Season 2, Episode 1

Dr. Nico Slate / Peter

 Sibling Loss, A Historian, and a Memoir of Love, Loss, and Race

Dr. Nico Slate, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon University, was a guest on The Broken Pack: Stories of Adult Sibling Loss, a podcast, to discuss his new book, Brothers: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Race, which explores his relationship with his brother Peter and how he is doing now surviving sibling loss.

  • Dr. Slate discussed how his book is a way for him to continue his relationship with Peter and to process his grief.
  • Having lost Peter nearly 20 years prior to this interview, Dr. Slate describes the process of losing his brother as “a long, long journey” that he is still on and will always be on.
  • Dr. Slate shares how his personal experiences, including his own whiteness and his brother’s blackness, their relationship, and his sibling loss, have intertwined to influence his worldview and inform his work as a history professor.

Additional key points:

  • Drs. Dean and Slate explore how caregiving of parents complicates grief for those surviving sibling loss.
  • Together, they discuss how sibling loss can change or challenge a person’s identity.

    Dr. Nico Slate and his brother, Peter, on the cover art of the episode

    Dr. Dean: 0:12

    Hello and welcome to the Broken Pack, a podcast focused on giving adult survivors of sibling loss, a platform to share their stories and to be heard. Something that many sibling loss survivors state that they never have had. Sibling loss is misunderstood. The broken Pack exists to change that and to support survivors. I’m your host, Dr. Angela Dean. Hi, and welcome back. We’re here with season two. I’m so excited to share so many stories with you. In today’s episode, I had the pleasure of talking with Nico Slate. He’s a professor of history at Carnegie Mellon. I really enjoyed this conversation. It’s a different perspective on sibling loss as he has recently written a book that I highly recommend you read. It’s called Brothers. I hope you let you enjoy the episode as much as I enjoyed talking to him. I wonder if you want to introduce yourself so that listeners have a sense of who you are.

    Dr. Nico Slate: 1:13

    Sure, I’m happy to. my name is Nico Slate. I teach in the history department at Carnegie Mellon University. My academic research is focused on the history of social movements, particularly movements against racism, imperialism, casteism, and other forms of oppression. And that research comes very directly from my own family background.

    Dr. Dean: 1:37

    Mm-hmm. Yeah, so. This will be a little bit of a different interview than what I think our listeners are used to because I usually am helping people tell their story sometimes for the first time. And I just finished your book, which was fabulous, and you clearly have given a lot of thought to how to share your story. I loved how you intertwined history, both your personal history and what was happening in the world as that influenced. Everything that happened for you and your brother and your family. so before we get into all of that, I’m wondering what you want our listeners to know about you and your brother. Admittedly, they should go read the book because it’s fabulous, but in the, the quick, tidbit of, of what you would like them to to know,

    Dr. Nico Slate: 2:28

    Sure. Well, I’ll start just by saying that my brother was, in many ways, my father and my best friend, as well as my brother. We had a single mom and different fathers. his father was from Nigeria and mine was a white American man from Los Angeles. And both the fathers left. His left, and came back and left and came back, and then eventually left for good right after I was born. My father was around for a while before I was born, so my brother had a chance to get to know him, but then left, before I was born and I didn’t meet him until I was 21. So for most of my childhood it was just me, my mom, and my brother, and he was an incredible. Big Brother. he had so many struggles and the more I’ve learned about him and his life, one of the things that most strikes me is how he was able to be such an amazing brother while grappling with all sorts of personal demons in his own story. And I, I still don’t fully understand how that happened. And when I was 14, my brother was attacked in a club in Santa Monica, California and lost his right eye. And I used to, see it as a, a hate crime. He was a tall black man dancing with a young white woman and a white man. and he started an argument and very quickly, another white man came from the side and hit him in the face with a beer bottle and. That incident was incredibly transformative, of course, for my brother, but also for me, and shaped, both of our lives until, In 2003, my brother passed away in a car accident that, it actually took me a long time to piece these things together. But while I was doing research for my book, I came to realize that. the car accident that he had, he very well might have avoided if he’d had both his eyes. So this traumatic incident that happens in 1994 when I’m 14, when he loses his eye, is directly connected to his death in 2000 and, and three, and the book that I wrote. Uses, those two moments in, in his, short life, and the longer story of his life, including how my mom and his father met and what their experiences were to try to better understand him first and foremost, I really, first and foremost wanted. People to know him because he was an amazing human being and so dear to my heart. But also to try to understand the role of race and racism and the complexities of race in a world where people don’t always sit neatly on one side or the other of our peculiar racial divisions. my brother was a mixed race black man who was sometimes seen as mixed race, sometimes seen as black and. Lived in a, a mixed racial family. And so I, I want readers to know him first and foremost, but also to know more about the complexities of race, in our country. And ultimately, the book is also very much about my loss, my mother’s loss, and the loss of all those that loved him, because. What drove me to write it in the first place was really the hope that my children could know him in some way. I started writing it after having, after my wife had our first child, and I, I realized I want my children to know this man who was such an important figure in my life, and I hope the book will help in some small way, but ultimately, I’m still aware that there’s nothing that can replace him. There’s nothing that can bring him back into our lives.

    Dr. Dean: 6:04

    Mm-hmm. thank you for that. I also wanted to know I, I realized he had multiple names and h how would you like me to refer to him?

