One year ago today, Matt Long died in a car crash on the Ventura Highway. He was hit by a car traveling on the highway. The details are a bit murky, so I don’t know if my brother was trying to commit suicide or if he was just hit while walking on the side of the road. The first detective on the scene said it was a suicide. The second detective my family spoke to wasn’t as sure. Either way, the driver didn’t do it intentionally and Matt was pretty troubled at this point in his life, so I don’t see the purpose in making it a CSI episode. Now that enough time has went by, I thought I would explore how my brother came to the depths of depression he reached on his last day on earth.
Matt Long was born on July 12, 1972 in Newton, Iowa. He always had a strange mix of possessing a gentle soul, but this same soul was capable of going into rage very quickly. Our father was manic depressive, which in the 1970’s earned him the diagnosis of ‘that fellow is kind of moody.” It was not an easy life living in the house with a dad who was prone to violent mood swings. By the time my brother was just turning 6, my mom finally decided to leave my raging father.
Now, a lot of people would look upon my mom and wonder why she didn’t leave my father before this, since he was so mentally and physically abusive to us. Let me offer up that it is generally never that simple. During this time period in a Midwestern small-town there was a real stigma in getting a divorce. Add to this that my parents were part of a conservative Baptist church which saw divorce as real sin. Many people who had a pretty good idea of how violent my father could be still judged my Mom as someone who should have tried harder to keep the marriage together, if nothing else “for the kids.”
My brother was so young, so most of my father’s rage was dished out on me and my mother. Since my dad was such a big man, (6 feet 2 and 230 pounds), this was a very scary reality. Most victims of abuse eventually get to the point of feeling a bit reckless in the way they respond to it. I started to push back at my dad by the age of 12, trying to protect my mom and brother. This was when my mom realized that we had to leave my father.
Here is the other unfortunate reality that many women of abusive men have to deal with. Often they are financially dependent on these men. They also know that these men will not easily accept being separated from their family. My mom had me when she had just turned 18 years old. She had not been allowed to work outside the home, partially because my very jealous father couldn’t deal with her having friends. Since my mother had no particular discernible work skills and possessed nothing more than high school diploma, it was a daunting scenario she had to ponder.
For a couple months, my mom plotted our escape. She shared this with me, as she wanted me to know what was in store. I was ecstatic about getting away from Him, but was very nervous about if it would work. If this plan didn’t work, I knew that the retribution would be severe.
During the summer of 1979, my father was going through one of his violent rages. Matt, who was just 5 years-old had done something to further upset my father. His reaction was to push Matt down our basement stairs. Fortunately he wasn’t hurt from the fall, but my mentally beaten down mother couldn’t take this and started screaming at my father. Why she didn’t go out my father very often was because she knew his wrath would be far greater when questioned, but this time she had been pushed to the point of no return. This was her baby boy being pushed down the stairs.
As could have been predicted, my father started chasing her around the house, threatening her with great harm. She ran out the front door fearing for her physical safety. She was shoeless, running through the cornfield which was next door to us, just trying to fend for her life. While this wasn’t the perfect time to leave, she had reached her breaking point.
My dad was the coach of my Little League team and we had a game in less than hour. The 3 of us went to the ball field. My father told his 2 boys not to mention what had just happened to anyone. This is something you learn early when you are part of a family that suffers from an abusive parent. As fearful as I was of facing my father’s violence, I was even more concerned about the ridicule I would face from people I knew outside the house. I know this sounds weird, but being socially stigmatized because of his behavior was a worse punishment than anything my father could do to me.
Oh and by the way, if you think Alex Rodriguez feels an unfair amount of pressure, try playing a game where you know your mentally-insane dad is completely on the edge of furor. (Let me quickly offer that what Alec Baldwin said to his daughter was a love song in comparison to what I dealt with on a daily basis.) With this situation being at the stage of code red, I knew the only way that my brother and I would have any possible chance of getting through the night unscathed was if I played well. Fortunately I went 3 for 5, with a couple of doubles and our team won. Hurrah for ME!!!
