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A Family In Peril: Lou Reeds Sister Sets

the Record Straight

Merrill Reed Weiner
Cuepoint - April 15, 2015

In the coming weeks, my brother, Lou Reed, will be inducted into the Rock and
Roll Hall of Fame as a solo performer, an honor celebrating his incredible impact upon
the world of music. Since his passing from liver disease in 2013, there have been many
accolades, articles, and ruminations on his life. As biographers have begun in earnest to
explore every aspect of that life, there has been speculation about the childhood issues
that contributed to his artistic genius.
With this piece I hope to provide clarity and context around this section of his
life, as it has been inaccurately portrayed by previous authors, to the detriment of my
family. For all those whose families lives were damaged by the pervasive medical
thinking of the time, I hope to offer solace and comfort.
We were an average middle class Jewish family. My mother, Toby, was a
housewife and doting mother. Her claim to fame had been her selection as Queen of the
Stenographers of NYC, a beauty pageant that came to her firm in 1939 and picked her
as their winner. My mother says she only won because the really pretty stenographer
was out sick that day. She was just 19 years old. Her father had passed away when she
was a teenager and she had left school to contribute financially to her family. A product
of her times, she married young and took on a traditional role as a homemaker, wife and
My father, Sidney, had dreamed of becoming an author or lawyer but instead became a
certified public accountant as his mother wished. After struggling to find work during
the depression, he began to achieve a modest measure of success with a new job as the
treasurer for Cellu-Craft, a small manufacturing company located on Long Island.
The new job meant my parents could move out of Brooklyn, where Lou and I were born,
and achieve everyones dream at that time, owning their own home. For $10,000, my

parents bought a small three-bedroom ranch house in the blue collar community of
Freeport, on the south shore of Long Island. They settled there in 1952 to raise Lou and
For nine-year-old Lou, the move from Brooklyn to Freeport was a difficult
transition. Brooklyn was an environment where kids just walked outside to playa
diverse and energetic city with a heterogeneous population. Long Island at that time was
in its early stages of development with tracts of new homes, lots of empty space, a far cry
from the more sophisticated and diverse environment it is now.
During those first years in our Freeport home, we were quite isolated. The only car my
family owned was needed by my father to travel to work. Even buying groceries meant
walking to the market. We knew no one and my mother didnt work. The social setting
my parents had known was suddenly removed from them. Lou began Atkinson
Elementary School while I, only four at the time, stayed home with my mom. I would
wait patiently by the window to see him walk home from school each afternoon, always
Junior high was another matter. In later years, Lou spoke of being beaten up
routinely after school at Freeport Junior High School, which boasted a number of gangs
at the time. However, our next door neighbor told me, years later, that Lou was
challenging, unfriendly, provocative even, daring him to cross that line onto my
property and youll see what happens.

During Lous teenage years, it became obvious that he was becoming increasingly
anxious, avoidant and resistant to most socializing, unless it was on his terms. In social
situations he withdrew, locking himself in his room, refusing to meet people. At times,
he would hide under his desk. Panic attacks and social phobias beset him. He possessed
a fragile temperament. His hyper-focus on the things he liked led him to music and it
was there that he found himself.

Self-taught, he began playing the guitar, absorbing every musical influence he could. In
high school he formed bands and played in the school variety shows. His band began to
get dates at small local clubs, which then expanded to playing gigs in New York City. By
the age of 16 he was experimenting with drugs and closing the door on any
communication with our parents.
Verbal fights between Lou and my parents eruptedabout going into the city to
play band dates, about the dangers he might confront. My parents were frightened,
upset, and bewildered. This was uncharted territory for Toby and Sid, children of the
depression era who had never disobeyed their own parents. Lous behavior terrified
them and they were ill-equipped to know how to respond.
Anxious and dependent by nature, my mother appeared helpless, leaning on my father
to make things better. My father, a controlling man who never mastered flexibilitynot
unusual in those dayswas used to getting his own way. He resorted to old techniques,
setting rules and yelling. Nothing worked. He was overwhelmed by Lous disregard. As
much as he probably thought he was trying to protect Lou, he only made things worse.
The stage was set. Anxious, controlling parents, a child whose issues exceeded their
understanding, a society that valued secrecy, underlying mental health issuesadd in
rock & roll and drugs and the drama began.
I dont know how aware my parents were of Lous drug use. Certainly there were
times he seemed drugged, as I look back on it. In one instance, he crashed the family car
into a toll booth on the parkway. Yet my parents did not seek help at that point. Perhaps
because that isnt what you did at the time, or because they just didnt understand what
was happening. They were embroiled in a battle that overwhelmed their resources.
Family secrecy still ruled the day. This was before Oprah and the willingness of
individuals to confess to substance abuse or mental illness. Rehabilitation facilities were
essentially non-existent. Fright paralyzed my parents, and as a result they did nothing.
They pretended that the problem did not exist. Meanwhile, Lou continued to selfmedicate with drugs and alcohol.
Remarkably, during Lous senior year in high school, there were moments of
normalcy at home. Family dinners could be enjoyable. Lou and my father were both

