The Hero Complex

A short story that delves deeply into the burden endured by the “hero” of each family…

by: Taylor Thomas

Trauma had an interesting impact on myself and my family. You either became 1) an angry, bitter person, 2) a doormat, or 3) the hero. In my family, however, the hero is very closely related to the doormat: both strive to please others. The difference is that the doormat often passively gives in to other’s demands. They are often taken from. They don’t complain or speak up but see themselves as victims. The hero on the other hand is too busy saving, enabling, and giving to others to see themselves as a victim. Both, however, are operating from under the same umbrella — people pleasing. Both ignoring their own needs for the sake of others. Both feeling stuck in the roles that they created to protect themselves from the trauma of their childhood.

Assuming the role of hero was a seamless and quick process for me. My mother worked endless hours or slept the day away, rarely having time for us. The chain of command should have fallen to Paul, ten years older than me, but he lacked patience, care, and most of all, popularity amongst the siblings. In a word, Paul was mean. I do not remember him smiling much. Instead, he always looked as if he smelled something unpleasant in the room. Next in line was Adam, nine years older than me and one year younger than Paul. Adam was a favorite among us younger kids because he was silly. He smiled often and laughed even more. His laugh was loud and absolutely ridiculous — causing you to want to join in his laughter — and he regularly played silly games usually involving endless tickles. Unfortunately, there was a dark side to Adam, a sadness he attempted to hide, and he spent more time with drugs, alcohol, and anywhere that wasn’t home. Lastly, there was Amanda, the first girl and seven years older than me. She hated having younger sisters following her around. She openly whined about us tagging along to any social events and having to share a room with children (girls in one room, boys in the other). Mostly, Amanda was very self-involved and hated anyone else getting attention. Each of my older siblings lacked the patience necessary to be the hero and so I assumed the role.

As the hero, I took care of everyone: I mediated arguments, comforted during high stress times, provided money to help pay bills. When Amanda became seriously interested in boys, I was the person she told about kissing and all the intricate details of your first time getting felt up. When our mother had her heart broken by yet another man, she often told me of her troubles. When Paul was in a bad mood, I kept the younger kids away, making sure he was left alone and unbothered. “Taylor’s so smart,” my grandmother would say. “Taylor’s so mature,” my mother would say. “Taylor’s the good child,” our babysitters would say. Taylor just loved to feel useful.

My first taste of freedom came when I went away to college. Although I picked a school only a few minutes away from our place, I rarely came home. I loved the idea that I could be anyone and anything I wanted to other college students. Most of all I loved only being responsible for myself. While I was away, the role of hero remained empty. Paul moved back home after a stint as a Marine, suddenly angrier and meaner than he was before, and my mother continued working and sleeping most of the days away. That empty role meant that I left my three younger siblings, Rachel (one year younger than me), Rebekah (eight years younger), and Solomon (nine years younger) to fend for themselves.

It’s important to note that Paul, while usually unpleasant to be around, seemed to be particularly cruel to Solomon (despite the nineteen-year age gap). After coming home from the Marines and moving back home with us, Paul made it his personal mission to torture and pick on Solomon. He would make comments, telling Solomon he was “ugly” or “gay.” He would glare at Solomon openly. He would also yell, but he did not reserve that for just Solomon — no, Paul yelled at all of us, my mother included. And yet, he was allowed to continue living with us. For some reason the matriarchs of my family (my mother, my grandmother, and my aunt) had a soft spot for Paul. He was the child who would hurt others and it had to be forgiven or forgotten. Despite the fact that all of my mother’s children had experienced trauma of some kind, Paul’s was considered far worse than any of us could understand and we had to remain silent. When I left for college, Paul’s aggression became unchecked.

One weekend — or maybe it was summer break, I can’t remember fully — I was home from school. Still riding the “angsty teen” high that is young adulthood, I mostly stayed in my room. When Paul moved in, my room became my permanent sanctuary. That particular day I woke up to the sound of Paul yelling. Because he was prone to bouts of yelling almost daily, my initial reaction was to ignore it. I rolled over in my bed and attempted to fall back asleep. After a few minutes with my eyes scrunched closed and my hands over my ears, I thought I heard the soft sound of someone crying. It was soft, and very quiet, but I heard it.

I opened my bedroom door and found Paul, inches from Solomon’s face, screaming, as my little brother cried and stared at the floor. “That’s why your dad left you! Where is he, Solomon? Where is he?” The cruelty and anger were so palpable as if those feelings had grown hands and were wrapping themselves around me to hurt me as well. I stared, frozen, in shock at the scene before me. Then came the rush of questions: How long had Paul been yelling at him that day? How many times had my little brother found himself on the receiving end of Paul’s uncontrollable rages? Why hadn’t my mother noticed? Why hadn’t anyone stopped this?

At some point, and I can’t remember when, I gathered my Solomon into my arms, and turned to face my older brother. 

“Don’t you dare yell at my brother like that!” I said. Paul sneered, but I could see through him — he was both shocked and fearful that I had intervened at all. 

“Oh,” he scoffed. “Am I not your brother now?”

I wish I could say I responded that day — an endless stream of profanities, a reminder of his place far beneath me, anything — but I didn’t. A white man ten years older than me, and who had just a few years before called me a nigger to my face, was screaming and I was in flight mode. My body was doing all it could to keep me upright and strong, but it needed me to leave. I grabbed Solomon’s small hand, helped him gather his shoes, and held his head against my shoulder as we walked out that door. Paul didn’t even attempt to come after us, apparently satisfied with scaring us out of the house. I murmured sweet words of nothing to Solomon as we walked to the safety of my older sister’s house. Things like, “Don’t listen to anything that he says!” and “You are loved.” But all my little brother could do was look up at me with tear-filled eyes and ask, “Why does he hate me? Why doesn’t my dad want me?”

Where had I been? What had I been doing with my life during college that I had not seen the kind of pain my little brother was enduring in my absence? Where was my mother? Why was she, yet again, protecting the older son who, yet again, was hurting one of the younger children? I could sit there and blame her, and even Paul himself, but I knew who I was truly angry at. The hero had messed up. The hero had failed. The hero didn’t save Solomon. 

I spend a ridiculous amount of my adulthood attempting to make up for my failures as the hero of the family: the times I wasn’t there and the times I didn’t notice something was wrong. It circles in my brain like a noose, holding me to a past I cannot change. Although Paul never had a chance to yell at Solomon that way again, this particular day has weighed heavily on me. If anything, it reinforced the idea that my role as hero was needed, necessary, and required.

That, ultimately, is the burden of the hero: the people we couldn’t save stay memorialized in our minds.

Taylor Thomas (she/her) is a biracial & bisexual emerging writer from Indiana. Her work has been published or forthcoming in Bayou Magazine, Salt Hill Journal, The Journal, So to Speak Journal, Dipity Magazine, Active Muse, and more. She received the Outstanding Literary Essay award from Voices of Diversity in 2021. She currently attends the University of Notre Dame’s MFA in Creative Writing. She lives in South Bend, Indiana with her husband, Herschel, and her dogs, Bella & Buster.

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