Little Brother by Sallie Bingham
“Again” is even sadder than “was” — it is the saddest word of all.”
— WILLIAM FAULKNER, The Sound and the Fury
Thus begins Sallie Bingham’s latest book, a powerful, poignant account of her younger brother Jonathan, his life and untimely death. Part of the prestigious Louisville, Kentucky Binghams, the author depicts her family’s life, one of wealth, accomplishment and privilege. Jonathan, adored by his sister, was of a loose thread in the tapestry.
The family comprised a socialite mother, an involved-in-politics father, and five children. The children were well cared for but seemingly not as consequential as the parents’ very important lives. Jonathan was born in 1942. His father, a friend of President Franklin Roosevelt, could not be around when his third son entered the world. Writes Bingham, “The birth of a third son could not compete with the possibilities unfolding for father.” It seemed, as I read on, often moved to tears, that Jonathan became an increadingly shadowy figure, part of the family but not really.
The Binghams owned both the Louisville Courier-Journal and Louisville Times newspapers. Their modus operandi was one of high-powered achievement and forward motion. Jonathan, it seemed, couldn’t keep up. It was at Harvard, his sophomore year, that the young man’s life appeared to begin unravelling. His biographer sister describes him as becoming “destabilized.” Jonathan dropped out of Harvard. When at home, he was moody and detached. He spent hours in the basement. He had, he claimed, “invented a cure for cancer.”
Jonathan was 21 and planning a party in the barn, a Boy Scout reunion. There was no way to have lights in the barn, so he decided to do it himself, He climbed an electrical pole, grabbed the wrong wire, and was immediately electrocuted. He joined what Ms Bingham titles “the dreadful list,” close family members who’d died before reaching age fifty. The deaths, she notes, were often suicides.
Bingham gathered notes and diaries, interviewed Jonathan’s friends, and wrote Jonathan’s story as only a grief-stricken and caring relative could. She wrote it so that Jonathan’s brief time on earth would not be forgotten,
Her book Little Brother will remain with me for a long time. It is a sensitive, loving commemoration. Bingham’s story of Jonathan will resonate with any reader who has a “little brother” relative in the family, someone who is not quite connected. The memoir, in addition to being a poignant and beautifully constructed read, serves as a reminder to pay attention, to be kind, to notice.
SALLIE BINGHAM: A long and fruitful career as a writer began in 1960 with the publication of her novel, “After Such Knowledge”. This was followed by 15 collections of short stories, novels, memoirs and a biography, as well as plays. She is an active and involved feminist, working for women’s empowerment, who founded the Kentucky Foundation for Women, which gives grants to Kentucky artists and writers who are feminists, The Sallie Bingham Archive for Women’s Papers and History at Duke University,and the Women’s Project and Productions un New York City. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Join Elaine on Mondays for reflections on the writing, hiking and the outdoors, Santa Fe life, and the world as seen through adoption-colored glasses. Check out her newest novel The Hand of Ganesh. Follow adoptees Clara Jordan and Dottie Benet in their quest to find Dottie’s birthparents. Order today from Amazon or http://www.pocolpress.com. And thanks for reading!