Chris in his younger years at the piano.
When I was a kid, my big brother Chris was my universe. He was handsome, musically gifted and an A student ― the complete package. Our cultural differences marked our age difference. Chris was The Beatles and The Band; I was Blondie and the B52s. I wanted to play the piano because he did, but my teacher advised my mom to stop sending me since all I did was sit at the keyboard and cry because I didn’t sound remotely like him.
When our dad died, Chris became the “man” of the family at age 14 — he became my father figure, my older sister’s confidante and the one Mom turned to for answers. Overwhelmed, our mercurial mother resisted the responsibilities of widowhood. She started seeing a much-younger musician and took to going out after dinner and returning the next day. Many mornings, my siblings would have to make breakfast and get me to grade school.
When I was 10, we moved, along with Mom’s young boyfriend, to an apartment with two bedrooms rather than three. Although Chris was living on campus at Columbia, Mom effectively displaced him. That Christmas, neither sibling came home. It was the end of the family as I knew it, and the beginning of an estrangement that would last decades.
After months of silence, Chris asked me to meet him in Central Park, where he explained that he wouldn’t be seeing me for a while. He had to find himself and he needed space. That turned into 15 years of noncommunication.
I lost my brother (and my sister, who would soon join him) to the Sullivanians, a psychotherapeutic cult he was introduced to through an ex while a freshman at Columbia. The Sullivanians believed that mothers were “the corrupting virus” — a philosophy that chimed loud and clear with my siblings.
The Sullivanians sought to replace the nuclear family with radical communal living. Since members lived in shared apartments, the group provided my siblings with structure, a social life and an affordable home on the Upper West Side.
Multiple weekly sessions with therapists who’d trained at the Sullivanian Institute were mandatory. The nuclear family was considered the root cause of mental illness. To get well, one had to excise family and friends.
The therapists came to control every aspect of their patients’ day-to-day: They shut down contact with outsiders, made career decisions, determined sex lives, and even granted permission to those wanting a child. Once a baby was born, it was raised by sitters within the group and sent to boarding school at a young age to “protect” it from having contact with its mother. Women trying to conceive would sleep with different men to obscure their child’s true paternity.
Initially, I lacked the right words for what had engulfed my siblings. When I tried phoning, whoever answered wouldn’t let me speak to either of them. Throughout my teens, my siblings lived one subway stop away, but they may as well have been in Alaska. I would patrol their block, hoping to “accidentally” run into either of them.
My sister made intermittent contact, but Chris just vanished. He was a current running through our shared city, invisible yet charged. His absence framed my being; his departure marked time and drew a line I could not cross.
When I eventually came to understand that my siblings had joined a cult, it was a relief. I could assign blame to it, instead of us.
Chris just vanished. He was a current running through our shared city, invisible yet charged. His absence framed my being; his departure marked time and drew a line I could not cross.
My sister’s association with the cult ended when I was a college freshman, and our reconnection was immediate and unequivocal.But when Chris finally left in the late ’80s, I was done with waiting for him. By then, the wheels were coming off the Sullivanian bus; there’d been an exposé in the Village Voice when a former member kidnapped her child after she was prohibited from having contact; lawsuits were pending.
I had ricocheted into adulthood, making random and often reckless choices that led me to drop out of college, marry a man I barely knew, and move to England. I was a 25-year-old newlywed and I had moved on, or so I thought.
My marriage soon ended, yet I chose to remain abroad and eventually found my happily-ever-after when I became a mother. When I found out I was having a boy who would have the same star sign as Chris, I called a friend in tears, convinced my history with my brother would repeat itself with my son.
Soon after leaving the Sullivanians, Chris got married and became a proud dad. Our dealings were cordial, but I didn’t make much time for him on my trips back home. I forgave him, to an extent.
We rolled along like that for a good decade or so, but that changed when Chris was first diagnosed with cancer early in the millennium. Wanting to be there for him, I let my issues go.
After his near-miraculous recovery, we three siblings enjoyed a golden epoch in which we laughed ourselves into a new normal. We rewrote our past over dinners that ended at dawn. “The family that parties together stays together”became our morning-after motto.
Years later, at the height of the COVID pandemic, the cancer returned, this time to Chris’ pancreas. I believed he would beat it again. Still, my sister and I moved into his house to look after him.
“I don’t want my sisters nursing me,” Chris said. But we did. We’d have Manhattans while he had his medication. We’d watch comedies and find pockets of levity. Chris was clear about the odds, but he took what he could from each day. Phone calls and company were the wins. He eventually lost what scant strength he had, but what the body couldn’t, his mind could. Music — Davis and Coltrane — became his magic carpet.
Ever curious, Chris spent his last years leading sound healing workshops and served on the board of the Duke Ellington Foundation, a philanthropic nonprofit. He’d studied comparative religions at Columbia prior to joining the cult. I like to think that his spiritual roaming prepared him for a seamless onward journey.
The night he died, he was distressed and having trouble drawing breath. We gave him medication to ease his breathing. We soothed and sang to him. Once he quieted, I fell asleep and awoke to find him gone. For months, I played back every minute of that night, wishing I’d stayed awake to hold his hand.
I seek Chris in my thoughts. I find him through music. Knowing we sang and loved him into the next world brings untold comfort. I have dreams in which we’re together again. I’m forever fortunate that I — the sister from whom he was estranged for so long — was there at the end. All those years, when our separate truths didn’t align, when we’d all been hurting but hadn’t hurt together, were healed in those last weeks. Being there for him, with my sister, allowed our love to come full circle.
Kaethe Cherney is the author of “Happy as Larry: A New York Story of Cults, Crushes, and Quaaludes.” She’s a native New Yorker with a background in development, theater and contemporary art. Her short film and two one-act plays have been produced in London, where she lives with her husband and two children.