Because of the mini baby boom that commenced in 1978 and lasted throughout the 1980s, a teenager in 1994 was somewhat unlikely to have been an only child, and may have been slightly more likely to have had a younger brother or sister than to have had an older brother or sister. Such a teenager is somewhat likely to have had exactly one brother or sister.
Many children born in the 1970s have older siblings. But, according to Census records and birthrate records, if a 1994 teenager wanted an older brother, he or she would – slightly more likely than not – have had to imagine him.
Now imagine a time before America Online, before Windows 95, before the ubiquity of cellular phones, and before the North American Free Trade Agreement began to have serious consequences for manual laborers in the United States. This is also a time well before the emergence of many of the gadgets and other mental disorder-mitigating gizmos that we take for granted in 2016. Let us say this teenager has social anxiety and is the furthest thing from cool. He has an older brother, perhaps a several-years-older half-brother from the previous marriage of one of his parents.
These “parents” – suppose the term applies in only the loosest possible sense. They are divorced – for the second time in at least one of their cases. The divorce was unpleasant, and it directly involved four people. Two played hot potato with the unwanted minor child for the entire hearing. A third, the older brother, a legal adult with a job at an automobile plant, wanted everyone to just shut up and go away. The teenager sat there frightened to death over what his future held, and blaming himself. As the tension between the parents grew exponentially regarding the custody issue, the brothers were just left there, awkwardly acknowledging each other’s existence once every ten minutes or so for several hours.
At the meltdown point both parents were held in contempt, and were ordered to remain married. Consummation with another partner would be adultery, re-marriage would be bigamy, and any subsequent children with anyone else would be illegitimate. That would show them. During the fracas, at the older one’s suggestion, the two brothers left out the side door.
The brothers left court completely unnoticed. Strictly, it was a kidnapping. But it was the best thing that ever could have happened to the teenager. Without legal custody, the older brother imparted some semblance of order to the younger one’s life, and helped him grow. The older brother was moody and extremely self-critical, but so was the younger one. And it was nice just to be able to finally live, and not be told that this or that emotional hang-up was a deficiency requiring medication. The brothers bonded over video games, HBO, R-rated movies, and a common love for total freedom and hatred for being tied down in any manner at all. The teenager’s admiration was so great that he began to mimic his older brother speech patterns, and to dress exactly like him. The older brother, it so happened, was an armchair scholar of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and was also a writer of poetry, which he freely shared. His compositions were so authentic and so relevant that the younger brother began to carry them around and memorize them. The more the teenager learned about his half-sibling the more impressed he was, and the more inspired he was. What could his prudish, selfish parents offer that was anywhere near as exciting as this?
The older brother could do no wrong, even to the degree that when the older brother could no longer hide a cigarette habit, it was no matter. It wasn’t even thought of. The teenager had a Cool Older Brother…the World’s Coolest Older Brother.
Then it was an illegal drug habit. But it didn’t matter. Nothing else mattered.
One day, the older brother had to work late at the auto plant. He didn’t come home that night. The teenager returned home from school the next day, and just as he was about to let himself in, he was greeted by an envelope with his name on it, on the doormat.
It contained a hand-written letter addressed to him. The younger brother began to read it.
Your brother, rehabilitation case number 02201967, is deceased. Police concluded that he committed suicide with a firearm. The autopsy shows there were drugs in his system, very recently taken.
This would be shocking enough. What had he done to be abandoned – left completely alone – like this? What? How did it happen? What if it wasn’t suicide at all, but was murder?
With a gun? How did someone that thrillingly close to the edge, all day every day, have a gun? Why? That would be the last thing you’d want to own. It didn’t make sense. It just didn’t square…at all… Christ… The teenager began to blame himself all over again.
It was the worst day of his life. It was worse than any breakup, and it was much worse than his parents’ separation. It was as if the Sun had gone out.
But let us suppose further, that the notice proceeded rhetorically in a shockingly cold and caustic tone, utterly lacking sympathy, suggesting that the older brother was a waste of a life, peddling unproven supposition and putting forward opinion as fact in a manner calculated to maximize the emotional pain inflicted.
By about two-thirds of the way through, the teenager was in tears.
If your brother just leaves you like that, what does that say about you? Were you not important enough to him? Was he escaping from you? You might want to reflect on that. The truth is he wasn’t so great. He used stomach ulcers as an excuse to abuse heroin. You didn’t know that, did you?
He did. But it didn’t matter.
He was in a totally dysfunctional relationship with a woman crazier than he was. They are a laughingstock of the community. They have a very young child together, who for two years has had my undying sympathy. You didn’t know that, did you?
Of course he knew. The brothers had shared their deepest thoughts and concerns with each other for years. It didn’t matter. No moral failing mattered. His older brother had changed his life. He had given him hope. His older brother was there for him when absolutely no one else was.
