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- December 05, 1988
- Vol. 30
- No. 23
Abandoned as Children to a State's Untender Mercies, Two Brothers Are Reunited After 30 Harsh Years
Chuck, you see, is back from the dead. He is not only back, but at a vastly better place in his life than he has ever been before. He is just a few credits shy of a bachelor's degree from California State, Los Angeles, which is not bad for someone once branded retarded. He has his own electrical contracting business in Hollywood, which makes him nearly $100,000 a year. Add Bobby to the mix—the fact that he's just found his brother again, after losing him for nearly 30 years—and, well, the man should be ecstatic.
But he isn't. Something rankles, troubles his soul. It's the shadow cast by the place down the road maybe 10 miles, the state institution for the mentally impaired, tucked away in the Pine Barrens, where he and Bobby were penned up for most of their childhood.
"How bad was the place?" says Chuck, with a sardonic smile. "Bobby, roll up your sleeves and show the man your arms."
Bobby's forearms are quilted with long, raised, ghastly white scars.
"Look at them," says Chuck, his eyes beginning to pool. "The scars are in every direction. See, my brother didn't know about the physiology of the arm—where the veins are. If one direction didn't work, he took the knife and tried another. That's how bad it was, how bad we needed to get out. Bobby had to kill the pain any way he could, even if it meant killing himself."
Brace yourself. This is a horror story with a qualified happy ending. It is a tale of two brothers and the terrible consequences that ensued from one careless act.
The act was committed by the boys' 20-year-old mother in September of 1943. That is when, for whatever reason, she dumped them in an orphanage in Roselle, N.J. "We became wards of the state when I was 10 months and Bobby was little more than a year-and-a-half old," says Chuck, calling the waitress over and ordering the first of many Bloody Marys. "My father's name was Charles. I don't know much about him, except that he was an electrician and he was born in Goshen, N.Y. My mother's maiden name was Eleanor Purpuro. She was a tramp, but I didn't find that out until years later when I found her living in California. By then she'd been married seven times."
The records-abstract that Chuck obtained from the New Jersey Department of Human Services indicates that in 1946 he and Bobby were farmed out to foster parents whom the brothers remember as Margie and Allie. The years the boys spent with this couple in woodsy Pompton Lakes, N.J., endure in their minds as a kind of idyll. Chuck remembers being taught manners and going to school. Bobby remembers "catching lightning bugs late at night, putting them in ajar and taking them in the house and see if they live."
"It was our only normal setting," says Chuck. "I think we would have been all right if we could have stayed with Margie and Allie. It was after we left that the nightmare began."
And yet, according to the state abstract, the foster parents complained that the boys repeatedly ran away. "Sure we did," says Chuck, "because we knew they weren't our real parents. Margie and Allie treated us well, but there was no affection. There were no hugs. We wanted Christmases, birthdays, all the things other kids have. We had illusions. We kept thinking if we ran away, somebody, our real parents, would come along and take us in and we would live happy ever after. We weren't practical about running away. We'd just look at each other, and one of us would say, 'It's time. Let's go.' "
It was in 1950, after Margie and Allie brought their own child into the world, that the boys, aged 6 and 7, were sent to the State Colony at New Lisbon. A few years earlier, according to the state abstract, Bobby had been tested and recommended for institutionalization. Chuck disputes the finding. He believes that Bobby was normal as a child—that the change in him occurred later on, when he was subjected to electroshock treatment. "I remember feeling that Bobby was always like me," says Chuck, "not like the others—the droolers and spastics. I think what happened was, we were aggressive kids. We kept running away, and something had to be done. We were too young for the reformatory, too old to be adopted. We became exposed to the courts, and that was that."
The State Colony at New Lisbon, in the sylvan setting of the pinelands, was a cluster of cottages with such names as Birch, Maple, Elm and Cedar. Chuck says he was raped his first night there—taken in his sleep by one of the 15-year-old monitors, as another attendant looked on and masturbated. Such attacks were commonplace at New Lisbon, he says. "The rapes occurred two or three times a week. They were always at night in the dormitory, and they were always condoned by the attendant. You'd hear the screams all night long." One night Bobby was walking past Willow, a cottage for older boys, when a dozen youngsters grabbed him and pulled him in through the door, then lined up and abused him serially. "We couldn't tell anybody, or even go to the doctor," says Chuck, "because if the attendants found out you had, they beat you. They would take you downstairs and put a bag over your head and hit you. Or they would tie your hands to the pipes and run the hot water through them and kick you when you screamed."
