were five and three respectively. The phone rang and my mother answered it, in the kitchen at the far end of our ranch home, and got off as quickly as possible. She wasn’t allowed to receive calls before 9 am. But the call woke my father up. He came into the kitchen.
“The phone shouldn’t be ringing,” he screamed. “It’s too early in the morning!”
Both Kirsten and my mother, whom I interviewed separately, remembered the incident well. “Dad went crazy,” Kirsten said.
He pinned my mother against the wall. Kirsten pulled me into a corner of the living room that was guarded by a credenza and another piece of furniture. I stared at the green carpeting, terrified. “I would squeeze myself in there and he couldn’t reach in,” Kirsten said. “I was in there screaming, crying because they were fighting.”
“I’ll call the police,” my mother threatened.
My father walked her over to the phone and dared her. She dialed.
“I think he thought I had fake-called them,” my mom said. She had not. The police arrived and my father was stunned.
“The police had to coax me out of the corner,” Kirsten said. “I would not come out. Mom couldn’t get me out. I was that scared.”
The cops told Rick he had to leave. He packed up some belongings. Kirsten remembers: “Dad picked me up and put me on the bed. He stood me up so he could try to be eye to eye with me. And he said something like, ‘Daddy’s gonna go now, but it’ll be OK.’ And the cops were like, ‘Come on, you’ve got to go.’” The police told my mother to stay somewhere else for a few days. She threw clothes for the three of us into our orange and yellow laundry baskets, the kind with tulip shapes cut out of the rectangular plastic.
My mother stayed with my father for a total of ten years. In late 1981 she filed for divorce and an annulment through the Catholic Church. The proceedings were anything but smooth.
At one point, my mother received a mysterious death threat. A voice on the phone, one she did not recognize, said, “You’ll be dead in two weeks.”
Then one evening, a week or so after the call, when Kirsten and I were not at home, my mother was in the basement doing laundry. It was a walkout basement with a wall of windows on the backside. The house, which sat on four acres next to a forest preserve in the Chicago suburbs, backed up to a woods and a creek. The washer and dryer were next to a window. She was folding clothes when a bullet crashed through the window, barely missing her head.
“I got down on the floor,” Grace said. “I crawled upstairs. It was dark out. I thought it was a stray bullet. I didn’t think someone was shooting at me, honestly. But as I went upstairs and went by the living room window another one came by me.”
Oh my God, she thought. Someone is trying to shoot me.
Grace hit the floor again and crawled to a hallway. There, she turned the lights off. But the back of the house, behind which the shooter was hiding, had floor to ceiling windows. “They kept shooting at me as I crawled,” Grace said.
In all, six shots were fired into the house. The police told Grace that whoever was shooting meant business. This was not a warning, the officer said. “They were aiming for you.” My father was an avid hunter who owned numerous shotguns, rifles, and handguns. He became an excellent marksman during his two years in the National Guard. I have his military paraphernalia, which includes a rifle medal. Shortly after he died, I found in his unopened mail a letter from the State of Illinois notifying him that his gun license had been revoked because he was a psychiatric patient. His guns were in the hall closet of the house he died in.
On another occasion during the divorce, Grace came home to find the front door and the basement door kicked in, though nothing in the house had been disturbed. And in the wee hours of another morning, Rick drove his red ’76 Corvette all over the lawn, tearing it up.
My mother got the house and child support payments, which ended promptly on my eighteenth birthday, in the sum of $25,200 a year, before taxes. That amount never changed from 1982 to 1996, even as my father became a millionaire.
My uncle told me that my dad always had a deep respect and love for my mother, despite his behavior to the contrary. I always felt that too. My mother believes the divorce flabbergasted my father. “I think he was shocked,” she said. “I had never called the police. I had never really fought him. I had never really done anything and all of a sudden I was divorcing him. I think he was devastated in some way.”
After the divorce, my dad moved to a two-bedroom apartment in a nearby suburb. He got custody of us every other weekend, alternate Christmases, and two weeks every summer. I remember spending more time with him after the divorce than when he lived with us. He took us to the park, to the pool, to the toy store. He’d braid our hair, a skill he learned from keeping horses as a child. I remember having fun with him, even looking forward to seeing him. But I also remember him pouring beer into my Mickey Mouse cup from his can of Budweiser so I could drink it too. And I remember being terrified every time he drank.