    Dr. Nico Slate: 6:17

    Oh, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know how he would want to be referred actually, because, as you know, the book is structured in sections based on the different names he had at different points in his life as a child. He was referred to with an Igbo name, the Igbo, or one of the largest communities in, Nigeria. And his name at at birth was Uderulu Osakwe. And then he became Peter Slate. And then he became XL. XL was his rap name, his stage name. And at the end of his life there were people that called him Peter. There were people that called him XL, even some people that still called him Ude. So I don’t know how he would want to be referred to. well, most of the, Most of the people that I, interact with regularly usually refer to’em as Peter or Pete. just because that was the name that he had for the longest stretch of his life. But I, I would say, it’s part of the challenge, right? And this maybe that unique, facet of multiple names isn’t something that others who’ve, who’ve lost siblings would grapple with. But I’m sure that many people struggle with just how to talk about those that have been lost, especially if you’re not used to referring to them by name. You know, I always just call them bro or brother.

    Dr. Dean: 7:28


    Dr. Nico Slate: 7:29

    so anyway, that’s a long, long answer to your question. I’d say Peter or Pete, it’s just fine.

    Dr. Dean: 7:34

    Well, I think it’s an interesting answer to the question too, because. Because of the racial divide and everything that you obviously studied know better than I could possibly ever. It’s interesting, it’s the Anglican name, the like white name that is, is the one that is easier for people to say or to refer to him as, and I wonder if that. Interacts with how you think about him differently because in the book, you’re pretty honest about your racial biases that you weren’t even aware about, so you started to explore.

    Dr. Nico Slate: 8:15

    Yeah. Yeah. I think I, I appreciate the question very much. Certainly, as you said, a key strand in the book is a process that I’m still. undertaking of grappling with the way in which my whiteness and our racial differences, influenced our relationship, influenced our different life trajectories in ways that I was almost entirely blind to. And, you can frame that blindness as a consequence of something very beautiful, which is the love that my brother shared for me and the bond that we had with each other. we didn’t talk very much about our racial differences, in part because our love was as deep and strong as it was, but I also think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I didn’t ask about it, and I didn’t in initiate those conversations. And, I, I think, one of the main things that I tried to really. grapple with in, in researching and writing the book was my deep regret at the, many opportunities that I didn’t take to engage my brother in that whole facet of who he was and his life and in that facet of our relationship. We did talk about race and, and racism quite often. You know, my family was very engaged in politics and so we talked about all the contemporary events in the world, but I don’t have that many memories of us talking much about our own racial dynamics, within the family and how that played out in terms of our different trajectories. And you’re right, it does influence the name. I think, my brother. Went way out of his way to include me and my mom. Actually in his hip hop career, he invited us to many shows, took us backstage, and even though, not only am I a a white dude, I’m pretty awkward, shy, nerdy white dude at that. It definitely wasn’t a natural fit for me. I’ve most of my life been a. teetotaler who didn’t drink, never smoked pot, et cetera. And, I’d go backstage and everyone’s drinking and smoking and and yet I, I felt nothing but warmth and love and a very strong welcome from. everyone in my brother’s hip hop world, and I always felt very strongly that he wanted us to be there, that it was important to him. he invited us again and again and it was very meaningful to be there. And yet still, I think calling him XL, rings only partially true for me. And maybe part of that is, my own disconnection from that world, in addition to the fact that for most of my life, that wasn’t the name that I associated with

    Dr. Dean: 11:03

    Mm-hmm. It was also his stage name. Right?

    Dr. Nico Slate: 11:07


    Dr. Dean: 11:07

    Yeah. So that tends to have a different relationship to the person than that. Yeah.

    Dr. Nico Slate: 11:15

    Although in his case, and I, I think. this is probably true for many people that are trying to make it in the entertainment world more broadly. There are lots of times where it wasn’t always clear how much he was acting or pretending to be someone other than himself. and this was true when he was a rapper. It was also true when he tried to break into the Hollywood world. You know, he wrote screenplays as you know, he tried to. Get on a reality. Well, first he tried to get on the real world, sort of the original reality TV show. And one of my favorite sources of, memory for him, the artifacts is his interview video where he, he’s clearly trying to be kind of a dreamy romantic, and he was a dreamy romantic, but he’s playing it up, right? and then later of course, he was on a reality show, the Osbournes, but only in a. being a small supporting role, and one of the things I’ve often wondered about with someone like my brother, who was much more charismatic and more extroverted than I am or will ever be, is just how much that was a mask for him, how much he was covering over the deep pain that he had from his childhood and from all the things that had happened to him in his life. And I wish I, you know, it’s one of many, many things I wish, that makes me wish he was still with us, is that now that I’m entering, the, you know, the kingdom of middle age, I wish my brother was here with me so that we could reflect together on these sorts of questions. I’d love to be able to ask him. you know, what, what were you doing when you were interviewing for the real world there? what were you trying to do? What were you trying to accomplish? How much was that really you? And similar with his hip hop career when you’re on stage. Certainly, my goodness, he was so joyful. He loved being on the stage. I mean, he just, I would’ve been so mortified, all these people looking at me, and he was just absolutely in his element. But then I think it was also a performance too. It was both of, it was a joy and it was a performance at the same time. And I, I wish I could hear him talk about that.

