I was born at 3pm on March 16, 1967 at the Presbyterian hospital in Whittier, California to Carol Leona and Randolph Earnest Brown. I was 6 pounds, 6 ounces, and 19 inches long. I was named Keith Allen Brown, my given names coming from my mother’s uncle Keith, and my father’s uncle Allen. The meaning of my name, as my mother intended it, was “Old man standing beside a battlefield.” I didn’t like my name as a young schoolchild; I wished that I’d been named Kevin. Oddly enough, long after I got over that temporary case of name-itis, throughout my life people have continued to mistakenly refer to me as Kevin.
I have very few memories of my biological father, Randolph Earnest Brown Jr. My mom tells me that Randy wasn’t around much, and that he was a very angry young man. He hated his father and did some very nasty things to him throughout his life. Of the two incidents that I am aware of, one happened when he was with my mother. Randy’s father, Randolph Sr. was a real estate broker who owned some apartment buildings as investment properties. Randolph Sr. arranged for my mom and dad to live in one of his apartments in Claremont, California, in exchange for them managing the building. Well, something happened that caused my dad to get very angry at his father, and they moved out of the apartment, but on the way out, Randy poured honey on the carpet and damaged the apartment in other ways, in an effort to get back at his father, who he felt was overly controlling. Later, when I was estranged from him, I heard from his sister that Randy had managed to steal his father’s identity (which was pretty easy at the time since he shared the same name), and ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit card debt. His father never forgave him, and the family ostracized him completely after that; it was as if Randy never existed in their eyes.
Randy did some wacky things as a young man. He once told me a story about going into the chemistry lab at school and making napalm, which is how he managed to lose one of his eyes. Mom tells me stories of him making model rockets at home – once he was baking one on the stove (apparently these were more sophisticated than the Estes model rockets that come with prepackaged propellant cartridges), it lit and started flying around the house. My mother was terrified.
Randy was sharp. His business during the short time that my mother and I were with him was coating lasers for the Strategic Defense Initiative of the US government back during the Cold War. When I met him again later in life I remember him showing me a lens that would only pass ultraviolet light – it was completely black, but he said that if you looked at the sun through it, you’d go blind because your retina wouldn’t shrink and the ultraviolet light would quickly fry your eyes.
My mother told me that during high school Randy fell off a ladder and hit his head, and she believes this was when his mental problems began. Throughout his life he’s suffered from psychosis and bipolar disorder.
I don’t have many memories of Randy, because, unbeknownst to me, my mother was running from him for much of my young life. At some point she decided she wanted a divorce, and she was terrified that he’d take me away from her. Randy’s mother, my grandma [NAME TBD], really enjoyed seeing me, and after the divorce Randy was granted custodial visits as long as they happened at his parents’ home in Hacienda Heights. I have a few memories from that house that I’ll share here.
I was fascinated by electricity from an early age. I remember wanting to see what it felt like, so during one of these custodial visits, I pulled a plug out of a socket just enough so that I could slip my little thumb and forefinger onto the metal prongs of the plug. The resulting shock of alternating current through my hand felt like a massive chicken pecking me. That hurt! Apparently this called for a different type of experiment, because I found a bobby pin and spread it apart so that I could push it into a wall socket, shorting it out. That was before GFI breakers were a thing, and the result was pretty spectacular. Flame shot out of the wall, and while it didn’t hurt me, it did turn the entire socket black with soot. I didn’t get caught and to this day I wonder what my grandpa thought when he found that blackened socket…
On these visits I remember that my grandpa had a swimming pool in the backyard. I don’t remember swimming in it, but I do remember riding my tricycle into it. Splash! I have a very clear memory of sinking slowly to the bottom of the pool, watching my tricycle sink along with me. Then suddenly a fully dressed man dove into the pool, grabbed me, and pulled me out. That was my dad, Randy. He saved my life that day. He was my hero from that day forward.
A less heroic memory was walking through the wilderness surrounding my grandma and grandpa’s home one day on a visit with dad, and him pulling out a jet black handgun and showing it off to me. I don’t remember what he said about it, I just remember feeling really weird that he was showing it to me.
One particularly difficult memory for me was the first morning my dad didn’t show up for his visitation with me. I remember sitting there watching cartoons, darting glances at the clock, and knowing that he should have shown up already. He was late. I remember going outside and sitting on the cold concrete steps, watching for him to come down the street. I sat out there for awhile before my mom came up behind me and told me something like, “Well, it doesn’t look like he’s coming, let’s go inside.” I didn’t want to come inside. I kept waiting. I’m not sure how long I waited; it felt like hours. Finally my mom told me that he wasn’t coming and I needed to come inside. That day started a little hole in my heart that would slowly grow over time.