On one family vacation, my dad drove Kirsten and me to South Carolina as we visited prospective colleges for Kirsten along the way. My cousins, two of Jack’s kids, came along too, and so did my best friend. I was fifteen years old, and my father got drunk one night. He and I and Kirsten sat at the table of our rented house in Hilton Head.
He looked straight at me and said “Grace, why’d you leave me?”
Kirsten and I looked at each other. I bear a striking resemblance to my mother, with her large blue eyes, light brown hair, and toothy smile. But our mother wasn’t there.
“Dad, it’s me, Karla,” I said to him.
“Grace, why’d you leave me?” he repeated.
Kirsten and I got up and locked ourselves in our room. On his last Christmas before he died, my father gave my mother a card. “I still love you,” he wrote.
My father remarried in 1985, to a woman whom I suspect understood as little about him as my mother had. Lauren Duke had a daughter a few years older than my sister and me. He met Lauren in Washington, DC, when he was working for the ABA. Their marriage was also turbulent, and they divorced in 1993. Lauren got possession of one of his prized Corvettes, along with $160,000 cash and 10,000 shares of stock in his company, worth about $362,000 at the time.
By 1993, my father was a captain of industry by some accounts and a robber baron by others. Over the course of nineteen years as president and CEO, he had transformed Edgewood Bank from a single location with $28 million in assets to EdgeMark Financial Corp., a bank holding company with $534 million in assets, and which owned five banks with ten locations in and aroud Chicago. When EdgeMark sold for $62 million to Old Kent Financial Corp. in 1994, EdgeMark’s stock was trading on the NASDAQ at $17 a share. But EdgeMark sold the company for $42.79 a share. Because 42 percent of the stock was owned by bank executives, directors and employees like my father, a group of shareholders cried foul and sued EdgeMark, my father, and a few others involved, claiming insider trading. The class action suit argued that my father and EdgeMark intentionally withheld information about the sale from shareholders, many of whom sold short at $17 to $24 per share, while those inside the company profited. The case was finally settled in 2001, when a judge ruled in favor of EdgeMark, my father, and the other defendants.
Whether he was an inside trader or merely a shrewd CEO, my father certainly was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Crain’s Chicago Business and American Banker reported on his business dealings. In 1991, he won the Chicago Toast to Scouting Good Scout Award, honoring prominent former Boy Scouts and community members, and chaired the event the following two years. He was capable of acts of kindness. When his mother, who owned a rental property, threatened to evict a single mother of five children on Christmas Eve, my dad attempted to pay the woman’s rent. “You weren’t raised to be like that,” Carol said, and she refused his payment.
As I grew older, he seemed to drink more. And the more he knocked back, the angrier he became. Another family vacation, this one in Hawaii in the summer of 1990, proved traumatic. My dad brought Kirsten and one of her friends and me and one of my friends, plus our cousin Susan, to the islands. He got hammered one night at a luau. He became enraged at my sister, who had been walking on the beach with Susan. He imagined they were having secret trysts with boys. When they returned, he lit into Kirsten.
“Tramp!” he yelled along with a slew of other obscenities and bizarre accusations.
“You’re drunk!” Kirsten flung back at him, storming off to our room.
He charged after her, spun her around and slapped her across the cheek.
“I hate you!” Kirsten screamed.
He grabbed her neck with both hands and choked her, shaking her violently—a six foot three, 240-pound man strangling his five foot four, fourteen-year-old daughter.
I jumped on his back, beating him with my fists, trying to get him off of her. But I was a skinny twelve-year-old girl. He swatted me away.
I looked at Kirsten as she struggled. “So help me God,” she hissed, gasping for breath. “If you kill me now, you’ll go straight to hell.”
I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget her words.
He stopped. He threw her on the bed and walked out of the room.
I crawled over to her. She was okay.
I should have been terrified of him, but I followed him out of the room.
“Dad, you have to promise to get help,” I said. I was sobbing. He was crying too.
“I will,” he said. “I promise I will.” Then he disappeared into his room.
All of us girls locked ourselves in our bedroom and sat up talking and crying and eating, of all things, Chicken in a Biskit crackers. We slept in a pile, huddled together on the bed. But the next day, he acted as if nothing had happened. He was cheery and boisterous and none of us mentioned it again.
