This book's title phrase, "prodigal brother," doesn't refer to the intended reader but rather to a troublesome sibling --- the wayward one who has wreaked havoc on the family dynamics. Author Sue Thompson had such a brother, her only and younger sibling, the kind who could have been a child candidate for the "Dr. Phil" show: full of fear and anger...trouble from the day he was prematurely born. "After a lengthy separation from his mother he was handed to her as though there was nothing wrong --- but in fact, everything was wrong and he never recovered...Who can understand why one child is broken and another endures? I believe my brother's little spirit was simply fragile from the beginning."
With great honesty --- but from a distance --- Thompson weaves her own story through the book. She summarizes personalities and family patterns but rarely transports us to a scene. "My brother was completely without self-control...His language was shockingly foul, his friends were alarmingly gross, his hygiene was disgustingly indifferent. I remember my parents yelling and pleading and arguing with him, and I watched him win every time. Even when they seemed to win, they lost, because while their intentions remained steadfast, they just couldn't seem to follow through."
Yes, Thompson always refers to him --- Danny --- in the past tense, as he died "a few years ago," in his early forties, of heart disease exacerbated by "decades of drug and alcohol abuse." Her mother has also died, and her father lives far away in the fog of Alzheimer's. These principal players being absent, the book's subtitle, "Making Peace with Your Parents, Your Past, and the Wayward One in Your Family," refers more to making peace with the memories than to working out ongoing relationships with difficult prodigals or parents who have unintentionally caused great pain to the "faithful" child who stayed the course, prayed for peace, and longed for attention. "How should I have loved my brother? I still don't know. It's hard to imagine how I might have loved him rightly because I was not mature enough to understand the complexities of love."
In sorting through painful memories, Thompson, who has a master's degree in clinical psychology, looks at her own culpability in the family dynamics, placing herself in the indignant, angry, self-righteous role of the "older brother" as portrayed in Jesus' prodigal parable. The problems she raises are familial. The answers she gives are spiritual. Citing Scripture and biblical life-stories, such as Hagar and Elijah, she lays out a journey from immaturity to maturity, from denial to grief over what might have been, to gratitude, and eventually hard-wrought forgiveness.
There's a lot of thought-provoking material here for adult children who've been wounded by well-meaning families. Though Thompson never hears anyone say, "I'm sorry," she finds healing and offers every reader hope of the same.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on May 9, 2005