Brandt Miller’s grandmother has had her share of issues, but he never thought she’d mistake him for the family’s black sheep—a convicted child molester serving time with Bernie Madoff.
They had moved her to the dementia ward because of the accidents and confusion. She would wander the halls in search of the Buick she hadn’t driven in years. Then she would scream each night, begging anyone at the assisted living home to tell her where she was.
The accidents were a recent development. Her needing diapers (and neglecting to change them) was the last straw.
But I never thought my grandmother would mistake me for a pedophile.
There were similarities between Marvin Hersh, my grandmother’s first cousin, and me—similarities my grandmother, in her dementia, may have absorbed. He was an academic; I was pursuing a similar career. We were both interested in the arts. He had lived in Iran, Israel, and South Africa; I had just returned from living abroad in Asia. Marvin was a sensitive man, surrounded—much like I was—by a family of strong Jewish women and absent fathers. We were both homosexuals.
This is where our similarities ended.
I hadn’t seen my grandmother in more than two years when I drove to her new home outside of Boston. I wanted to tell her of the time I spent writing for the newspaper in Cambodia, of my Fulbright scholarship in Mongolia. I thought my visit would shine light on her dimming mind.
In the Victorian-style old folks’ home right off the highway, the residents sat quietly, heads slumped bizarrely in front of their bodies as if ready to snap from the spines. An old movie was playing with that sepia-like tone of a black-and-white film converted to color. The volume seemed muffled as most of the audience slept lifelessly or stared at the screen blankly, glazed over and lost. No one noticed my entrance.
There she was. The ghost of my grandma: a pile of translucent, blotchy skin hanging off brittle bones.
“Ma, it’s me,” I said. She seemed to snap out of her trance. She looked to both sides, then back at my face. She put her hand on my cheek and looked more closely. I hugged her and kissed her. She began to cry.
“My boy! Get me up, come on,” she said. She gave me a knowing smirk. “Let’s get out of here. Grab my walker.”
We moved through the sliding door to her tiny one-bedroom. She pushed the walker to the side and fell backward on the bed. I sat in the chair across from her.
“So how’s your mother?” she asked.
“She’s good. Didn’t you just see her last weekend?”
“No, no. I haven’t seen Gussy in weeks. She never comes out from California anymore.”
“Gussy isn’t my mother. That’s your aunt.” I didn’t remind her that Gussy had been dead for seven years.
A nurse walked in with a tray of medicine. “Who may this handsome young man be?” she asked.
“This is my baby cousin,” she said.
I looked up. “I’m her grandson.”
My grandmother laughed. “I don’t have a grandson. Stop kidding around.”
“Then what’s my name, Ma?”
“Well, whoever he is, you’re one lucky lady,” the nurse told her.
She held my grandma’s head up, put a cocktail of four pills in her mouth, held the water to her lips, and poured.
She lay back and closed her eyes.
I hadn’t heard this name in years. The suffocating entity in my family had resurfaced and was staring at me like a warped reflection in the mirror.
At the time of my visit, Marvin’s history had been known for many years. His sickness is not likely to have slipped from my grandmother’s receding memory—a fact that disturbed me all the more.
He had spent much of his adult life married, living internationally while staying in close contact with our family. One of my aunts lived with him for a year during his stint in Israel; my grandmother and his mother stayed with him for two months after his divorce in South Africa.
He would constantly take trips to Asia and Latin America, always alone and for a few weeks at a time. No one asked questions.
And then his young nephew—my second cousin—told his father that Marvin had touched him. The entire family shunned him except for his mother.
His trips to Latin America and Asia increased. In his 50s, he returned to the U.S. with an adopted Honduran son.
It was when I was in high school that Marvin’s ex-wife called my aunt that had lived with them in Israel. She told her the details of the boy from Honduras, how Marvin bought him and made him a sex slave, how Marvin was part of an international ring of pedophiles. Although she and her children no longer spoke with Marvin, they could not be the ones to make the call. She pleaded with my aunt to report him. My grandmother pleaded with her not to, still sympathetic for her baby cousin, terrified at what it would do to her own aunt that was like her sister. My aunt turned him in to the FBI.
Marvin was put on trial and sentenced to 105 years in prison on federal charges of forging a passport and human trafficking. He was the first American to be prosecuted for traveling abroad to have sex with a minor. (According to New York Magazine, Marvin is in protective custody with Bernie Madoff—the two play nightly scrabble games together.)
I was beginning my adolescence when I first learned of him. I was a closeted gay boy in the suburbs of New Jersey, ashamed of my emerging sexual orientation, forcing myself to date girls or at least talk about them while secretly fantasizing about sex with men. I wondered if I had met Marvin when I was younger. I asked my mother, hoping the answer would be yes. I began fantasizing about what it would be like if we had met. Though at 14 I was probably too old for him, I imagined taking a trip to visit my accomplished distant cousin for the summer, being seduced by him, making love with the fat old man in his home.
As the years went on, and I began to meet men in AOL chat rooms, the fantasies stopped.
My mother told me Marvin and I had never met. But in a strange way, I felt we were kindred spirits. I had known lonely men just like him. I could sympathize.
I was later able to look at Marvin objectively. My complicated and troubling feelings gave way to resentment. I had come to terms with my sexual orientation and its inevitable hardships. I’d grown up.
I’ve chosen to make a life out of helping struggling gay men and women. During my Fulbright program in Mongolia, I undertook the first study on the LGBT community and helped to found a Mongolian LGBT Center. Societal discrimination no doubt played a factor in my desire to be an activist, but perhaps my own queer comrades, the gay brotherhood, and, yes, Marvin have all added to my struggles and helped me blossom into the man I am today.
Gay men are victims of homophobia and, often, we are victims of each other. Holding each other back, fulfilling stereotypes we are forced into, abusing ourselves and those close to us—some learn, but some continue to perpetuate violence. I was not one of the latter. And yet I was being mistaken for a degenerate.
Was it our sexual deviancy? Deep down, my grandmother knew I was gay. One of my aunts had told her a few years before her deterioration. During those last lucid moments before my time abroad, she had asked if I would ever find a nice Jewish girl and stop the nonsense. I said perhaps. The memory of me, the memory of my sexual orientation, was buried somewhere in there. Did she still see me as someone flawed? Sick?
“Ma, I’m not Marvin,” I told her. “I’m your daughter Jennie’s son. Your only grandson.”
“Oh, stop kidding.”
In an instant I had regressed. I felt the shadowy closet lingering behind me, giving me glimpses of a life at rest stops, on the Internet, in meth-filled darkrooms, in the alleys of Tijuana. I did not want to be acquainted with this. I wanted to shut the door and run.
I stared deep into her eyes, screaming for a connection. I stood up and kissed her as I always kissed her, right on the cheek but with the corners of our lips touching. I wanted to reignite that spark in her. Of her three daughters and five granddaughters, I was her only male descendent. Her husband had died when she was 50, her distant brother a few years before. And now a pedophile and her gay grandson were her only living connections to maleness, and to her we were one and the same.
I knew otherwise. And yet all I felt was shame and sadness. I couldn’t help it. I wanted my grandmother back—I wanted those Yiddish words to flow from her lips, her jabs at my skinny frame, even her insistence that I meet some nice Jewish girls. I didn’t want to argue with her. I couldn’t deny her the little joy she got from my visit, no matter who, or what, I was to her.
“So tell me,” she asked politely, “how is Gussy?”
“She’s fine,” I said. “Just fine.”
Madoff graphic reprinted with permission of New York Magazine.