    Dr. Dean: 13:15

    Yeah, for sure. It’s interesting because you’re actually not on the stage, but you’re in front of students quite often, and that feels less performative, obviously, but it. You’re comfortable with that audience?

    Dr. Nico Slate: 13:30

    It’s true. Well, and I give my brother a lot of credit for that. I think, if I hadn’t been raised by him, I would be even nerdier and even more bookish and reclusive. I think he helped pull me out of that and help me prepare sometimes very explicitly actually. You know, he liked to give me advice about how to talk to people, how to engage people. He was a, lifelong coach. He was my basketball coach, but also my, public speaking coach and a life coach. And so he helped a lot get me to the point where I’m more comfortable standing up in a classroom and talking with people, but it’s still, if I had my choice, I would be by myself in a room with a book. That’s my favorite, favorite place to be.

    Dr. Dean: 14:13

    Yeah. well thank you for all of that. I was trying to gather from the book, I know it just came out, but it sounds like you were done writing it a while ago.

    Dr. Nico Slate: 15:41

    Well, it’s been a long process. So I started it in 2014, after my first child was born. And at first I saw it primarily as a history book. I am trained as a historian and. I thought, well, what I’ll do is. Tell my brother’s story, but in the process, use it as a way to tell the larger history that was engaged in his life. So we would meet his father who came from Nigeria to the US in 1960 to study at an H B C U in Pennsylvania. And we’ll learn about the history of Nigeria, we’ll learn about the history of HBCUs, and there is still some of that in the book, as you noted. I did keep some history in, but what happened over time is that people who read early drafts told me, the history stuff is fine, but what really stands out are the parts. You talk about your brother and you talk about your relationship to him. So over time it became increasingly memoirish and less history, and then also over time became increasingly focused on our relationship rather than just on him. And that I still feel mixed about because I didn’t want it to be a book about me. And I, I really wanted it to be primarily a book about him, but I’m the one telling it. And I had to own that and recognize that my own viewpoint, and all the biases and limitations that come with my viewpoint are central to the books. I had to sort of turn the mirror onto myself a bit more and in the process try to, tell a story that is still about him, but also about us and also about the the larger world.

    Dr. Dean: 17:17

    I wonder if you see that as a way to continue your relationship with him. Like that is so important in grieving and it just kind of never goes away. and I, I wonder if even your career and this book both feel like this is how I’m going to continue to have this relationship with Peter.

    Dr. Nico Slate: 17:38

    I think you’re absolutely right. and. With the book, I knew that going into it with my career, actually. Amazingly, I wasn’t aware at the time. when I started my PhD, I was planning to write American intellectual history with no real connection to race or racism, and in my first semester ended up getting pulled into African, African-American history. And the more I wrote about it, the more I had to grapple with, well, what am I doing exactly this white dude writing about African American history and also history of India. And it took me a little while actually to realize, well, of course I’m in part processing my grief at the loss of my brother and I’m try trying to stay connected to him and his own stories and legacies. With the book, I knew going into it, yes, this is about me helping my kids know who my brother was. But this is also for me, a chance to continue knowing him. And I like how you put it to continue the relationship with him. Although, and I’m sure you know this well, and many of those, listening to this will know this well, that you can’t really ever continue the relationship, right? Because you don’t know what the other person will say. And, and this is something I grapple with all the time, where. There are some moments in my life where I know what he would say. when something really beautiful happens or wonderful or something really tragic, I know how he’ll he would respond. But there are also lots of, forks in the road. I don’t know which way to turn when I would’ve called him and asked for his advice, and I can only guess, I can’t know how he would respond. He was often very surprising, and I, that’s one of, one of many things I miss, is that I can’t. I can’t hear his voice when I engage him, and I can’t know where he would’ve gone with his life. Right. I mean, it, it’s funny how when you lose someone, they get stuck in time. So I still tend to imagine him driving around in his Ford Expedition, a hip hop artist in LA in like the late nineties. But who knows? Maybe now he’d be, living in a city in Spain, Writing poetry books. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know where life would’ve taken him. He could’ve had a whole other life. maybe he would’ve had kids by now. And so to answer your question, yes, absolutely it is an effort to try to maintain the relationship, but it’s also an effort that I know is ultimately bound to fail.

    Dr. Dean: 19:57

    Or it’s just changed, like it’s a different type of relationship because we have to have it with the essence of who that person was or is. And you talked about this, I, I, of course took some notes cuz I wanted, well it was impressive. But also you mentioned this towards the end of the book, page 218, if you want to know where I’m referencing this from. but you said,”When someone dies young, are they always that age? And then you talk about that your brother died at 30 and strange that I’m the older man.” I think that’s kind of hitting what you’re saying is you don’t know where he’d be right now.

    Dr. Nico Slate: 20:39


    Dr. Dean: 20:41


    Dr. Nico Slate: 20:42

    yeah, yeah. I, I mean, people lose siblings at different stages of life.