Baseball was the first thing that really bonded my brother and me. Being 6 years younger than me, Matt always was trying to follow in my footsteps. My escape from the turmoil surrounding me was to lose myself in baseball books. Matt followed suit. We were both precocious kids who always were way ahead the typical reading level for our age, so we would discuss baseball statistics from the back of our baseball cards like Wall Street traders do about Price to Earning ratios.
Matt suffered from intestinal blockage his entire life. While he had a hard-time with potty training, he seemed on a normal path, until my parents separation. From there, his colon issues seemed to get worse. The blockage issues caused him to often feel weak and he was always small for his age. Considering that the thing he most wanted to do was be a good baseball player, these physical challenges were very tough on him. He was the quintessential little kid in right field, who the coach would have to play just enough so he could get one at bat. Even though at the age of 8 he knew more about the history of the game than probably anyone else on the particular diamond he was playing on, it did little to help him be a better player.
So for the next couple of days I was home with Matt, while my father was at work. At night, my father would put us in our wood-paneled station wagon, driving around our town frantically looking for my mom. Now the question might be, what was my mom doing leaving us with a madman? She knew if she didn’t have a place that he couldn’t find us, when she came to take us away, it would be a worse situation than what we were dealing with at the time.
On day 4, while my dad was at work, my mom came by the house, with an old friend of hers and thus began our witness protection journey of evading my father that whole summer. While my brother and I had always been close, we bonded even more, as we spent so much time together. We couldn’t see any of our friends, as we were living on a farm a few miles away, where my dad wouldn’t know we were at.
Eventually my parents were divorced and we went to live in government housing outside of Des Moines. Versus the large ranch-style home we had lived in, but for the most part* we didn't have to worry about my dad making our lives a living hell.
*When my Dad found out where we were living, he did bang on the door a few times demanding we let him in, even though my mom had a restraining order against him. When we wouldn’t let him and told him we were going to call the police, he would threaten to kill himself. Maybe this is why I’ve never been a big fan of the show Cops. When you’ve lived it, the impact of the show loses some of its appeal.
To keep my father out of the picture, my mom didn’t take him back to court for not paying his child support. As embarrassing as it was to be on food stamps and living in government subsidized housing was, she knew it was completely unhealthy for her sons to spend anymore time with their father. Sure she could have sent him to jail and garnished his wages, but he was at a point where he probably would have killed us if that would have occurred. Not a lot of good choices there, so sometimes you have to go with survival instinct over what is right.
Matt’s time in school was a mixed bag. He was intellectually advanced for his age, so his grades were very high, but school is lot more than good marks. Matt was a bit socially awkward and the constant fear that people would discover that he sometimes didn’t have total control of his bowel movements created a special kind of fear I can only guess would be immensely traumatic. Outside of couple freaks and geeks he congregated with, he spent most of his time reading science fiction and comic books. These were his escape from the reality that was often pretty dismal.
By the time he reached high school, Matt decided to transform himself, by eating well and working out. He also put effort in to what he considered superficial things, like how he combed his hair and what clothes he wore. While it didn’t make him captain of the football team, he was able to join the popular group. Considering he was always good-looking, he had a surplus of opportunities to date the “hot” girls. It was like one of those John Hughes movies, only if Anthony Michael Hall would have become Johnny B. Goode.
As tough as his life had been, my brother told me later that this was his most dishonest time period, despite how popular he had become. Deep down inside he knew he was still the same kid picked last for the team. He was still the kid who couldn’t control his twisted intestines. Matt had tasted popularity and he was too much of a natural outsider to feel comfortable with what comes with it.
From that point on he was focused on a life that wouldn’t make him have to accept superficiality. During college he was top-notch debater, who competed on a national level. While I held out hopes that he would become a professor, Matt was never organized enough to move up this academic ladder. The “small things” in life, like filling out forms, following directions, etc. kept him from finishing his graduate studies.