extremely witty, with erudite, dry senses of humor and remarkable literary sensibilities.
I enjoyed their verbal jousting, as did they. Just a child at the time, perhaps 11 years old,
I was dazzled by it. Their cleverness was something we all enjoyed together.
At 17, the decision was made that Lou would attend New York University. My
parents sent him off with pride and possible trepidation. They were about to encounter
some very difficult issues with their son and the help they received from the medical
community set into motion the dissolution of my family of origin for the rest of our lives.
Within the Hippocratic Oath lies the promise that doctors will do no harm and avoid
injustice to patients. We trust and hope that those in the medical profession will use
their knowledge and skill to save our loved ones. Yet the 1960s were marked with
psychiatric theories that would ultimately harm families and do irreparable damage
for example, by blaming mothers for being refrigerator mothers who caused autism
or schizophrenia. Families at a loss for how to deal with their loved ones geneticallybased mental illness were treated as perpetrators by the psychiatric establishment. They
were blamed for poor parenting, left feeling hopeless and guilty.
Sometime during his freshman year at NYU, when I was 12, my parents went to the city
and returned with Lou, limp and unresponsive. I was terrified and uncomprehending.
They said he had a nervous breakdown. The family secret was tightly kept and the
entire matter was concealed from relatives and from friends. It was our private and
unspoken burden. Even at 12 I knew to keep silent, and I did.
My parents finally sought professional help for Lou. I heard only the superficial pieces of
what was going on. My mother came into my room and told me that they thought he
might have schizophrenia. She said that the doctors told her it was because she had not
picked him up enough as an infant, but had let him cry in his room. She sobbed. The
pediatrician told me to do that! He said thats how you teach a baby to go to sleep. It
was a belief and a burden she took to her grave.
Lou was not able to function at that time. He was depressed, anxious, and socially
unresponsive. If people came into our home, he hid in his room. He might sit with us,
but he looked dead eyed, non-communicative. I remember one evening when all of us
were sitting in our den, watching television together. Out of nowhere Lou began

laughing maniacally. We all sat frozen in place. My parents did nothing, said nothing,
and ignored it as if it was not taking place.
He did not improve. Despite their misgivings, my parents took a deep breath and
brought Lou to a psychiatrist. Who knows what happened in the therapy setting? I only
know that the treating psychiatrist recommended electroshock therapy. Did that doctor
take into account the possibility of the impact of Lous substance abuse or any familial
context? Did any sort of family therapy get offered to process what was happening?
My parents were like lambs being led to the slaughterconfused, terrified, and
conditioned to follow the advice of doctors. They never even got a second opinion. Told
by doctors that they were to blame and that their son suffered from severe mental
illness, they thought they had no choice.
I assume that Lou could not have been in any shape to really understand the treatment
or the side effects. It may well be that he was fearful that he would be committed to a
psychiatric hospital and not allowed to remain home if he did not agree to the
treatment. Thus, informed consent from him would have been obtained in a rather
questionable fashion.
Was he suicidal? Impaired by drugs? Schizophrenic? Or a victim of psychiatric
incompetence and misdiagnosis? Certainly no one was talking about the impact of
depression, anxiety, self-medication with illegal drugs, and what all that could do to a
developing teenage brain. Nor was there any family therapy, involving us in
understanding him and his needs.
My father was attempting to solve a situation that was beyond him, but it came from a
deep love for Lou. My mother was terrified and certain of her own implicit guilt since
they had told her this was due to her poor mothering. Each of us suffered the loss of our
dear sweet Lou in our own private hell, unhelped and undercut by the medical
profession. The advent of family therapy unfortunately was not yet available to us. We
were captured in a moment in time.
It has been suggested by some authors that ECT was approved by my parents
because Lou had confessed to homosexual urges. How simplistic. He was depressed,
weird, anxious, and avoidant. My parents were many things, but homophobic they were

not. In fact, they were blazing liberals. They were caught in a bewildering web of guilt,
fear, and poor psychiatric care. Did they make a mistake in not challenging the doctors
recommendation for ECT? Absolutely. I have no doubt they regretted it until the day
they died. But the family secret continued. We absolutely never spoke about the
treatments, then or ever.
Our family was torn apart the day they began those wretched treatments. I
watched my brother as my parents assisted him coming back into our home afterwards,
unable to walk, stupor-like. It damaged his short term memory horribly and throughout
his life he struggled with memory retention, probably directly as a result of those
But Lou did get better. After he recovered, he and my parents decided he should
go off to Syracuse University and begin again. And he did. The rest, as they say, is
history. His musical genius, his poetry, and his legacy have had an impact on many
people and will continue to do so for generations to come.
Would it have happened if my family had received better psychiatric care, support for
the family, reframing vs. blame, encouragement and education in communication,
awareness of the impact of drugs? Could my parents have been spared their guilt,
encouraged to do better than they did? Would Lou have become the artist he became
without the furious anger that the treatments engendered? Did Lou use the treatments
as a source of artistic fuel, a means to create an illusion of an abused individual? Who
Despite the fact that Lou returned home additional times seeking nurturance and
support through other breakdowns, he harbored incredible rage, particularly towards
our father. Lous accusations towards our father, of violence and a lack of love, seemed
rooted in that time. The stories he relatedof being hit, of being treated like an
inanimate objectseemed total fantasy to me. I must say that I never saw my father
raise a hand to anyone, certainly not to us and never to my mother. Nor did I see a lack
of love for his son during our childhood. Like his son, my father could be a verbal bully
but he was loving and inordinately proud of Lou and bragged about him in later life to
anyone who would listen.

Remarkably, Lou managed to live a full and vibrant 71 years, despite the many
emotional issues that pursued him though out his life. His charisma, his charm, his wit,
his intellect were undeniable and seductive to everyone who knew him well. And, yes,
his rage was lethal and unforgiving. But through it all I loved him, tenderly and without
reservation. He and I remained brother and sister right to the end.
The lessons of that time helped me to create my own family, with a loving
husband of 43 years and three wonderful children. It made me a more compassionate
family therapist. And it made me sensitive to the plight of so many families, criticized
and left without support through such difficult times. Do no harm indeed.