Brother Love One for the book: Howard, Arthur Waskow's odyssey of understanding

June 16, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

"Be close to your brother above all!"

As boys, Howard and Arthur Waskow heard that exhortation -- a command, really -- many times from their mother. Throughout all their years growing up in the 1940s and '50s on Cottage Avenue in Northwest Baltimore, and afterward, it remained a constant. Their mother, whom everyone called Honey, had had a falling out with her sister. Honey did not want her two children to have the same experience.

Though they never severed their ties, Howard and Arthur did in fact drift apart. Childhood resentments only hardened once the brothers reached adulthood. Howard thought Arthur was aloof, an emotional bully; Arthur had often felt that he was unjustly cast as the villain in the family and that his brother got favored status.

Arthur went on to become a well-known anti-war activist and then a leader in the movement for Jewish renewal. Howard was a college professor before becoming a gestalt therapist. They led successful, productive lives. Except . . .

They weren't close -- not at all. And they both knew that parallel lives was not what Honey Waskow had been talking about.

It's taken them five decades, but Howard and Arthur Waskow have finally gotten it right. They have become brothers.

Thus the title of their book "Becoming Brothers," published this week by the Free Press. In it, Howard and Arthur Waskow depict the arduous process that they underwent -- the confrontations, the threats, the painful lowering of one's guard and the acknowledgment of past hurts, and, ultimately, the determination to heed the pleas of their mother and forge a new relationship with each other.

Howard said he has seen, through his work as a therapist, that conflict among adult siblings, particularly brothers, is prevalent.

"It is a strong theme," he said Monday during an interview in Baltimore. "If you [the therapist] go after it, if you ask the questions, you get, 'Oh God, my brother . . .' You'll hear a lot about humiliation and things that we take for granted -- you know, 'That's the way that brothers and sisters are.' It's a very rich area to explore."

"Maybe you'll hear the younger sib talk about feeling humiliated," Arthur interjected quickly with humor, the affection between the two low key but apparent. "I'll often hear the, 'Oh my God, right -- everything was going fine and then this younger kid came along and nobody paid any attention to me anymore.' "

Writing relationship

The Waskows found that "Becoming Brothers" served a dual purpose: It chronicled the changes in their relationship while helping to bring them about.

"I didn't know how deep writing this book would go -- how strenuous, how joyful, how painful," said Howard, who, at 56, is three years younger than his brother and the more playful and gentle of the two. "It was very hard work, because it was not just one person writing, and it was not just two people writing. It was two people writing, and processing all the family history, and all the things that happen between them as they write. It called upon everything I had learned as a therapist."

Arthur, a burly man with dark, flashing eyes and a flowing white beard, acknowledged that he, too, was surprised by the impact the book had on him. Looking over at his brother, Arthur Waskow said quietly: "I didn't expect to fall in love."

For Arthur was always the outsider in the Waskow family, always the brilliant, acerbic loner. He was the bookworm with the biting wit -- "the sneer," as Howard recalls in "Becoming Brothers." Howard was more congenial, the better athlete. Though they shared a childhood of growing up in a close-knit Jewish community, they didn't have much in common.

Their father, Henry Waskow, had been head of the Baltimore Teachers Union and a teacher at Patterson High School. He was a political activist, part of the labor movement, and both his sons absorbed his sense of social activism.

Activist, academic

Arthur, in particular, showed a penchant for this, marching in 1963 to protest a segregated amusement park in Woodlawn and later becoming a vocal anti-war activist. In 1968, he visited his draft board and asked the board members to resign: "I am asking you to resign rather than continue to conscript men for an unconstitutional, illegal, immoral and obscene war in Vietnam," he wrote in the statement he gave the board. About the same time, he began to explore his Jewish heritage, a mission he continues today from his home in Philadelphia.

Howard, meanwhile, taught English and American literature at three universities and wrote a book on Walt Whitman. But he became increasingly uncomfortable with the strictures of academia and began a career as a gestalt therapist in Portland, Ore.

The Waskow brothers had been taught that confrontation was )) good, that one should fight for one's beliefs. But they were unable to do this with each other.

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