    Dr. Dean: 20:47


    Dr. Nico Slate: 20:48

    And I know that it’s hard at any point. I have a friend who lost her brother in their sixties, and it’s still incredibly hard and I, I don’t know what it would be like to lose a sibling as a child, but I’m sure it’s deeply traumatic in its own way. But I think for me, you know, losing my brother, he was, 30 at the time. That age is an age at which in some ways you’ve already become yourself. You’ve become an adult, you’ve started to embark on your life path, but there’s still so much uncertainty and unknown in that particular moment in time. I think for me now as a 40 something year old history professor, It’s pretty likely 40 years from now, I’ll be an 80 something year old history professor. I, I think my life path, although it will hopefully have some exciting twists and turns, has been, constrained by time in a way that my brother still wasn’t. And I think when people lose siblings, in their teens, twenties, thirties, in those years, part of the challenge, at least for me is all those unknown questions. All those unknowns. But I do, I do like the way you, you put it in terms of it not being necessarily a failed effort to connect, but just a different kind of connection. And I do try my best to connect to my brother at his best. I don’t know how many people do this, but when I think of him, sometimes I’ll talk to him. you know, the brother that I’m thinking about is the brother who was at his best. And, and as human beings we have our ups and our downs, and my brother certainly did as well. He had a lot of struggles. but looking back on it, I’m able to hold on to the best in who he was and what he did, and I know that many other people did too, right? I mean, that’s the other. Strange solace for me in grieving is that I know there are many others that are grieving too, and I,

    Dr. Dean: 22:59


    Dr. Nico Slate: 23:00

    I don’t like that fact. Of course, I mean, I, feel their pain starting with my mom, whose grief was really all consuming. but also, many of my brother’s friends, his girlfriend who he was driving to see when he died, it’s been 20 years and she still grieves him. she’s still. Thinks about him and talks about him and has been really lovely in response to the book. I’m deeply sorry for their pain, that they have pain as well, but it also gives me some kind of strange solace to know that there’s this shared community of people that are grieving the loss of, this man that we all love.

    Dr. Dean: 23:36

    Mm-hmm. That’s a beautiful way to think about it, that, I mean, because we all do grieve the same person differently. It’s hard to sometimes remember that. There’s a documentary called Speaking Grief, in which they visualize this in a way that it’s pretty powerful. I won’t ruin it in case you haven’t seen it, but it, it kind of does make this idea of. So many people are grieving and we don’t even realize it. We don’t talk about it in our society enough.

    Dr. Nico Slate: 24:09

    Oh, I agree.

    Dr. Dean: 24:10

    yeah. So thank you for

    Dr. Nico Slate: 24:11

    Well, and especially I think for siblings, and this is part of why I’m so grateful for all you that you’re doing, is that I think in general our society is not good at grappling with grief. I think when parents lose children, it’s It’s a kind of grief that fits into our society’s perspective on these things, at least in my case. I know it’s different every time, but in, in my case, my mom was so totally broken by her grief that it fits into this narrative of the grieving mother who’s just totally overcome by things. And I think for siblings it’s often more complicated. in my case, and I know this is true for many others, I felt really responsible for helping care for my mom. And so to some degree, I’ve just put my grief on hold and went into this long period of denial. And I think in our society, the idea of a grieving sibling is stranger and less, I don’t know. It’s, it’s not something that is as common. in our culture and our popular media as the grieving parent or the grieving spouse. And I think, I’m, I’m grateful to you for helping create an opportunity for people to talk about what it means to lose a sibling and to feel some, some sense of connection with others that have gone through that process.

    Dr. Dean: 25:27

    Well, thank you for that. I was recently at a conference for thanatology, the study of death and bereavement and all sorts of things, loss in general. And I listened to a lecture in which they brought up this idea of hierarchy of grief, and it hit me like, there is this hierarchy of grief that we have in this society that, like you said, the mother, the spouse, and then we’re left with being the caregiver for everybody.

    Dr. Nico Slate: 25:56


    Dr. Dean: 25:58

    And I’ve talked about this before publicly, where we have this expectation that somehow it’s a lesser relationship, but it’s one that we know longer, like you’re supposed to know your sibling for most of your life.

    Dr. Nico Slate: 26:14


    Dr. Dean: 26:15

    Yeah. So you finished writing the book a couple years ago?

    Dr. Nico Slate: 26:21

    Yeah. So started in 2014. I finished a fairly polished draft a couple years ago, but. with books especially something like this that’s so close to the heart, you keep, keep tweaking it and keep working on it, right? All the way until the end. So I’d say about a year ago is when they finally said, okay, you can’t make any more changes. Sorry. it’s going into production and then you just have to wait.

    Dr. Dean: 26:48

    So where are you now versus where you were when you completed that final draft that got submitted? I.

