Misfits & Supermen
TWO BROTHERS' JOURNEY ALONG THE SPECTRUM
The bond of brotherhood is hard to break, but a lifetime of dealing with familial expectation, bitterness, and psychological disorders can bend and warp it into something nearly unrecognizable. This story tells the tale of two brothers: Melvyn, the elder, whose amalgamation of disorders leave him completely unable to function within society; and Stephen, the younger, whose own emotional and psychological issues are overshadowed to the point where he becomes little more than a pale and twisted reflection of his brother.
On different ends of the same spectrum, Melvyn is blissfully unaware of their troubling connection (or so his brother can only assume), but for Stephen, it is undeniable. He lives with it every day, sensing his own otherness in every twitch, outburst, and inability of his brother to overcome his inner demons. Left largely on his own to deal with his peculiarities—while carrying the burden of being “the normal one,” of whom much is expected— Stephen begins a complicated and unpredictable journey, one which will take him as far from his brother as he can manage to get, even as it brings them inexorably closer.
A portion of proceeds from this book will go toward the Camp Cuheca Scholarship — Melvyn D. Starger fund at Waterford Country School, Quaker Hill, CT., to help fund a two-week summer residency at the camp. For more information about Waterford Country School, please visit www.waterfordcountryschool.org.
1 Ardman Drive, circa 1950:
My father, my brother and I are seated at the kitchen table. I am 10 years old; my brother is 18. We all have glasses of tomato juice; Melvyn and I also have milk. My father has a cup of coffee. It’s too early for the daily tension to roll in, so the mood is relatively cordial. My father is reading the paper or cracking one-liners, which make us laugh. My mother is preparing salami and eggs and toast. In the middle of one of my father’s jokes, Melvyn starts to flap his arms, which is one of the ways he shows joy. (I find out in later years that psychiatrists call these actions “stimming,” or self-stimulation. They are most prevalent in people with autistic spectrum disorders.) This activity, coupled with Melvyn’s abnormally thin frame, transforms him into some kind of wild bird, flapping his wings excitedly. No one knows where this sudden behavior comes from but it appears harmless, so no one gets upset. It happens frequently, and if it means that Melvyn is feeling happy about something, it’s all to the good. For my young self, it’s like watching a Daffy Duck cartoon. I laugh when he does it—not with him, but at him. In a sudden flip of his arm, Melvyn’s hand hits his glass of tomato juice, sending the red liquid flying across the table like a storm surge. Everything stops. My father’s paper is soaked, as is the entire table and all of us there. My father looks disgusted, or perhaps just defeated, accepting another inevitable calamity caused by Melvyn. My mother turns around, and her face sinks at the chaos. One more disaster to clean up. She grabs a towel and begins to sop up the mess, which is now seeping onto the floor. While my mother fights a losing battle with the juice, my brother jerks his hand again and hits his glass of milk. The white liquid spreads over the red pool on the table, mixing like watercolors. Melvyn is the first to speak, a kind of triumph for him. “F-first t-t-he milk, t-t-hen the juice,” my brother starts to chant. My father looks at his older son and his face changes, lightens up, chasing away the chaos that has suddenly engulfed his morning. I pick up the phrase, and soon we’re chanting in unison, “First the milk, then the juice!” My mother is not amused. She continues cleaning, using up towel after towel. Breakfast will have to wait. My mother turns off the stovetop and stands still, on the verge of tears. If God would strike her dead at this very moment, it would be a mitzvah (a blessing).
It never occurs to me that Melvyn has the same range of emotions as I do. I laugh at him, but worse, I resent his existence in that rudimentary manner that characterizes youthful solipsism. I view my brother as an alien in the house, someone dark and unfathomable who threatens my unformed and uninformed self. I fight back with anger and insults, which contributes in no small way to the tension that fills our home, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with precious little relief.
–An excerpt from Misfits & Supermen: Two Brothers' Journey Along the Spectrum, by Steve Starger
Previously short-listed for the Will Eisner Award for his biography of comic-book artist Wally Wood (co-authored by David Spurlock), retired professional musician and journalist Stephen Starger hopes that Misfits and Supermen: Two Brothers' Journey Along the Spectrum—his personal story—will help other people dealing with psychological disorders to realize that they are not alone, and find solace, empathy, and insights into their personal and familial situations.
Stephen currently lives in Warwick, Rhode Island, with his wife, Polly Barey.
'This peculiar combination of family dysfunction, comic books, 1960s counterculture, and mental health makes for a unique, thoroughly engaging memoir that gets at the tragedy and dignity of our collective isolation from one another.
A finely crafted, affecting memoir of two brothers.'
– Kirkus Reviews
Misfits and Supermen' is a wise, tender, unsparing and beautiful memoir of growing up with a family member who would likely now be recognized as autistic, but who was then considered simply mysterious and unreachable, and shunted from one hospital or nursing home to the next. Steve Starger takes us from his childhood world of private games, comic books and early rock and roll, through psychedelia and high times in New York and California and on to a distinguished career in journalism, biography and music, all the while haunted by the brother he loved and could not help. This is not only a distinguished work in itself but a vital reminder of how far we have come in our understanding of life 'on the spectrum.'
– Tim Page, Professor of Music and Journalism University of Southern California