My Brother's Lives and Deaths

Mentally Ill Sibling Reinvented Himself Many Times

As Children: Jackie Jacobs (back row, middle) poses with his sister Ethel and brother Gerald (front row, right) and with two cousins in ties.
Courtesy of Jackie Jacobs
As Children: Jackie Jacobs (back row, middle) poses with his sister Ethel and brother Gerald (front row, right) and with two cousins in ties.

By Jackie Jacobs

Published November 12, 2013, issue of November 15, 2013.
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Mental illness took my brother’s life on numerous occasions, most recently and for the last time when he was 58.

He was 22 the first time he died, six years to the day after my father’s yahrzeit. His obituary noted that Gerald M. Jacobs died at home, but funeral arrangements were incomplete. Contributions could be made to the American Cancer Society.

At the time, Gerald had already been hospitalized at two mental institutions. The first was a private facility in New Canaan, Conn., that cost my widowed mother, a Holocaust survivor, over a thousand dollars a week. The second was a state hospital in Middletown, N.Y. He signed himself out of both places. He was sane enough to write his own obituary. But because he never signed release forms, his doctors could not tell us exactly what was wrong with him.

At the time of his first death, he had already spent time in college and jail, and lived as a Jew and as a born-again Christian. He had a budding writing career as the long-lost brother of Emily Brontë. His friends knew him as Jeremy Matthew Harrison.

After several arrests for shoplifting, nine bounced checks, and serving time in jail for criminal possession of stolen property, he moved to a homeless shelter. Neighbors said it looked bad and smelled. The house manager quit shortly after he moved there. She complained that there were no benefits, no holidays off, no medical insurance and no vacation.

He then camped out in my college dorm room for a while and fell in love with one of my friends. He gave her an engagement ring that he said was a family heirloom, and left on a bus to California.

He got baptized in San Bernadino, Calif., at the John XXIII Center Newman Apostolate, after which he returned to the Sullivan County Community College in Loch Sheldrake, N.Y. Its billboard promoted the school as a two year solution to a four year problem. He studied hotel management, but never graduated.

He had intermittent part-time jobs at McDonalds, a dude ranch and a day camp. He got a scholarship at Concordia College in Bronxville, N.Y. He misplaced a writing assignment lamenting his trials and tribulations as a suspect in a statutory rape case. The owner of the day camp found the essay and fired him on the spot. He worked at a printshop north of Westchester County, N.Y. and was fired again when he was caught stealing.

Somewhere along the line, our mother told him that she no longer had a third child, yet he continued calling her and sending cards and letters. Some were menacing and vitriolic, others filled with love and remorse. Depending on his state of mind, he reached out on the High Holidays, Christmas, Easter, Passover or her birthday. At times he begged for reconciliation. She never responded. Knowing that his mother sat shiva for him was another painful death.


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