    Dr. Nico Slate: 26:59

    Well, I’d say, right now I’m really overwhelmed by what it means to bring this book into the world. I’ve been incredibly touched by the responses that I’ve received, both from strangers. And from people who had some connection to my brother or to our family that I just haven’t been in touch with for a long time. So one of my mom’s high school friends, for example, who knew my brother as a child, reached out to me after reading the book and sent me a really beautiful and lovely note. many, many people that I knew would read it, and knew, would respond with love. have been in touch with me, but also a lot of people who I just didn’t know had such a connection with my brother or strangers who just happened to learn about the book in one way or another. And, I’m always amazed, by the power of many human beings to feel deeply for others. And, I try to do that. I think it’s a good quality in a human being, but I will say that, I think some people are better at it than others, right? I mean, there’s the old like who cries at the Hallmark commercial question and there is just a lot of people in this society that have really big hearts and can read about a family story that is not their own and feel deeply moved by it and so moved it. They’ll, send me an email or call my office phone and. That’s been, really lovely. I was pretty anxious, honestly, about having the book come into the world because here’s a book that is, far, far more personal than anything I’ve written before. It’s really the only thing I’ve written that’s personal and it’s deeply personal, right? So I have this. Strange experience of writing a memoir for the first time. And then it just happens that the memoir is also about issues that in our society are incredibly divisive and controversial, particularly race and racism. And so I kind of was bracing myself for really negative responses from people that weren’t that interested in engaging the human dimensions of the story, but just wanted to vent about their views on these racial issues. And I haven’t gotten that yet. No. Maybe it’ll come at some point. But so far what I’ve heard when I’ve heard from some strangers has been really focused on my brother and what happened to him and who he was and the loss that, it was and is his death. And that means a lot to me. so I, I’m, right now I’m really happy that the book is out in the world. A year ago when I finished that last draft, I was. Mostly just focused on making it the best possible tribute that I could to my brother and as honest and real an account as possible. Right. As a historian, it’s strange to write a memoir because you one has to deal with sources that as a historian you often wouldn’t fully trust people’s memories in particular. And I tried in the book to just be honest about the limitations of. Those memories, how much is being remembered or not remembered? How do the memories stack up against things like the police report for the night he was attacked or other, more sort of traditional historical sources. but, it’s also in addition to being this, incredibly multi-layered, messy project, one that I know. people are gonna take and boil down and oversimplify. And so once, once I. Started to think about that, as it came closer to publication, I honestly got more and more anxious about it. And, my wife and and close friends said, you have to do a good job publicizing this. This book deserves to be in the world. And I ended up, I’ve been trying my best because I seeing this as something I’m doing for my brother, but it is hard for me because there is a part of me that doesn’t want anyone to read it

    Dr. Dean: 30:53


    Dr. Nico Slate: 30:54

    I don’t want anyone to get mad at me or not see my brother with the kind of generosity that I do and that I hope others would. so anyway, that’s a long answer to your question, but I I, right now am feeling really happy that, that the book is out in the

    Dr. Dean: 31:09

    Mm-hmm. Has it helped you in your grieving process, knowing that grief is lifelong and ongoing, but has it changed that for you?

    Dr. Nico Slate: 31:20

    Yes. very much so. I don’t honestly even know where to start. I’d say that, and this seems almost impossible, but I think it is true that somehow I would say, I think I’m still cutting through the denial that I went into when my brother died. this July 4th, it’ll be 20 years since he died. And I still don’t think I’ve fully emotionally grappled with that loss. But I have gotten closer than I did before I had started the book. I’ll reread passages from the book and I’ll feel them in a way that, at first so much of my brother’s story after he died. became almost a, I don’t know, a defense mechanism, if you will, to shield me from grappling with my own loss. I would talk about my brother quite a lot. I have for a long time, but my focus became, helping my mom and then doing justice to my brother. And me and my own grief wasn’t really central to that process. And if anything, I could, I could hide, I think, behind trying to help my mom and trying to do justice to my brother. But the, the writing of the book has, opened that up for me in a way that I think is really important. I think it’s easy for people who are in that kind of denial to. question why grief even matters, right? I mean, you can say to yourself, well, what’s the, what’s the point really? All right? I mean, it’s not gonna bring my brother back. What is it? What’s it really gonna do for me to dwell on all that we lost when he died? And all that I lost when he died? But, I think it’s really clear to me that, if I’m gonna be my best. self, my best human being, historian, father, partner, son. I need to, be in touch with what his loss has meant to me and the ways in which. his death shaped me, not always for the better. I talk about this very briefly in the book and it’s seems like a small thing, but, I grapple often with being, what’s the right way to talk about it. I can struggle with, a certain kind of perfectionism like with. food wastage with, lots of little things in life that I don’t remember being especially troubled by before he died. Like I, I was a pretty chill kid from what I remember. And those I’ve asked remember, and now I’m a little bit of a kind of, anxious middle-aged dad. And some of that might just be becoming a father. Certainly becoming a father can create its own anxieties, right? But I also, when I really thought about it, I thought, when did I start worrying about all this little petty stuff and getting anxious about it? And I realized, I think some of it is that it’s how I coped with his death.

    Dr. Dean: 34:31


    Dr. Nico Slate: 34:32

    You know, my mom, as you know from the story was visiting me at the time he died and just stayed and was really directly under my care for a long time. And in some ways still is. And. how did I cope with that? Part of it is that I became a bit maniacal about all kinds of little things that were within my control because so much was not in my control. Right?

    Dr. Dean: 34:52


    Dr. Nico Slate: 34:53

    So, okay, so how then do I get to a better place now where I can be more chill when, you know my seven-year-old daughter doesn’t want to eat her Cheerios in the morning. How can I help take myself, just take a deep breath, right? And see things in the right way. Some of it is, I have to, I think, go back to really. just, I don’t know, embracing isn’t the right word, but recognizing that there are many profoundly tragic things that I have no control over. Right. And that’s, it’s scary, right? I mean, it’s, I think that’s one of the scariest things about losing someone you love dearly is that you then become aware if you really think about it. Like this could happen again. You know? I mean, people die in car accidents all the time. It’s, sadly, still a very common way that people lose people in our country. And, I get in the car with my family, all the time. And so of course, I don’t wanna end up. paranoid about these things and whatnot, but I think to some degree, on some level, I am, I mean, I think the fear and the grief is in me, and if I don’t recognize that and grapple with it, then it’ll just stay in me. So I’m trying, I’m trying to be really honest with myself about that loss in the hopes that I can try to become a better person.