He finally landed in the hospital. In December of 1996, my sister and mom went to check on him at his house and found him shaking uncontrollably. They put him in the car and drove him to the ER. He lay in a hospital bed, answering questions about his health, about his habits, about his history. At one point, he stopped. He looked at Grace.
“I never saw it coming,” he said. “I didn’t see this coming.”
He told his doctor that he wanted to quit. “Drinking is killing me,” he said on December 10. “I want some peace.”
He was back on his feet by Christmas.
In January of 1997, he began forming another bank holding company, AmeriMark Financial Corp. As a 1997 article in the Chicago Tribune put it, Richard A. Brown likes to own banks:
At the age of 51, he has begun an effort to build his second banking group in the Chicago area. Brown bought his first bank when he was 29. Subsequent purchases led to the eventual formation of EdgeMark Financial Corp. The holding company owned five banks with ten locations, including one in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, when he sold it to Old Kent Financial Corp. in 1994.
At the time, he also owned the $120 million First Southern Bancorp, Inc., in Boca Raton. “I started out at 30,” my father said in a March 1997 article in American Banker. “I’m a young guy.” By that date, AmeriMark had made its first purchase—a $49 million bank for $9.8 million.
My dad was a classic workaholic. My childhood weekends were spent with him at work most of the time. I played in the bank vault with the endless bars of gold, piled in neat stacks from the floor to the ceiling. When I watched the massive vault door swing open it was like Dorothy stepping out of her sepia-toned Kansas farm house into the Technicolor land of Oz. I remember the shiny bullion glittering, reflecting, maybe even refracting, the light. I have a paperweight my father gave me as a child that was made to look like a bar of gold. Though the faux foil is peeling and cracked, holding it in my grown hand reminds me of the cool touch of the real thing.
The bank was my father’s domain. He was the king. Kirsten and I scampered about like princesses. We photocopied ourselves with the state-of-the-art Xerox machines, drew pictures on the large sheets of paper in the boardroom, and played under my father’s desk, bumping his feet and legs as he worked. He showed us the safe deposit boxes, had us “sit in” on actual board meetings, and let us play with the pneumatic tubes at the drive-up windows. I used to love going to work with “Daddy.” I have a photo of my father with Kirsten and me, in our best dresses as very little girls, sitting on his desk. All three of us look happy. He had his moments. I remember his hearty laugh and his generous smile.
As we got older, and his office moved downtown to Chicago, he’d give us money to go shopping while he worked, meeting us for lunch and then dinner. I used to think that work gave him a reason to stay sober. For most of his life, he was a fully functioning businessman—a success in spite of his alcoholism. He rarely drank during the business day or at business dinners. He reserved his benders for evenings and weekends. And while he had drinks every morning, his sheer size made his tolerance high. In fact, none of his friends or coworkers even knew he had a drinking problem until his first few hospital stays.
So I often wondered if he let the bottom fall out because he retired after selling EdgeMark, in 1994, spending his days getting sloshed on the golf course, or if he was simply unable to maintain control, and retired because of that. The chicken or the egg. After interviewing my family, and piecing together his life—interweaving business achievements and hospital stays—I suspect that his addiction was just too strong. He served on the boards of several companies. Between AmeriMark, First Southern, and the handful of others, including the Michael Jordan Golf Company, he had more than enough to keep him busy. And every reason not to drink. But he couldn’t stop.
My mother agrees. “I think it was inevitable,” she said. “He found ways to give himself more free time to do it. I don’t think he drank because of the free time. I think he made sure he had free time so he could go drink.” My sister concurs. “I don’t think anyone would choose that for his life,” Kirsten said.
By mid-July 1997, my father was in the hospital a second time. I was living in Massachusetts and Kirsten in Texas, but we flew home to check on him after being unable to contact him for more than a month. My mother, sister, and I caught him driving drunk. Quite by accident, on our way to his house, we spotted him turning off his street, swerving all the way. He’d already been charged with one DUI, though he kept his license. We followed him and were unsurprised when he pulled up to his local liquor store. We took his keys and drove him to the hospital. He could barely walk. At admission, his blood alcohol level was .459, which, according to the DuPage County Coroner’s office, often results in unconsciousness and death. The legal driving limit is .08.
This time my sister, my uncle, and I convinced him to enter rehab. He needed a sponsor to go through the program with him, so Kirsten canceled her summer internship with a post-production company in Los Angeles. She was heading into her senior year of college. “He asked me to,” Kirsten said. “How could you say no?”