The brothers regarded themselves as "two against the world," says Chuck, and looked out for each other as well as they could. But now and again their situation would become unbearable, and once more they would run away, vaulting the fence and disappearing into the swamps. There they would live on berries for days before being brought back by the state police or soldiers from nearby Fort Dix. Then a whole new round of beatings would ensue. This went on for six years, until Chuck met a psychologist named Stanley Alprin. "Thank God for Stanley Alprin," says Chuck. "He was doing his field work, I think, for a doctorate. Stanley was the one who tested me and found out I should never have been put there in the first place. Two years later, when I was 13, I was sent to Johnstone in Bordentown, which was for borderline retardation. That's where the abuse ended."
Bobby wasn't so lucky. Apparently considered a problem because of his aggressiveness, he was sent on a nightmarish, five-year tour of the New Jersey institutional circuit, ending up back at New Lisbon for discharge in 1960. At Trenton State Hospital in the late '50s Bobby received the shock treatments that Chuck says may have made him incapable of complex thinking. Bobby, who is only now, with Chuck's help, beginning to relive that dimly recalled past, remembers his brother coming to visit him in Trenton. He also remembers telling his brother to go away and leave him alone.
"Why did you tell me that?" asks Chuck, these many years later, in the dark of the empty restaurant.
"There was something there that hurt me," says Bobby, suddenly sobbing, as it all floods back. "They said I was a nut, and they were making me lie there, and they were putting those wires on my head, and I didn't want my brother to see me like that. I wasn't a nut, Chuck. I wasn't."
A year or so later, Chuck came to visit Bobby again, on a farm in Mount Holly, N.J., where Bobby was on work-leave from New Lisbon. Once more, Bobby told his brother to go away. This time Chuck did—for nearly 30 years.
It is at this point that Chuck's own story properly begins. It's a survivor's tale—one in which he becomes a kind of gamin, trading on his good looks and a native ability to please to get the tenderness and protection he'd never had. Both brothers would spend the next several decades in search of the love that was denied them in childhood. Bobby would attach himself to families—notably, to the family of James "Pop" Sorrentino, the owner of an Italian restaurant in Browns Mills, N.J., who hired him out of New Lisbon when he was 18 as a pizza chef. Chuck would operate one-on-one.
Chuck discovered his ability to charm while still at New Lisbon. He remembers that, when he was 8 or 9, the older boys used to run to Birch Cottage and scale the wall "just to get a peek at the pretty kids." He remembers catching the eye of a teenager named Ron, who used to bring him raisins in return for a fleeting kiss. "To me," says Chuck, "those raisins were love." Chuck became known as Ron's "kid." When the older boy discovered that one of the monitors was abusing Chuck, he and his friends lay in wait for the fellow. "They kicked the shit out of him," says Chuck. "That's when I knew I had some power. And I used it."
At 16, Chuck was thrown unceremoniously into the world. One day at Johnstone they simply called out his name; the next day he was in Atlantic City, mopping floors in a nursing home. "You can imagine the cultural shock," he says. "I went from a world where I was completely supervised to one where there was no supervision at all." Chuck could barely read or write. He had no vocational skills. Yet he was not at a complete loss. For he had taken the parable of the raisins to heart. At the nursing home he beguiled the female manager into giving him lighter duties, the cook into making him special meals. Yet it was in Philadelphia, his next stop, that he went into the snow business for real. He became a salesman, selling door-to-door for Fuller Brush, then for Grolier and Britannica encyclopedias. He was a natural huckster, blessed with a melodic voice and a wonderfully interested manner. Before long he was the one driving the men out into the suburbs to peddle their books.
One night in Philadelphia, at a party in a residence for foreign students, he met an Episcopal priest on the make. The priest was 40ish, a schoolteacher who exuded culture and refinement. Chuck was 18, highly impressionable and extremely needy. The young man moved in with the priest and lived with him for six years. "It may be hard for you to understand this," says Chuck, draining another Bloody Mary, "but I thought of Jim as my father. No, I didn't think there was anything odd about having sex with my 'father.' You have to remember where I came from. Anyway, I didn't realize until I got older that Jim wasn't really in love with me. It was another of my delusions. He was a pedophile. What happened was, when I became 24 and lost my pretty looks, he lost interest in me and turned his attention to other children."
At that point, Chuck did what he and Bobby had always done. He ran away. He might have lost his "father," but there was still hope—he had found his mother. By 1966, using agencies of vital statistics in several states, he had managed to trace the former Eleanor Purpuro through her many marriages. She was living under the name Burke in Culver City, Calif.