    Dr. Dean: 36:10

    Mm-hmm. Well, I think part of what you’re describing too is in anxiety, we’re often trying to control things that we can’t, and so it is coming out right, like food waste. Of course, that’s important, but as a direct relationship, to the loss of your brother. It totally makes sense, is like, this is the thing that I can control right now. I can’t control that I lost him or might lose someone else or, yeah. I mean, you did such a great job of telling the story of your loss in the book, so that’s normally something that I ask. our guests about is tell the story of the loss, but I’m not gonna do that today. If people wanna know that I’m gonna point them to your book unless there’s anything you specifically want them to know,

    Dr. Nico Slate: 36:55

    I don’t think there’s anything I need people to know, though. I appreciate you asking. I think, you know, as I said, he died on July 4th, Driving to see his girlfriend 2003, 20 years ago. And, I think, to some degree it was, I don’t know how you’d wanna put it. Random. it was. a series of things that could have been differently, that would’ve led him to live. In some ways it was related to who he was. He was, as I said before, kind of hopeless, romantic, who would drive long hours to see his girlfriend and he could be reckless. And, he also had only one eye. And maybe if he’d had both eyes at that time, he would’ve seen that. 18 wheel truck that’s parked on the side of the off ramp and managed to avoid it. So I still, I grapple with this, with thinking about his death. how, how much is it an accident, which is the word I always used for it, and how much is it a result of this crime that had happened, 10 years earlier? But here I am talking. You said you didn’t I, I didn’t even need to forgive me.

    Dr. Dean: 38:09

    No, you’re, you’re fine. I, so we have a couple mutual friends and. actually, they’ve been integral in helping me develop what I’m doing. and one of them read your book and then shared with me that they had little understanding of as much as what I’m doing with sibling loss until they read your book and heard the circumstances behind the loss. They’re like, oh, this happens to more people. And one of them said like, oh, now I’ve realized. And they named a whole bunch of people who have lost siblings. and it was validating of what I’m doing, but I wanted to share that with you because I think it’s also validating of not just your relationship with your brother, which is absolutely wonderful in of its own right. But I think it helps give voice to other people struggling with these types of losses. And there were so many losses that you had from the time well. Your, it sounds like your whole life, but specifically from the night that he lost his eye and forward.

    Dr. Nico Slate: 39:14

    Well, thank you for telling me that. I really appreciate that. I think, if the book can play some small role in helping others who’ve lost siblings, that would be deeply meaningful to me. as I said at the outset. Mm-hmm. I’m delighted to speak with you because you’re a lovely person and a great question asker, but also because I really deeply admire what you’re doing and I think there’s a huge, huge need for it. Yeah. I still remember when, when my brother died, for the first couple months it was just we were all in crisis mode and my mom wasn’t sleeping or eating, and after a few months, Someone came as a friend of a friend who said, there are grief groups and maybe it would be helpful for your mom to go to one of these grief groups. And she did and started going to grief groups and went to them for a long time and, There were people in those groups, at least the first ones. Some of them were specifically for parents, the ones my mom did, people who lost children, and some of them were just more broad grief groups that had people who’d lost a variety of different loved ones. And I remember at the time my mom saying, there are some people that had lost siblings in in various groups, but. It never struck me as something I should do or go to. And I think part of it is just that it seemed like overwhelmingly full of people that had lost parents or spouses. And I think ha, creating a, resource and a community for people who have lost siblings is just a, it’s a, there’s a huge need for that. So I’m, I’m really grateful to you for doing it.

    Dr. Dean: 40:45

    Thank you. We have a lot planned, but I can’t do it all at once as I have to remind myself. There was one quote in the book that I wanted to read because I wanted to hear more of what you thought about this. I read this multiple times and even went into the other room and read this, this line out loud to my husband because I think it’s so powerful. Early on in the book, and you said,”We tend to deny the dead, their own place and time to forget the past was the present for those who lived it.” I think that speaks to something you were saying earlier that. we think of them, how they were then, not how they would be now, but I wanted to hear more about what you had to say about that.