What happened to your brother was a natural consequence of the way he lived his life.
What was that supposed to mean? This was clearly a writer who was not only completely inconsiderate and out-of-touch with reality, but who was also totally ignorant of how well-known the older brother’s mistakes and imperfections were.
Life isn’t fair, but I’m sure you can manage. You are better without him. After all, you will be required to grow up. Now take a shower, cut your hair, switch those ridiculous baggy jeans and that stupid-looking flannel for something civilized and go get a job.
P.S. His poetry was terrible.
Yours very truly,
“Nirvana means freedom from pain, suffering, and the external world.” --Kurt Cobain (1967-1994)
Nirvana was part of a movement that is now seen as a reaction to the excess of the hair bands of the 1980s. The hair bands wore over-the-top costumes on stage and often put on pyrotechnic shows that were better than their concerts. In contrast, Nirvana eschewed all of that, and (paraphrasing Cobain himself) made music primary and lyrics secondary.
They basically said, “We’re Nirvana. We’re from Washington. This is what we have to offer. Take it or leave it. Whatever…” And 1990s teens and young adults took it, to say the absolute least.
The absurd screed which few Nirvana fans saw on 60 Minutes firsthand but is Rooney’s sad, miserable legacy as far as many of them are concerned, aired the second Sunday following Cobain’s officially intentionally self-inflicted shotgun death. It caused such a hostile reaction that CBS expressed regret for having aired it. In 2016, video of the infamous segment is difficult to find, owing in part to the network’s efforts to suppress it for fear of seeming out of touch. (Also, the Generation X members whom Rooney insulted as teenagers and adolescents have exponentially more spending power now than they did in 1994.)
My conservative Baby Boomer parents (b. 1955 and 1956) have, outside the context of Cobain’s death, gone on the record as saying Rooney is “an old coot” and “a windbag.”
Author and college professor Anna Quindlen (b. 1952) opposed Rooney’s comments in the New York Times later that week.
Being deserted by one’s family is a real problem. The struggle with the severe obstacles of what was for years referred to as a “broken home” is a serious struggle. Being told one “was an accident,” or was (or is) “unwanted” or “should have been aborted” are comments that cause real pain. It is pain as real as the pain of hunger, and as real as the pain of watching a fellow soldier suffer and die.
Fundamentally, the tirade amounted to “get off my lawn,” something even Ms. Qundlen’s generation famously heard from the “Greatest” cohort numerous times, often in the context of the music they rocked out to together and loved. Rooney’s 60 Minutes segment from April 17, 1994 amounted to a bloviating, false exaltation of the virtues and accomplishments of an aging and dying Generation over the virtues and potential of an intrepid, fiercely independent, emerging Generation – one which was doing its damndest to deal with a world which it did not create, and which was astonishingly hostile to it during its childhood.
The truth is all Generations are called upon to face incredible challenges and from time to time exhibit extraordinary bravery. The cohort Tom Brokaw called the “Greatest” in a 1998 book does not have a monopoly on this. Bravery shown on a large scale by one Generation may be of a different type than that shown by another Generation on a large scale. In the private sphere, on a personal level, the Generation that Kurt Cobain and Nirvana spoke to so powerfully is the most maligned, hated Generation born during the twentieth century, by a wide margin. Regardless of one’s ideological preferences, it is simply a fact that it was the most aborted Generation of the twentieth century by a wide margin. As children and adolescents, it was the Generation most often deserted by parents and by guardians.
Make no mistake. This significant, obvious schism between those who smugly nodded their heads in agreement with Rooney’s comments, and those whose nine-day-old wounds were ripped right open again, is Generational and not so much ideological. Members of post-war Generations were more likely than members of pre-war Generations to have been shocked by the callousness displayed, even if they did not like, or even had never heard of Cobain or of Nirvana.
Generation X has emerged as quite well-adjusted and successful in the time since the angst-filled uncertainty of the 1990s. It has largely declared victory over the insulting labels applied to it during its childhood and young adulthood. It has taken change, including technological change, in stride. Its members have founded, and continue to run, websites known worldwide.
It took the negative of a rather unforgiving, unpredictable adolescence, and made it into a positive. Instead of feeling sorry for itself, its members learned from the hand they were dealt and created something better. It was in fact the first Generation to widely insist upon some semblance of the work-life balance so associated with the Millennial Generation nowadays. Members of Generation X remain married at a rate higher than that of the Generation that immediately preceded it. Surely its own children are profound beneficiaries of this.
So, if anyone cares, no thanks to arrogant blowhards many decades older than they are, Generation X is largely happy, healthy, and from time to time, still, for old time’s sake, is facetiously wearing flannel, and rocking out to alternative bands from the Pacific Northwest.
Long live those blasted ‘90s teenagers.
Comments are welcome.