She attended one-on-one and group sessions at the hospital with him—three or four nights a week for two months. “There were some tender moments,” she said. “But really it was very scary, because I had a chance to see that he didn’t want to stop, and how cold and calculating he was.” Two weeks into the program, Rick’s doctor told Kirsten that he would probably never recover, due to the depth of his illness and lack of initiative. In a report, the doctor wrote, “He denies alcoholism has interfered with his social life and he doesn’t think that it had anything to do with his divorces.”
During one group session, Rick sat next to Kirsten with his hands on her neck. “He was pretending he was massaging me, but he was squeezing my neck really hard,” Kirsten said. “And I kept kind of shirking away, trying to get him to stop. After that the doctor pulled me aside and said, ‘You know, he’s very dangerous,’ which I already knew. But hearing that from professionals was kind of scary.” The doctor told Kirsten that, for her own well-being, he didn’t want her coming so frequently anymore.
On July 28, 1997, I received a letter from the New Day Center, where my father was in rehab, asking me to write a letter to him about how his alcoholism had affected me. My father called and asked me to write one, too. I wrote:
Your drinking has been a slow form of suicide. Alcoholism and life are contradictions in terms. They cannot co-exist. And I have seen it turn you into a walking time bomb.
I love you very much and I want to see you finally succeed, loving yourself enough to live, loving life enough to give it another shot, and loving us enough to make that change. Please, I love you.
His subsequent cards and letters to me contained allusions to his illness. On August 2, he wrote:
Dear Karla, I was thinking of you and wanted to write to say hello. The new me. I really appreciate your support and being there for me! I’m excited about coming to see you soon in October. Things are going very well here. My treatment is great. You’d be surprised. Let me know your new phone #! Talk to you soon—I love & miss you! Dad!
Then, in a card dated October 1, 1997, he wrote:
Dear Karla, I enjoyed talking yesterday. It’s good to be home again. Spain was fun. I’ll fill you in when I see you soon. This weekend I’m off to Texas to see Kirsten. Travel, Travel. That’s all I seem to do. I’m doing very well. I miss you. Proud of you. Love, Dad!
He never did come to visit. This was a specialty of his. He’d often make the plane and hotel reservations and just never show up and not answer his phone. By his own account in his medical records, he remained sober for six months.
Dear Karla, I know how hard my ordeal has been on you and your sister. Believe me when I say I’m truly sorry. I write this with tears in my eyes. I’m doing the best I can and I promise you I will do better! I missed you at Christmas and that’s my fault! I really do appreciate you being there for me when I needed you. I’m much better now and have learned an awful lot from my experiences. You are a wonderful daughter! Thank you, Dad.
After that brief sober stretch, he went back into denial. When he didn’t call or answer his phone for weeks on end, he’d say he had a “cold.”
In May 1998, though he was AmeriMark’s founding chairman, president, and CEO, the board voted him out. The alcoholism he had hidden so well was out of the bag. Too often he was simply incapable of running the company. My sister stumbled across a letter warning him he would be let go, and his longtime secretary told my sister when it actually happened. He remained on the board of directors, and the company said in a press release, “Mr. Brown will devote more time to banking interests in Florida.”
“When they voted him off the board, that was it for him,” my mother surmised. “That was the end.” He did retire to Florida part-time, but he spent most of his time drinking, not banking. He would be “down,” as my family used to call it, for months at a time, not answering his phone, not returning calls. He missed Kirsten’s college graduation in May 1998. He never called. On September 15, 1998 I got a card from him referring to another planned visit. “I’m excited to see you soon,” he wrote. “Doing just fine.” Once again, he was a no show. My college roommates nicknamed him “Snuffleupagus,” Big Bird’s “Sesame Street” friend, who the other characters thought was imaginary.
October 18, 1998:
I’m so sorry for not visiting you. There’s just no excuse on my part. I’ll make it up to you! I’m doing better and doing the best I can. Thanks for understanding. You are a wonderful Daughter! I love you! Dad.
The pattern continued. “See you soon!” he wrote to me in a Valentine’s Day card. “For real this time. Love, Dad”
He was in and out of the hospital at least four more times before I graduated.
“The last time Rick was here, he refused to go to any AA meetings, and he also refused to attend any detox groups,” his doctor wrote.