    Dr. Nico Slate: 41:28

    Oh, thank you. when I wrote that, I was really thinking of two different, but I think related ways that we can misremember the dead. And one is, as you just said, by trapping them in the past and forgetting that if they had been alive, there are many different paths they could have walked or could have continued going. And the other is in, and this, this may sound weird to say, but just forgetting the vibrant lived reality of the worlds that they had inhabited. Because for us, of course, now you know, the present is the world that we’re living in. And the past is the past, but. One of the things that I have tried to do as a historian, but actually writing this book about my brother, taking off my historian’s hat to some degree and really inhabiting the challenge of telling a story about someone that you love dearly. One of the things that really struck me is that I really wanted to try to somehow really, really pay respect, pay homage to. the life that my brother had lived, and not as some kind of thin, one-dimensional story, but to try to imagine what it was like to be in his shoes when he was, up on that stage, in Vegas opening for Cypress Hill or when, he was, in the hospital room after he’d lost his eye. What was that experience like for him at that time? And of course it’s impossible to know that even if I was in the room with him right then and there, you can’t know how someone else is experiencing, seeing, seeing the world and to look back over now decades and try to do so is in some ways ridiculous. But I also, I feel like we’re called to do that when we’re looking into the past. If we’re gonna, Really understand the, the lived realities of the people that, that we had loved and try to keep them. Again, we, we started off with this, but what does it mean to try to keep them alive? Some of it, I think, is actually recognizing just how much we can’t, recognizing that, that the, the brother that I hold in my heart and love as amazing a person as that was, is only a pale shadow of the man who lived in the world and, Got up on those stages and, would stay up all night writing or, talking with friends or, took me under his wing and, took this, scrawny little white kid to a black barbershop in the valley or to go play, learn how to play basketball, you know? so I, I know that’s part of what I was trying to get at in that line is that yes, on the one hand, we don’t know Where life would’ve taken them, where they would’ve gone. and then on the other, we can’t fully embody or imagine or experience what life was for them because it’s to, to some degree closed off to us no matter how much we try to engage it.

    Dr. Dean: 44:32

    Yeah. Thank you. That makes sense. there’s no way to know what somebody else’s story is Exactly. Ever.

    Dr. Nico Slate: 44:40


    Dr. Dean: 44:41

    Yeah. Hmm.

    Dr. Nico Slate: 44:44

    I’m touched that you, read that line. You know, it’s a, it’s a beautiful thing to spend a long time writing something and then have people read it with such, care and, such consideration. my brother and I are both writers and my mom is an incredible reader, and sometimes I’ve tried to push her to become a writer just because I think she would actually be quite good at it. She has no interest in that whatsoever. Never has. But at other times I’ve been aware that in some ways my mom and the many people like her in the world actually are an even greater gift. And that we need incredible readers too, right? I mean, we always praise incredible writers, but someone who can read with their full mind and heart is. A real gift. So anyway, for me as a writer, I’m, I’m touched and I, I again, wanted to say thank you for reading the book cuz it means a lot to me to have it read in those ways.

    Dr. Dean: 45:39

    You’re welcome. Thank you for writing it. Are there people that you are still getting support from or people that you wish you were getting support from you even that you’re not?

    Dr. Nico Slate: 45:53

    That’s a big question. I mean, my wife never met my brother. I wish that she had, they would’ve, I think, gotten along fabulously.

    Dr. Dean: 46:02


    Dr. Nico Slate: 46:04

    but she’s incredibly supportive and loving and, There are a lot of people in my life now, close friends my wife’s family who are just deeply wonderful people who never had the chance to meet my brother, but in their love for me are, are extremely helpful. And then, my brother’s friends, who loved him dearly. And grieve him in their own ways, are also very supportive of me and have been very supportive throughout this book process. As have my relatives, many of whom I interviewed for the book. I’d say the, the biggest and most complicated figure in this story is my mom, who’s a major presence in the book and a major presence in my life, and, just as I said at the outset, my brother was an amazing, my brother in many, many ways. My mom was an amazing mom. She put all of her heart and soul into it in ways ultimately, I think were actually weren’t even fully healthy just because she, she really just had, you know, she, she didn’t have good luck with men. She chose a lot of troubled men and they were very difficult and then left And when she was single, as she was from most of my childhood, she really just threw herself into her work and into us. And she was, in many ways very wonderful and still is, and is still very supportive of me. And increasingly has tried to create space for me to grieve as well. At first, for years she was just too overcome by her own grief to be able to. do much to be supportive of me or mine. And I think even now it’s hard for her to know exactly how to do that. And, she’s also at a point in her life where, although she still thinks about my brother all the time, I think, she’s, she’s not in good health and she’s old enough that she’s started to just let go more generally.

    Dr. Dean: 48:01


    Dr. Nico Slate: 48:02

    And sometimes that is hard for me because, well, for one thing, I want her to, fight against the dying of the light and hold on as long as she can. But also, I, I can still use her love and support

    Dr. Dean: 48:16


    Dr. Nico Slate: 48:17

    and, so I have to, Sometimes I have to remind her of that. But we, we, we have a good relationship in the sense that I can be very honest with her about these things and I give her credit for that. Actually, she modeled when we were growing up, she really modeled openness and transparency in our home. My brother and my mom would fight quite often. He, he was a difficult teenager and she had to, her failings as a parent and they would battle, but they would always talk it out. I mean, they would talk for hours and hours and hours. I would fall asleep and then the next day I’d realize, they talked till five in the morning and they found their way through it. And my mom and I talk a lot, and I have told her many times, I need you too. And, and I can be very specific with trying to find ways to make our relationship balanced, so that I’m, I, I still am a major, caregiver for her. She’s really needed that, especially as she’s, she’s developed a lot of very challenging health problems and disabilities. And without my brother there, I’m, her main source of support. But I also am trying to find ways that, she can feel that she’s also giving back, to me. And, and one, one thing that has been quite joyful and healing for her is just me having children. because she’s the kind of person, and I think this is true maybe for many people, but my mom really likes being a grandparent. I mean, that’s just her bread and butter, you know? And so that’s been lovely. to see her get so much meaning and joy from being a grandma and she’s a wonderful grandma. So that, that I think is, is beautiful. but I, I also think, the, the book is an opportunity for my mom and I to reengage these things. Well, after many years of it being really the main thing that we were doing, right? I mean, her grief was, her life for a while there. I think the book is a chance to come, come back to our grief together. And from a different vantage point

    Dr. Dean: 50:27

    Mm-hmm. So it’s, it’s helped open that conversation up for you?

