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Personal Histories

VHF or UHF, changing channels on old analogue TV, 2014. Credit: Matthew Paul Argall

Our Imaginary Brother Only Watches PBS

How one family schemed to be the best TV-watchers in America.

One day in the mid-1970s, my mother received an offer she couldn’t refuse. She’d been contacted at random by a now-defunct television rating service (not Nielsen, which still records the nation’s tastes): Would our household like to participate in a socially important project?

Justice and fairness were my mother’s favorite concepts; freebies, her ultimate weakness. That meant yes, we did want to participate. The rating service promised that our viewing habits would help shape the national television landscape. Presuming our superiority was a habit my mother had long indulged, and she believed we could lead the way for the nation—by providing an example of responsible viewership and even saving some underdog programs with our attention. Having married an underdog, and being in the process of mothering several, she decided that covert boosterism of one show or another within our general viewing patterns would provide moral satisfaction and a sound contribution.

But her motives were not entirely noble. Alongside a small monetary incentive, the rating system’s offer of repair and upkeep of every television in the house was too good to refuse. At least three broken TVs sat in the basement, for this was a time when people fixed things, or at least held onto broken things indefinitely. Imagine: Those TVs could be repaired! And my mother could place them in rooms all over the house, thus expanding our viewership and magnifying our impact.

With all this at stake, my mother, a sharp-witted but somewhat paranoid parser of everything from report card snippets to late payment notices, feared we might not be chosen. So the promised benefits compelled her to create an application that would outshine all competitors. Oddly, or perhaps naively, she assumed that the rating service wanted households that fulfilled every category of viewer. With our large family (even with a few siblings already out of the house), we had most of the bases covered: a septuagenarian, a fiftysomething, a fortysomething, a twentysomething, a teen, a preteen, and an under-ten. But we were bereft in one category: a preschooler.

On the rating service return form she was required to list the names and ages of every household member. What happened next made sense only to my mother: She created an eighth child, a three-year-old she named Joe. She wanted those TVs fixed, damn it, and some extra bucks, to boot, and if she had to shepherd another child through the world to get that done, so be it.

Presuming our superiority was a habit my mother had long indulged.

Her choice of a boy rather than a girl offended many of us. This was, in fact, the only time my mom could choose the gender of her offspring, and geez, did we ever find that telling.

“No, no,” she protested. “It’s just to even things up!” She had birthed four girls and three boys, and she said Joe would give us matching sets.

I resented Joe anyway, and I would have kicked him if I could, even if I had to wait until he was five to ethically do it.

A crew arrived to cart away the broken TVs and then BAM! the repaired TVs were back, which hinted to us of a world where problems could be quickly solved if only money or a workforce could be applied. The three TVs were added to the existing one or two, and soon—to guarantee our position as the best test sample family ever—the handful of televisions equipped with monitoring systems were running at all hours throughout our large house.

Because we were involved in a socially important project! To be fair to the ratings system, and to ensure that we wouldn’t be booted from the ranks, my mother endeavored to make us the best viewers of all time. In the mornings we each had a job to do—not only to turn on a TV, but to know the TV schedule and to vote responsibly with our channel selection. Nothing cheesy, sleazy, or stupid; hopefully something upright, artistic, mind-expanding. There weren’t many channels, and few channels with daylong programming that fit the bill, but we did our best.

To come home in the afternoon was like stepping into the video department at Sears. You might suppose that some of us would realize that the volume needn’t be turned up to record our choices, but of course, none of us did. In those days my grandmother spent the day home alone. My parents worked and the rest of us were off to school or a job. My underappreciated Irish nana would watch her own TV all day, from news in the morning till soaps in the afternoon and news again in early evening. But with a different show blasting at her from the other rooms, my grandmother became an early adopter (or, possibly, victim) of surround sound—though one of a discordant variety. I’m not sure whether my grandmother began the project with deafness or if she was driven to it out of self-defense.