My father was a Virgo. He liked to make lists. He’d jot them on yellow legal pads and tape them to the kitchen cabinet.
2) be more friendly
3) place myself in others position
4) help others—be more sympathetic
5) too domineering
6) slow down
7) too aggressive
This is a checklist my father wrote on the back of an “experimental battery of tests” conducted by a professor of personnel and organization behavior at Indiana University when he was an MBA student there, way back in 1968. His test results portrayed him exactly as I knew him thirty-five years later, when he died. His need for dominance was in the ninety-fourth percentile. But his need to feel guilt and accept blame—and the need to nurture, described as the need to help, sympathize with, and forgive others—were both in the 24th percentile.
Seeing that he actually may have taken this test to heart was both gratifying and depressing to me. I suppose it is nice to know that he may have tried, but frustrating to know that he was aware of his shortcomings and utterly failed to make any real change. “What a waste it all was,” my mother said of his life and death. “The intelligence, everything. There wasn’t anything he was lacking. What an absolute waste.”
On my fourth birthday—March 12, 1982—my father bought me a red sixteen-inch Schwinn bicycle. He kept the receipt and owner’s manual. He paid $86.95 cash plus $14.25 for training wheels and $3.50 for a Mickey Mouse bell. I loved that bike. And I especially loved the bell. It had a picture of Mickey dressed as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. I find it sad to think about now, because my dad wasn’t even the one who taught me to ride it. Kirsten, older than me by two years, had that honor. I’m sure he would have loved to hear me ring that bell. But he wasn’t there. For so much of my life, I felt the gap between who he was and who he could have been. I wrote to him in 1997:
When Mom, Kirsten, and I found you lying on the floor a few weeks ago unable to even crawl you were so far gone, I was so sad for you I can’t even express it in words. My heart, my soul, my entire being was crying for what you have done to yourself and to us. Crying for my life and what it could have been with you…a successful businessman who loves me very much. But also a successful drunk.
He was all too successful in that way. After I graduated from college in May 2000, which he miraculously attended sober, the only times I saw him were when I flew from New York, where I lived, to Chicago to literally pick him up off the floor and pay his bills. He had lost all of his board positions and along with them, all of his income. In March 2001, when he was supposed to be visiting me in New York, he was back in the hospital with a blood alcohol level of .557. His doctor called him “refractory to any recovery program this far.”
“He never really grasped the concept of recovery and never really followed through with attendance at the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings,” his doctor wrote. “He is a very controlling but pleasant individual who basically makes all of his own decisions.”
In June 2001, I made another emergency visit. He was lumbering around in his underwear and his house was a mess. Bloodstains were everywhere; urine stains and remnants of feces were on the carpet. The whole place smelled like a giant litter box. He was shaking, even as he clung to his half-gallon of vodka and tried to get up to greet Kirsten and I as we came in. But he couldn’t walk. His legs gave out and he hit the floor with a thud. That explained the bruises, cuts, and rug burns all over his body. He tried to get himself up. But he couldn’t—his arms weren’t working. Then he started to convulse. That’s when we called 911.
The paramedics came and revived him. “They’re the ones with the problem!” he yelled as they carried him away. “There’s nothing wrong with me!” He was in the intensive care unit for almost two weeks. They had to strap him to his bed because he was a fall risk.
Kirsten and I obtained a power of attorney, dated June 11, 2001 and attempted to sort out his bills. He had a loan for $3,455,139.33 that was collecting overdue fines of approximately $22,000 a day, and medical bills that totaled $16,860.63. All told, he owed a total of $129,196.31, mostly overdue, not including the loan. We paid $42,215.59 of it, minimums whenever possible, shuffling money from account to account.
By the time he died, he’d lost much of his fortune to negligence and mismanagement—and gambling. He had visited the riverboat casinos in suburban Chicago and sometimes lost hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time, a mutual acquaintance told my mother. He also accused his housekeeper of stealing from him, as much as $35,000 in one six-week period—using his ATM card while he was in the hospital. I found his calculations among his things. He fired her in July 2003, but eventually rehired her because no one else would bring him his booze. She withdrew $1,000 from his bank account in the hours after she found him dead.