What my mother didn’t share with me that day was that she knew he wasn’t coming that day all along. Her flight from him had begun, and it wasn’t long before we didn’t live in California anymore – we moved to Idaho to hide from him. I was given excuses about this but not the truth. I had no idea that I was not going to see my father again until I was 17 years old. The hole in my heart continued to grow.
I remember spending time on the farm in Idaho with my aunt Dolores and her husband Larry. I really liked Dolores, but Larry could be a very angry and mean man. I remember watching him treat his cows badly when they wouldn’t do what he wanted them to do. Once I saw him stab a cow in the back with his pocketknife in a rage. He didn’t treat his wife much better, and later in life, she wisely divorced him.
The farm could be a scary place. I feared the auger that slowly turned and pulled grain up out of storage for delivery to the cows. For some reason I had nightmares of putting my hand in that thing and getting it crushed or chopped off. And the electrified fences around the property worried me as well, with stories of what happened to people who touch them, their hand muscles involuntarily spasming and gripping even harder as they were electrocuted. Fortunately I managed to steer clear of these hazards.
I also remember good times on the farm, Larry shooting milk directly from a cow’s udder and challenging us to catch it in our mouths as it arched a broad, white semicircle through the air. The milk was warm and delicious. I loved riding the tractor and playing on the swingset in the backyard of the farmhouse. I loved looking inside the shiny milk vat with its huge stirrer, slowly turning.
I remember my first encounters with death there on the farm. Larry with his arms up to his elbows in a cow’s backside, wrapping the thick links of a chain around a stillborn calf’s hooves while still inside of its mother’s womb, then using a come along to winch that chain out until the calf dropped out onto the ground, not moving. I remember the thump of that body on the ground, and feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness and awe at what I had witnessed.
I really wanted to shoot a bird. My cousin Todd, a few months older than me, had a BB gun and I took it out one day and shot me a robin. As I watched it fall, I felt a brief sense of elation and power, and as I walked over to the little motionless body, all of that disappeared and I felt a horrible sense of what I had done – I’d ended a life, for no good reason at all. I felt such shame and grief; that was my last hunting expedition. My cousin Todd asked me if I had gotten that out of my system. Yep, he was right, he’d predicted that I wouldn’t like the outcome. I was just a stupid city boy.
In California, my mother and I shared a bedroom in my grandparent’s house for a time (my mother’s parents), and my grandpa was the patriarch of the family. Later in my life I heard a story that he had two big dreams in his life that he never fulfilled: becoming a preacher and going to college (for theology, I presume). He certainly was a preacher in our family – he preached a fundamentalist Christian message and our entire family was under his spell, and that legacy has burned through our family like a wildfire. As an adult, it’s made it difficult for me to have a deep relationship with my mother and my siblings. We are friends, but there are lots of things we just can’t talk about.
I remember having a bunny rabbit for a short time. I remember loving that rabbit like crazy, although it seemed I only had him for a day. He would run one way, and I would run around and stand in front of him, then he’d run back the other way. I never did find out what happened to that rabbit.
I remember a massive earthquake. It must have been the San Fernando quake of 1971. The house was shaking so hard we could hardly stand up. I remember my mom pulling me into a door way in the house as she’d been taught to do. It felt like the world was turning upside down and everything was a blur. That quake was almost 7.0 on the Richter scale, and we were only about 20 miles from the epicenter.
I had a young uncle named Ron, my mother’s little brother. Ron committed suicide at age 16, and my mom blamed it on drugs. What she hasn’t ever told me is what drove him to get involved with drugs in the first place. I have a suspicion it had to do with Grandpa’s religious obsession and controlling nature. It was devastating to my mother and contributed to the misery that I remember her being in during my childhood.
I didn’t know Ron very well. My only memory of him involves him as a young teen sitting on a motorcycle on the patio with several of his friends surrounding him. He was holding a little bottle and he really wanted me to drink it. I trusted him, so I chugged it down. Turned out it was Tabasco sauce. I ran to my mother crying in agony as the burn went down my throat into my stomach while he and his friends laughed at me. Where’d he learn to be so mean, I wonder?