"You mean you saw her?" asks Bobby in the gloom of the restaurant.
"Yes," says Chuck.
"I would have killed her."
But Chuck did not mean to avenge the past. He meant to redeem it. Still trying, at 24, to find a way to have Christmases and Thanksgivings, he moved in with his mother. But it didn't work. His presence rubbed his mother raw with guilt—and then there was Eleanor's friend. One day several weeks into his stay, Chuck says, Eleanor got drunk, and she and the friend ended up pushing him down the stairs. That was it—Chuck would not see or hear of his mother again for 20 years. "I closed the door on that chapter," he says, "and went on with my life."
First Chuck set about getting an education. Over the next dozen years, going to school mostly at night, he earned diplomas at Hollywood High and Los Angeles Community College and came within a few credits of a degree at Cal State. He also continued to prove himself a crackerjack salesman, working his way up to the job of manager of a local auto insurance agency.
Yet in a sense, despite all this education, he hadn't learned anything at all—he was still stumbling in the dark, groping for love. He was married, briefly, to a woman who Chuck says tore him down and only confirmed his low opinion of himself. He also engaged in a number of relationships with older men, who, like the priest, "fathered" him in exchange for sex. Then one day, while living in the Highland Park section of L.A., he happened upon the perfect mate. "Let me tell you," he says. "I shot heroin and I was in love on the spot. I found what I'd been looking for all my life. Heroin wiped out the past. It wiped out the loneliness. Heroin was my mother, my father, my long-lost brother."
A junkie for most of the decade, Chuck pretty much missed out on the '70s. To support his habit, which at one point grew to $400 a day, he cadged work as an electrician, a trade he'd picked up in Philadelphia before getting into sales. But he needed money so badly he rented out both apartments in his two-family house in Highland Park and slept on the floor in one of them. He overdosed frequently, and his friend Bea Sandler, a retired L.A. teacher, remembers dragging him out from under his porch one time with a needle still stuck in his arm. In moments of lucidity, Chuck attempted to free himself from the drug, finally turning to methadone, a pale imitation of his malevolent bride, which succeeded eventually in turning the trick.
These days Chuck feels like Lazarus. He's been on methadone for eight years now—eight profitable years during which he started his electrical contracting business, bought a duplex in Hollywood and tried to come to terms with his sexuality. He believes that he is not homosexual by nature but by virtue of his childhood conditioning, and that his "future contentment" will be with a woman. All in all, he says, in a burst of enthusiasm, "I don't have to worry about anything."
The sentiment is understandable, given what Chuck has been through, but it's not quite true. Two years ago he learned that Jim, the Episcopal priest, had died. Nine months later came word of Eleanor's death. Reminded, he says, of "how frail we all are," he realized that the clock was running—that he had to find Bobby, before it was too late.
He had always wanted to find Bobby, he says, but didn't know where to start looking. Then, about nine months ago, he came across a book titled You Can Find Anybody and located Bobby in a matter of weeks. Finding him turned out to be the easy part. The hard part was flying out to Browns Mills to meet him. "I was scared to death," says Chuck. "I didn't know what to expect, what I'd find. Worst of all, the trip meant I had to relive everything."
Chuck phoned ahead, and Bobby was sitting in a car, waiting for his brother outside Sorrentino's Restaurant when Chuck drove up. Both were wearing their best clothes. "We got out of the cars and saw each other," says Chuck, "and, well, what do you do? You get together and you hug, and the past goes through you a mile-a-minute. You just fall apart."
"There was something there," says Bobby, struggling to make sense of what he felt that day. "I never thought I would see my brother again. Never."
"It's okay, Bobby," says Chuck, fondling his shoulder.
"But Chuck," says Bobby, sobbing, "I don't want to lose you again."
"You won't, Bobby," says Chuck, speaking with more confidence than he feels. He is still trying to find a place for Bobby in his own hard-won life, and he worries that, as a recovering addict, he may not be equal to meeting his brother's overwhelming emotional needs. Chuck feels, for the time being, that he and Bobby must continue to pursue their lives on opposite coasts. But the old idea of "two against the world" is hard to shake, and Chuck is clearly swept up by the moment.
"There won't be any more lonely Christmases," he tells his brother—and himself. "No more lonely birthdays or Thanksgivings. Because we're going to run away again very soon, Bobby. And this time, it's forever."
November 23, 2015
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