He had donated a total of $1,350,000 that I could account for to Florida State University in exchange for vanity naming: the Richard A. Brown College of Business Pavilion and Courtyard, the Richard A. Brown Professorship in Entrepreneurship, the Richard A. Brown Development Fund, the Richard A. Brown Distinguished Speaker Series and, benevolently, the John R. Kerr Eminent Scholar Chair, named for a professor at the school.
By the time he died, his estate—which likely once peaked above $10 million—netted less than $650,000. He had lost all his status in the working world and alienated nearly all his friends and family. Kirsten believes he really just wanted to die.
On June 28, 2003, he missed his induction into the FSU College of Business Hall of Fame, in its inaugural year. He was to have been the first inductee, honored for his success, philanthropy to the school, and service on the FSU College of Business Advisory Board and the FSU Foundation Board of Trustees. But he had been transferred from the hospital psych ward to Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton, Illinois, the day before. My sister and I visited him there. He cried when he saw us.
His last two hospital stays were his denouement. On January 20, 2003, paramedics brought him to Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, Illinois. In the Emergency Physician Record, the ER doctor wrote:
The patient admitted to being unable to get up from the floor since yesterday due to intoxication and weakness. He admits feeling severely depressed for the past several months… His most recent period of sobriety was > 7 months ago. He has perhaps consumed five bottles of wine over the last 24 hours.
He was suffering tremors and hallucinations from alcohol withdrawal and was deemed “unable to care for himself.” He was diagnosed with major depression—recurrent and severe—with “suicidal ideation.” He was voluntarily admitted to the psychiatric unit on January 21, 2003 at 1:05 pm. He was 242 pounds with a temperature of 100.1 degrees. He was unable to sign most of the paperwork required and the hospital staff noted his behavior as “withdrawn” and “not very cooperative.” In the treatment plan for his first twenty-four hours, they put him on watch for suicide and seizure.
Kirsten visited him in the psych ward, and brought her fiancé there to meet him for the first time. “I was really angry at him and I remember telling him that it wasn’t fair that I had spent my life concerned with taking care of him and he was never concerned with taking care of me,” Kirsten said. “And all he kept saying was, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’”
He attended multiple daily group therapy sessions and had a physical therapist to help him walk. But he continually argued with his doctors as to whether or not to enter rehab. “I’m not depressed,” he told his doctor on January 28. “I feel good.”
By February 2, he was promising to try a rehab center “for a few days.” He woke up on the morning of February 3 and readied himself for a transfer. He packed all the belongings he had at the hospital: one pair of sweatpants, two pairs of underpants, one pair of shorts, seven credit cards, his driver’s license, a brown leather coat, a pair of sneakers, and his reading glasses. But his departure was delayed by two hours after his caseworker got word that his insurance had refused to cover the transfer and rehabilitation. He declared later in the day that he “didn’t need any more therapy.” He was discharged the next evening.
Come June 16, 2003, he was back in the same ER and admitted to the same psych ward. He had vomiting, diarrhea, hallucinations, tremors, and rashes and sores all over his body. He attributed his relapse to “stress.” He spent five days in the hospital detoxing before being transferred once again to the psych ward as an “actual and potential danger to self, others or property,” as well as “inability to care for self or function in a daily routine,” and “inability to tolerate or respond to outpatient management.”
His denial continued. “I’ve never been depressed—only overwhelmed,” he said in a therapy session on June 25. “I won’t drink anymore. I’m a strong person.” But my father finally agreed to go to rehab, if only for five days. “This time I’m going to do it right,” he said. He agreed to attend Alcoholic Anonymous when he was finished.
He died less than four months later, a month shy of Kristen’s wedding, one of twelve people who died from alcoholism in 2003 in DuPage County, Illinois.
While probing my dad’s personal history, I heard a rumor from someone outside my family: my dad was in a circle of men who cross-dressed and had orgies. The person gave me names—names I knew. The originator of the rumor was someone closely connected to that circle, and the rumor came to me secondhand.
My mother had mentioned that she thought my dad was gay, but would not elaborate. She only agreed to tell me more after I pressed her repeatedly.
On their honeymoon, she said, my dad ran to the toilet to vomit after they had sex. And after their honeymoon, he refused to have sex. My mother said they had sex exactly four times in the last six years of their marriage. She was frustrated, bewildered, and began thinking there was something wrong with her. At one point she asked him what she could do to make herself more appealing to him. “Remove your breasts,” he said.