To come home in the afternoon was like stepping into the video department at Sears.

My brother Joe watched TV in the kitchen. “PBS only for Joe,” my mother insisted, and she wouldn’t allow us to introduce him to Hanna-Barbera or any of that other crap that the rest of us had watched. We couldn’t help but grumble that Brother Joe, in fact, had greater stewardship than any of us older siblings. That poor kid; he started his life as a target of resentment from more than half of the sibling population, and our resentment only grew as he did.

And we did take care to age Joe. He moved from Sesame Street to Reading Rainbow and then to the revived Electric Company. Occasionally my mother let Joe watch other channels, a presidential debate here and there—anything edifying. On the other TVs, we continued our policy of giving new sitcoms a fair chance each September, though my mother quickly changed the channel on any show she deemed too racy for the tender eyes and ears of the nation.

This went on for years. I’m not sure if the rating system died before the official ends of our childhoods, or if we were booted for some other reason. But by the mid-’80s my grandmother had died, Joe was a vapor, and only one TV played at a time. I’m embarrassed to tell you that even my mother had forgotten about my youngest brother until the mail and phone calls began.

The brochures for colleges came in an avalanche during what might have been Joe’s sophomore year of high school. He was recruited by schools that had never gone after me, which made all that old resentment come flooding back. Strange that Joe had faded over the years but the sibling rivalry had not. My mother was bothered only by the volume of his mail. Thank goodness recycling had come into fashion, for she so hated waste that she never would have had the heart to throw all those glossies into the trash. The phone calls, though, were another story.

Military recruiters began calling around the clock. They seemed to think Joe was particularly suited for the service. I can’t remember the branch, but one local recruiter had a great fondness for Joe. He told my mother he’d already talked to Joe’s football coach, and that Joe himself had expressed great interest in serving. Joe had apparently confided to the recruiter that only his mother was holding him back.

Of all her kids, Joe had caused her the least trouble. Still, she wondered how she might kill him off.

My mother snorted. “I find that hard to believe!” Mostly, she was upset about the football. She had never allowed her other sons to play—my mom, an emergency room secretary at the frontlines of athletic injury, was alarmed by the possible long-term effects of concussion long before it became part of the national conversation.

“You can’t protect them forever,” the recruiter said.

Alongside the humor of the situation, my mom felt some worry. Did Joe indeed now exist, only because she once—on one form—said he did? Could we find a Joe to play Joe, if we ever needed to? Truthfully, she felt some fondness and protection for Joe. Of all her kids, he had caused her the least trouble. Still, she wondered how she might kill him off. And could she be convicted of a crime against a person she’d made up?

One day the military recruiter called, again asking for Joe. But my mother had reached her limit of making excuses for why her youngest son couldn’t come to the phone. She sighed. “Listen,” she said, “you can’t speak to Joe.” Here she stumbled. What to say next? Though she couldn’t admit it, I think Joe was her favorite. My mother knew what Joe liked—after all, he was the only kid to have followed her directions at every step—and he wasn’t the type to join the military. Did this recruiter really think he could kid a kidder? Thus, in a rare move, she turned to the truth.

“You can’t speak to Joe,” mom finally said, “because Joe doesn’t exist.”

“He doesn’t exist?”

“That’s right. Years ago I made him up!”

The silence was long and loaded.

“OK,” the recruiter said. “That’s the limit. The absolute limit. I’ve heard a lot of lame excuses from you moms, but this one is over the top!”

Then he hung up, never to call again.

Aside from occasional credit card offers, that was the last we heard about Joe. Yet he still exists, in some shadowy way—like all the loved and lost relatives who linger in the mind for a bit when we say their names. So Joe hangs around. Sometimes, when I walk into an empty room and face the silent black screen of one of today’s massive TVs, I do a double take. I see a reflection, and it just might be my brother Joe’s.

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Eileen Donovan-Kranz is an Associate Professor of the Practice of English at Boston College. More by Eileen Donovan-Kranz