Some of my earliest memories are of having nightmares of hell. I remember being in red, hot, glowing caverns, hearing the screams of the damned, being terrified, and waking up with the bed wet. It makes me wonder what I was being taught at such a young age that I had such terrifying dreams.
One day my grandma told me that if I kept wetting the bed, it’d leak down onto my mother, who slept beneath me in a bunkbed. That night I stopped wetting the bed, and I remember being so proud of myself.
I remember hearing about my grandpa being part of something called the John Birch Society. I don’t remember overt racism in my family, but wasn’t until just recently that I recalled my mother’s favorite early curse, which she inherited from her parents. When she was really pissed off at something or someone, she’d refer to them as “That cotton-pickin’ whatever…” Apparently cotton picking was a bad thing? Thinking back on it now, I’m glad that my mom let go of that phrase sometime in my early teens. What she didn’t let go of was her religious addiction. Like her father, it consumed her more and more over the years.
Speaking of race issues, later in life my stepfather didn’t have much nice to say about black people. I remember him yelling at me after telling me to sweep a floor, and watching how I worked. “You’re doing that like a nigger! Here, let me show you how it’s done.” The message I got from this and other things he’d say was that he believed that black people were lazy. I’m sure he learned that from his parents from growing up in the ghettos of Los Angeles. I imagine the message was something like, “We may be Mexican and considered less-than by much of society, but thank goodness we aren’t black.”
My own personal legacy of racial bias is one of privilege, not so much outright bigotry. As a child I wasn’t taught anything about social injustice; I was raised blind to this sort of thing. And while I raised my kids to believe that all people are equal, regardless of sex, color, religion, sexual orientation, etc., my privilege as a straight white male kept me blind to the social inequalities leveled at other less privileged social groups throughout my life. Mari has helped me start to bridge that gap in my own life, in large part by introducing me to the work of artists who don’t share my privileged status. It’s been both eye opening and heartbreaking for me.
I grew up with regular corporal punishment. The only time I remember my mother doing this was when she caught me after I’d crossed the street. I think this was when we lived with grandma and grandpa and I was pretty little, probably about 2 or 3 years old. I remember her being furious with me. She paddled me on the butt with a ping pong paddle and reminded me that I’d been told never to do that. My thoughts about my mother changed that day – I realized that she was someone I needed to fear. I presume this wasn’t the only time though, as I note in my baby book that when she doled out punishment I’d run for my blanket to console myself.
I remember some good times with my mom. She’d read to me, mostly religious stories, and she was so proud of me that I’d memorized the one she read most often. I couldn’t yet read, but I knew the stories and as she’d turn the pages, I could tell the story from memory. So we were almost able to fake me reading at a very early age. Something about Joseph and the little lost lamb. I remember some sort of predator in that story, perhaps a wolf? It had scary red eyes and I didn’t like that page very much.
I remember walking with my mom on a jeep trail somewhere, perhaps in the Los Angeles mountains? I remember a park with a metal rocket ship that had multiple stories with ladders connecting them vertically. The second story had a slide that felt to me like it was a hundred feet tall. The fourth story was the top, with a huge steering wheel. I made believe I was the captain of a starship! The entire ship would rock a bit if you grabbed the bars and shook them at the correct frequency. And if you threw that wheel around hard enough, the entire ship would vibrate and make a ton of noise. I loved it!
I remember trying to feed some geese in a park and they decided that I was going to be their lunch. They started biting me and I ran away as fast as I could, with them chasing me and honking at the top of their lungs. I was terrified and my mom had to pick me up any time I spotted geese at the park after that.
One thing I don’t remember is my mom smiling much. To me she seemed pretty miserable most of the time, and I felt like it was my job to cheer her up. I’d imagine this started with the oppressive life she must have led under my grandfather’s rule. And her little brother Ron dying at such a young age must have shattered her. Then, marrying a man and realizing he wasn’t who she thought he was, and running for her very life. And later, she married another man who wasn’t at all what she thought he was, and yet she stayed with him for a couple decades. Yea, she was really pretty miserable. She thought of life as a divine test – happiness was to be found in the afterlife, not here on earth. She was quite surprised when I told her that growing up I hated myself; I couldn’t look in the mirror. I didn’t feel like I had my own identity. Her recollection of me was a smiling, happy little kid. I also remember that when I wasn’t smiling, when I was angry or upset, her response was, “Wipe that look off your face.” I knew my role. Smile and get on with it.
Continue reading, the early years.