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I lost my brother to a cult when I needed him the most. A tragic twist of fate brought us back together.

When I was a kid, my big brother Chris was my universe. He was handsome, musically gifted, and a straight-A student—the complete package. Our cultural differences shaped our age gap. Chris was the Beatles and the band; I was Blondie and the B52. I wanted to play the piano because he did, but my teacher advised my mother to stop sending me there as I just sat at the keyboard and cried because I didn’t sound anything like him.

When our father died, Chris became the “man” of the family at age 14 – he became my father figure, my older sister’s confidante, and the one my mother turned to for answers. Overwhelmed, our capricious mother resisted the responsibilities of being a widow. She started dating a much younger musician, went out after dinner and came back the next day. Many mornings my siblings had to make breakfast and take me to elementary school.

When I was 10, we moved into a two-bedroom apartment with Mom’s young friend instead of three. Although Chris lived on the Columbia campus, his mother practically supplanted him. Neither sibling came home that Christmas. It was the end of the family as I knew it and the beginning of decades of estrangement.

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 needed to find himself and he needed space. This turned into 15 years of non-communication.

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 he was a freshman at Columbia. The Sullivans believed that mothers were “the deadly virus” – a philosophy that spoke loud and clear to my siblings.

The Sullivans sought to replace the nuclear family with a radical community life. Because the members lived in shared apartments, the group provided my siblings with structure, a social life, and an affordable home on the Upper West Side.

Several weekly sessions with therapists trained at the Sullivanian Institute were mandatory. The nuclear family was thought to be the main cause of mental illness. In order to get well, you had to cut out family and friends.

The therapists controlled every aspect of their patients’ everyday lives: they cut off contact with outsiders, made career decisions, directed sex lives, and even gave permission to those who wanted children. Once a baby was born, it was raised by caregivers within the group and sent to boarding school at an early age to ‘protect’ it from contact with its mother. Women who wanted to conceive slept with different men to hide the true paternity of their child.

At first I didn’t have the right words for what had captured my siblings. When I tried to call, whoever answered the phone would not allow me to speak to either of them. When I was a teenager, my siblings lived one subway stop away, but they might as well have been in Alaska. I patrolled their block, hoping to “accidentally” run into one of them.

My sister kept in touch intermittently, but Chris just disappeared. He was a current that flowed through our common city, invisible and yet charged. His absence shaped my nature; His departure marked the time and drew a line I could not cross.

When I finally realized that my siblings had joined a cult, I was relieved. I could blame him instead of us.

“Chris just disappeared. He was a current that flowed through our common city, invisible and yet charged. His absence shaped my nature; His departure marked time and drew a line I could not cross.”

My sister’s connection with the cult ended when I was a freshman and our reconnection was immediate and definite. But when Chris finally left in the late ’80s, I got tired of waiting for him. At this point, the wheels of the Sullivanian bus came off; there was a revelation in the Village Voice when a former member kidnapped her child after being banned from contact; Lawsuits were pending.

I had plummeted into adulthood making random and often reckless decisions that led to dropping out of college, marrying a man I barely knew, and moving to England. I was 25, newly married and had moved on, at least that’s what I thought.

My marriage soon ended but I chose to stay abroad and finally found my happy life becoming a mother. When I found out I was going to have a boy with the same zodiac sign as Chris, I cried and called a friend, convinced that my story with my brother would be repeated with my son.

Shortly after leaving the Sullivanians, Chris married and became a proud father. We were cordial, but I didn’t spend much time with him on my trips home. I have forgiven him to a certain extent.

We went on like this for a good decade or so, but that all changed when Chris was first diagnosed with cancer early in the millennium. Since I wanted to be there for him, I let go of my problems.

Following his almost miraculous recovery, the three of us siblings enjoyed a golden era laughing our way into a new normal. At dinner that ended at dawn, we rewrote our past. “The family that celebrates together stays together” became our motto for the morning after.

Years later, at the height of the COVID pandemic, the cancer returned, this time in Chris’ pancreas. I believed he would do it again. However, my sister and I moved to his house to take care of him.

“I don’t want my sisters to breastfeed me,” Chris said. But we did. We drank Manhattans while he was on his meds. We watched comedy and found niches of lightheartedness. Chris was aware of the odds, but he took what he could every day. Phone calls and company were the gains. Eventually he lost what little strength he had, but what his body couldn’t, his mind could. Music – Davis and Coltrane – became his magic carpet.

Always curious, Chris spent his last years leading workshops in sound healing and served on the board of the Duke Ellington Foundation, a philanthropic non-profit organization. Before joining the sect, he had studied comparative religion at Columbia. I like to think that his spiritual wandering prepared him for a smooth onward journey.

The night he died he was distraught and having trouble breathing. We gave him medication to help his breathing. We calmed him down and sang to him. When he calmed down I fell asleep and when I woke up I found he was gone. For months I played back every minute of that night wishing I’d stayed up to hold his hand.

I’m looking for Chris in my mind. I find him through music. Knowing that we sang and loved him in the next world is comfort beyond words. I have dreams where we are together again. I am extremely fortunate that I – the sister he had been estranged from for so long – was there at the end. All the years of misalignment in our different truths, of all suffering but not suffering together, were healed in these last few weeks. Being there for him along with my sister made our love come full circle.

Kaethe Cherney is the author of “Happy Like Larry: A New York City Tale of Cults, Cults, and Quaaludes.“She is a native New Yorker with a background in development, theater and contemporary art. Her short film and two one-act plays were produced in London, where she lives with her husband and two children.

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