Years later, she found a letter—a folded, handwritten note—from a friend of his who was an attorney. The letter strongly implied that Rick was gay, without explicitly saying so. My father had apparently asked if he could be fired if his bank found out and what the legal implications could be. The lawyer responded that it was best not to test the waters. My mother was floored, but not shocked.
Her final piece of evidence came much later, when my father was already dying. “OK,” she said. “I’ve never told you this before. I didn’t even want you guys to get a hint of it.” When he was in the hospital and we were paying his bills, she said she stumbled upon a brown paper-wrapped catalog amongst his papers. It was a circular for male prostitutes, complete with nude photos and phone numbers. “I remember looking at it and thinking, ‘Oh my God, he’s called some of these people and had them over,’” she said. “’He’s used this.’” There was more too, but she said she’d already told me enough. I couldn’t get the rest out of her.
Still, my mother’s revelations explained so much. In a 2008 O magazine article, called “Love Among the Ruins,” the journalist David France explored the way childhood sexual abuse affects men as adults:
In his book Abused Boys, therapist Mic Hunter details the many reasons why sexual intimacy is complicated for male survivors: Some withhold or avoid physical intimacy because they come to think of sex as a disgusting act that people inflict on one another. In a complex effort to show respect, some victims seek out prostitutes or strangers instead of venting their desires on their loved one. Others may come to define sexuality as always involving a perpetrator and a victim. “Often this association is so powerful that the victim becomes physically nauseated even when someone initiates respectful, mutual, consensual sex with him,” Hunter writes.
My father did every one of those things. My uncle remembered him traveling with a string of prostitutes “Pretty Woman” style, calling them his “girlfriends,” and my sister found one knocking on our resort door when we were on vacation, of all places, at Walt Disney World. My father hated being alone. It’s possible he paid them for companionship. But it’s also possible he paid them—female and male—for more. Whether he was gay, bisexual, or straight but repulsed by women as a result of his mother’s possible sexual advances, I will never know.
But I do know this: I spent so many years living with a seething anger. It only allowed me to see the man my father wasn’t—sober, gentle, and all the other areas I found him wanting. Now that I know who he possibly was, I can see the man I both loathed and loved in a profoundly new way; not as the man he wasn’t, but as the man he could have been. He could have come clean about the abuse he had suffered at the hands of his parents; come out about his sexuality, whatever it may have been; taken rehab seriously and gotten a second chance at life. He didn’t have to live in shame.
I don’t think he wanted to. I found his date book after he died. On one page he had written in capital letters, “A NEW START.” That day came and went.
My mother, sister, and I arranged a private viewing of my father’s body before he was cremated. The funeral director tried to talk us out of it; he thought the sight too gruesome. But we insisted.
My mother walked into the room first. She came out and told Kirsten and me it was OK. We walked into the room together holding hands. His body was on a table at the far end, a white sheet pulled up to his chin. We walked up.
“You finally did it, didn’t you,” Kirsten said. She brusquely left the room.
We had a private funeral. We asked that no one send flowers; none were sent. The funeral home had received about fifty calls a day inquiring about the services, but many were acquaintances that wanted to mourn the public man. The funeral director informed callers that the services were private. In our grief, we did not want to pretend that he was the man he wasn’t.
This was a different kind of mourning. I didn’t mourn the loss of the man he was—I mourned the loss of the man he was not, the loss of all that could have been.
We had a small service in the chapel at the funeral home. Only eleven people were present—my father’s family and his longtime secretary. We went to the cemetery in three cars. My mother and I carried his cremains ourselves. We congregated over the grave. I handed each person a rose. They were red, just like the ones he always sent to my sister and me. I asked everyone to say something and then to place the rose on his grave. Everyone took a turn.
“This is not the man I met twenty five years ago,” his longtime secretary said. “That man is long gone.”
My father died well before his body gave out. His spirit was broken. It had been broken for so long that I almost couldn’t remember when it was there. “This was not the man they had known,” James Baldwin wrote of his father’s funeral. “This was, in a sense deeper than questions of fact, the man they had not known, and the man they had not known may have been the real one. The real man, whoever he had been, had suffered and now he was dead.”
I still have that spool of wire from the day at the factory with my dad. I keep it in the nightstand to the left of my bed. The red and green wires are still tightly wound round the spool, but the gold wire has started to unravel. It reminds me of my father.
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.