My brother Darren turns forty-six years old today. With all that’s happened in our lives, it would be easy for me to forget that Darren’s my older brother, that he learned how to read on his own at three years old, that he taught me how to read right around my fifth birthday. Yet if I go back in time far enough, I can still see the Darren that was before his fourteen years at a school for the mentally retarded in Clear View at Briarcliff Manor had permanently screwed him up.
Between the ages of ten and sixteen (or, between late ’77 and early ’84, my brother worked on his own personal comic strip series, one he called Dwayne and Cindy. I guess he got the character names from two of his favorite shows, What’s Happening!! and The Brady Bunch. Darren started slowly at first, figuring out how to draw his characters. They were both Black, kids that were about the same age as we were. They were best friends who went outside to play, went on walks or otherwise hung out at Dwayne’s place playing or watching TV.
So when Darren added his bubble captions to tell his stories, they were simple strips about life in the suburbs, about going for walks to the store, about school and homework and how their parents were always too hard on them. As with all things that required creativity, Darren drew from what he knew from living in Mount Vernon and going to school at Clear View, which back in the late-’70s was in Dobby Ferry, and not so Bruce Wayne-stately-manor-looking as it is today.
As Darren got older, he fleshed out Dwayne and Cindy some more. They had similar personalities, where they used each other to escape what seemed to be a harsh world outside of their bubble. But Darren would never draw nor talk about this harsh world in his strips. He wanted them to be funny and goofy, after all, not just a reflection of everything that was going on at 616 and with our parents/idiot stepfather.
At the same time, though, Darren as a comic strip writer hadn’t grown to the point where he could capture more complex issues in his form. I said as much when he asked me to look at a more mature version of Dwayne and Cindy in ’82. “Why do Dwayne and Cindy say the same thing all the time? Don’t they grow up or think about other stuff?,” I asked with some impatience, hoping that Darren would want to talk about race, or growing up, or make Dwayne and Cindy into teenagers.
And on this one, Darren didn’t immediately give up. For two more years, until the beginning of the summer of ’84, he did try to make Dwayne and Cindy more mature. But between the loss of our bedroom to younger siblings and then the whole Balkis Makeda affair in ’84, combined with the completion of the institutionalization process at Clear View, Darren no longer had the creative spirit. His psychological reserves to see himself as normal, as a whole human being, as a young Black man, were all but gone, and have never returned.
I sometimes think that Darren had a window of opportunity to pull himself out of the psychological hole that my Mom, my father and Clear View put him in between ’74 and ’88. And he did. Through me and through that Dwayne and Cindy comic strip of his. In so many ways, his was a genius with the potential of an Aaron McGruder, some of which did rub off on me.
But being around the severely mentally retarded and a group of teachers and psychologists who coddled and infantilized the toughness out of him, the toughness Darren needed to succeed as well as survive our ordeal at 616. That, more than anything, extinguished Dwayne and Cindy and his chances at a rich life before he was old enough to vote. Which is why on every ninth of December, I’m so sad, for him and for me. Yes, I feel guilty, and yes, I know it’s not my fault, but I still miss the promising version of my older brother. I wish that Darren could’ve published Dwayne and Cindy, even the simple versions he began to draw and write thirty six years ago.