My brother (and bestselling author) Scott Berkun and I grew up together in the New York City borough of Queens, an area that is part city, part suburb. You might think that would make it the best of both worlds. But for Scott and I, we felt more like we were characters in “The Ice Storm” or “American Beauty,” lost and alone. We were trapped within the facade of a happy American family and we were desperate to figure out why it all wasn’t as wonderful as it should be.
Scott and I are six years apart, but almost from the beginning we knew we had an affinity for each other that transcended any age difference. As we have both agreed since, something was keeping us apart when we were young. We were friends, but we now believe that the lack of a settled household environment kept us from getting as close as we could have been, which Scott points out in his book. We could have looked out more for each other if there was someone looking out more for both of us. I should have told him at the time how great he was. Scott, you’re smart, you’re cheerful, you’re funny, but I never told him. I didn’t have the self-confidence.
If the question was what did the Berkun brothers do as young boys to gain confidence, the answer was to play basketball, and a lot of it. We could get recognition from teammates, coaches, and anyone else who might watch us play. We went to the garden to watch the Knicks. We played ball anywhere, anytime: in the backyard, in the playgrounds, but most frequently at the local Jewish Community Center, the Samuel Field Y. Our mother, to her credit, encouraged us to get involved there. I, in turn, encouraged Scott to try out for his first basketball team there, an event he discusses as having special importance in his new book.
Scott’s making the team was a moment of great pride, not only for him but for me. I had first made the Y basketball team in twelfth grade–way too late to really improve and develop my game. I knew that by getting on the team at an earlier age, Scott would have more time to work on his skills. It would give him the chance to become a really good player, a better player than me. Scott knew I was proud of him, but as a family we never seemed to support his basketball effort. Scott made it to starting point guard on the Bayside High School basketball team, a huge achievement by any standard, and I can only remember going to one game. I have no idea how many games the rest of our family attended, but whatever the amount it probably wasn’t enough to make him know we truly supported his effort.
Our father had an affair in the late 1970’s. For several years, our parents were separated. In his book, Scott describes his haunting encounter with our father at the front door and mine at a local pizza place during the era. Our father reunited with our mother and came back to live with us in the early 1980’s. The family had its good and bad times, and we assumed that our parents would from then on be committed to their marriage.
Scott always seemed to know deep down that he had to get far away from Long Island to find himself and what he was looking for in the world and in his life. No doubt he used his feelings of frustration with the family and our father to fuel his yearning to find himself. I realize that he had to get away, that it was best for him, but for me, I just missed him when he wasn’t around any longer. Occasionally we would spend time together, going to places like Swensen’s ice cream at the Miracle Mile togeher. But Scott was soon off to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, then out to Washington to work at Microsoft. Now he’s a successful writer and professional speaker. He has achieved an amazing set of accomplishments. I stayed closer to home, went to college at SUNY Stony Brook and met my wife, worked in Manhattan, moved to Connecticut and took over my family toner business.
Scott describes how our family separated into two factions. There was my sister who enjoyed having an insulated protective environment created for her by my parents who lived next door. If anything went wrong, they were there to pick up the pieces. Then there was me and my brother who thought the whole thing (living next door to each other) made no sense. My mother would remind my wife and I daily of how much of a model parent my sister was. It was seemingly as if she stated it to us enough, she could somehow make it true. Our sister had never done the work necessary to facilitate her own independence, and our parents not only failed to press the issue, they gave her the means to continue to avoid growing up.
It was Scott who never relented in pointing out how destructive my parents’ relationship with my sister and her family was to all involved. It was Scott who had always been the voice of reason, despite being criticized for it. He tried to talk to our sister about the situation, and she responded by refusing to speak with him. She eventually also cut ties with my parents, the ones who had been protecting her were now out in the cold. That set the stage for my father’s second affair and would be the impetus for my brother’s book.
Scott called me in the summer of 2012 to tell me we had entered into a family crisis. My father was having an affair; my mother had just found out. It was something I wasn’t ready for, who would be? This crisis would eventually motivate Scott to write The Ghost of My Father. It was 35 years earlier that Scott and I had survived our father’s first affair. That time we had to deal with it alone; this time we were together. Scott handled telling me about it so well, and I was proud of him. But I couldn’t tell him at the time, since there was too much going on.
Now Scott has written a book that details his experience in a troubled family and explains what it has been like to have had a strained lifelong relationship with our father. Writing the book is an important step for him; it’s something he felt he had to do, and I am glad he did it. On any level it is a great achievement. He has always been the voice of reason in our family and for that I am forever grateful, and once again, I am proud of him, I will try to tell him this time. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I have.