After a short time doing the “real world” jobs that most have to fill to take care of themselves, Matt decided that he would try stand-up comedy. I tried to be supportive of his goals, even though I wasn’t crazy about him following in my footsteps. Matt was pretty funny and did better than 95% of people who try to make standup comedy their profession. This means he actually got paid 20 weeks a year to tell jokes across the country. Unfortunately, 20 weeks of opening doesn’t pay more than making you a traveling vagrant, staying with friends and acquaintances to survive.
Struggling artist has a romantic title to it, but in truth it gets old for most of those around them. Matt seemed to have a sense of entitlement to him. My mom had worked hard at a full-time job, while putting herself through community college. Her work ethic helped her rise quickly in her professional career to a management level. While not flush with cash, she was able to provide a comfortable lifestyle for my brother. (I was out of the house by this point.) Despite this, he generally had an attitude of feeling he deserved more than he was being given.
After a few years of chasing his standup comedy dream, he came to the realization that it was never going to happen on the level he wanted it to. He decided to transition his creative juices into a screenwriting career. He pumped out a few of scripts and after meeting someone in Oklahoma…who knew someone in LA…who knew someone at a studio... he decided to move to SoCal.
The person he fantasized would read his scripts didn’t exist on the level Matt thought he did. Matt struggled to find a place to stay, learning how difficult it is to obtain a decent place to stay in such a high-rent district like SoCal. I’m sure his pride was beyond damaged at this point, so he stopped calling my Mom or me. Since he didn’t have a cell phone, we had no way to contact him.
A week before Thanksgiving 2005, I received a collect call from Matt. His tone was very strange. He told me that he been in the Phoenix area for awhile and that some "bad shit was going down there." He asked if I could fly him to where I live and let him stay at my house until he could figure out what his next step was. As much as I wanted to help him, I questioned his mental state and was concerned about how he would be around my 1 year-old daughter, especially considering that I'm gone so much from home because of my job. Despite these serious reservations, I couldn't deny my brother, so I told him to call me tomorrow, as I would set up the flight.
He called me collect the next day and I told him I had a flight set up. I said for him to call me again in an hour and I would have all the details. He thanked me for helping him. I didn’t hear from him that day or the next or…..
Both my mom and I were very concerned, so after a couple of weeks of not hearing from him, we called the Phoenix police and filed a missing report on him. We continued to stay on the police force, until one day a detective got an employment lead on him and showed up at the place he was working at. The detective called us that night and told us that Matt was fine, though very annoyed that we had gotten the police involved. Matt also told the detective to relay to us that he wanted nothing to do with us
In a short review of someone’s life like this one, you can never truly explain all the events that go into why you come to the eventual decisions you make. My mom and I didn’t know what to do, didn’t know how to contact him and this last dagger (comment) made it difficult to want to care much anymore.
For the next 4 months, neither one of us heard anything from Matt. Then a week before April 24, 2007, we both received calls from him. It happened to work out that he called us both at our home numbers, which was very unfortunate since we were both away at the time. His message said he just wanted to call to say hi and added he would call back soon. He sounded very low. We would never hear his voice again.
From the little we were able to learn from the Ventura County detective, Matt had just a 8 cents in his pocket and a green lighter. The blunt force of being hit by car at high speeds made sure he was going to be a closed-casket. The way the police were able to identify him was that he had been booked and fingerprinted the week before at the local station. The officer that had brought him in had done so on suspicion of drug use. Matt told the police that he had been in the area for only about a week and was very sick. They locked him up for the night, but let him go the next day when he passed the drug test they had given him.
If you think this is a fucking sad way to go, I would agree. Matt had told me a few years before this that he would rather die than do a job that didn’t fulfill him creatively. I think he could see the writing on the wall, and his own writing would never achieve the dreams he had for it.
My brother was 33 years old. When my father was 33 years old, distraught and unstable from the impending divorce from my mom, he jumped in front of a truck. While he was injured in the accident, he had time to recover in the state mental institution that he spent most of his next year in. Matt never knew about this specific incident, so I don’t think it was a case of him emulating the father that he despised so much. No, Matt Long was just another fatality on life’s highway of broken dreams. I miss him.