    Dr. Nico Slate: 50:32

    It has, it has, she’s reading the book, she reads it very slowly. In part, she just struggles to read right now with eyesight and other issues, but she’s, she is reading it and I’m glad, she’s one of the main figure in it and, without her it wouldn’t have existed. So, I’m glad, I’m glad that she’s reading it.

    Dr. Dean: 50:50

    Yeah. I don’t recommend reading it right before bed. As I, I did,

    Dr. Nico Slate: 50:54

    It’s a hard book. Yeah.

    Dr. Dean: 50:55

    especially the first chapter was I was like, okay, this is what I’m doing before bed.

    Dr. Nico Slate: 50:59

    Yeah, yeah, yeah.

    Dr. Dean: 51:01

    Well, thank you for that. before we wrap up, you shared a lot of these in the book, but are there any favorite memories that you wanna share with our listeners?

    Dr. Nico Slate: 51:10

    I am happy to, I think, the, the first memory of my brother’s love that I share in the book is still one of my favorites. And, and maybe I’ll tell you two actually that come from the earlier sections of the book. So the. The first one I chose to share and I, I did so deliberately because I tried to think what is really like the essence of who my brother was as a brother. And I came back to this memory. I, it’s a very vivid memory for me when I was, I think about seven, if I remember correctly. the pizza delivery guy was mugged outside of our house and. they, I don’t think I write about this in the book, but I remember the robbers threw his keys into this ivy strewn lawn. And so we all went outside with flashlights to try to help this guy find his car keys. And, at the time we’re searching for the car keys. It felt we’re kind of exciting. We’re all out there together and whatnot. And then that night I just couldn’t get to sleep. I was, I was really scared and. I’m sure my mom talked to me. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I remember my brother coming in and telling me this story that he concocted about how the only way to cut through these iron bars that we had on our windows. Was for someone to buy this diamond saw that the diamond saw was extraordinarily expensive, and that even if you had the diamond saw, it would take hours to cut through the bars and it would make this high-pitched wine that would wake everyone up. And this was the kind of thing he did. It was, I don’t know how, I mean, he was probably like 14, 15 years old. How did he know that? That’s how you help a kid. You can’t just tell a kid like, you’ll be fine. Go to sleep. Right. You have to be specific and you have to give them something a latch onto. Right. Which, worked beautifully for me at the time. I slept very well, from then on. so anyway, that’s one memory. And then the other one I put in there is, another really vivid one for me was we went camping once and there was this lake. That, had this hill that kind of overstretched the lake a bit. It couldn’t have been that high, but, you know, I was a kid. It looked super, super high to me, and the other kids, older kids were like jumping into the lake and I was simultaneously interested in it, but quite mortified of it. And, my brother, and this is something he did many times throughout my life, is he could read me like a book and knew okay, he’s scared and he, he walked this middle ground. which I, I. I don’t know how common this is, honestly, for our older siblings. I think some of it might have been, we had a pretty long age gap, seems to me more parental anyway, but to be able to challenge child without, without pushing too hard, he found that middle ground often, not always. Sometimes he could push quite hard, but, often he would find this middle ground and he, he, he told me, that if I wanted to jump, he would jump with me. But if I didn’t want to, he would stay with me. That he would be with me either way. And I just felt so, loved. It was just this moment of feeling tremendously loved. And I don’t remember. It’s funny the things you remember and don’t remember. I don’t remember if I jumped in the lake. I don’t have a memory of it. And I think you’re, if I did jump in, I’d probably remember that. But it’s not a bad memory. I don’t, I, assuming I didn’t jump. One would think, well, maybe I would feel ashamed or afraid when I don’t remember that at all. What I remember is feeling really loved and supported by my brother.

    Dr. Dean: 54:32

    Beautiful. And oddly, the one person that knows if he jumped or not can’t tell you. So

    Dr. Nico Slate: 54:39

    That’s right. Well, yeah, that’s right. That’s right.

    Dr. Dean: 54:42


    Dr. Nico Slate: 54:43


    Dr. Dean: 54:45

    Well, thank you so much. I really enjoyed talking to you.

    Dr. Nico Slate: 54:48

    Likewise. This was a real, It was a joy, but it was also very meaningful for me. Thank you.

    Dr. Dean: 54:53

    You’re welcome. Thank you so much for listening. If you would like more information on the broken pack, go to our website, the broken Be sure to sign up for our newsletter, Wild Grief, to learn about opportunities and receive exclusive content for subscribers. Information on that, our social media and on our guests can be found in the show notes. Wherever you get your podcast, please like, follow, subscribe, and share. Our theme song was written by Joe Mylward and Brian Dean, and it was performed by Joe Mylward.


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