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'I Grew Up In The Shadow Of This': Writer Reflects On His Brother's Murder

Jon Kushner was 11 years old when he died.
Courtesy of David Kushner
Jon Kushner was 11 years old when he died.

In 1973, when journalist David Kushner was 4 years old, his brother Jon left for a short bike ride through the woods. He was going to buy some candy at a convenience store — but Jon never came home. A week after he disappeared, his body was found buried in a shallow grave. He was 11 years old.

Kushner tells NPR's Melissa Block that the killing both haunted and unified the family's Tampa, Fla., community. "This was before the 24-7 news cycle; it was before Nancy Grace; it was before ... the Internet," he says. "Things like this didn't seem to happen at the time. I mean, statistically perhaps they did, but Tampa was still kind of a small town at the time. It really drew people together."

Alligator Candy is Kushner's account of how his family coped with his brother's death.

Interview Highlights

On the freedom his parents gave him after his brother's death

As my mother always said to me, you know, they didn't want me to be crippled. I mean my my instinct would be ... lock my kid in the room, they'll never go out again, or something like that. But I had tremendous freedom as a kid. You know, I had my share of trouble; I would go off on my bike like a lot of us did at that era. We didn't have cellphones and we'd be gone for 10 hours. I mean, it's almost a joke how much freedom we had.

On how his father viewed grief

He was interested in, kind of, what maybe you would call the anthropology of death and dying, as a result of this experience. But anyway, it was right after he had died and I was just looking in his office and I found a journal entry that he had written which was on grief. And it was basically saying ... despite how you feel right now, you will get through this; but it will leave you changed and you have to ask yourself, "Who do I want to be?"

On teaching his daughter to ride a tricycle outside the house where he grew up, decades after his brother disappeared

I think with the loss of anybody, that person — they don't disappear, you know. They're a presence in your life. Any kind of loss, they're always there. I mean, this never goes away. You know, my brother's always on that sidewalk, and so am I — I'm always there talking with him in that moment.

So when I was there decades later with my own daughter, it was kind of an overlay of two moments happening simultaneously. And I was very aware of that at the time and I felt that, standing there, I knew that anything can happen at any moment, but I had to find a way to live with that and to take pleasure in the joy of my child's first bike ride.

David Kushner is a former contributor to NPR's <em>Weekend Edition Sunday</em>.
Gasper Tringale / Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
David Kushner is a former contributor to NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday.

On why it wasn't difficult to see his daughter ride off from that house just as his brother had

It's like I grew up in the shadow of this. It was always there. It still is. I mean it's almost like there was a crack in the universe and I saw that darkness from the age of 4. So I always had to live in spite of that, and I'm not unique. I mean, so many people go through all kinds of trauma. I mean, I really — even though ours was very particular, there is this idea of resilience or this idea of a deepening appreciation for life, and I think that's what we each have to do is just find a way to experience the joys of life even with that knowledge of the tremendous evil that's in the shadows.

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