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My uncle Edwin had a strange brain ‘Disease'

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Dolly Withrow Dolly Withrow

Dolly Withrow is a retired English professor and the author of four books. Contact writer Dolly Withrow at

My maternal grandparents' marriage produced three sons and three daughters. The youngest was my mother, Esther Marie Frame. Their third and youngest son, born on June 10, 1906, was Edwin Earl Frame. He was my grandmother's favorite, probably because he grew up to be one of the most unlovable persons I've ever known.

By the time I was born, Edwin was already an adult. As a middle-aged man, he had black thinning hair combed straight back and dark eyes that flashed with sparks of perpetual fury. When intoxicated and enraged, he had a face that could turn red with anger and twist into strange contortions. If he was holding something, say a piece of paper, he would squeeze it so hard that he would quiver all over, all the while his scarlet face contorting into grotesque expressions. He was small of stature, like my Grandfather Frame, but he was as scary as any huge monster. My Uncle Edwin was real, though, and he had a lasting impact on my family and me. Because of Edwin, my childhood was punctuated with recurring terror.

Arguably, he was the brightest of the three Frame boys. My mother told me he was unruly as a small child and soon started getting into trouble. He began drinking alcohol when he was young. In time, he became a drinking painter, the kind who paints houses. Edwin knew how to mix colors so his customers could have the exact hue they wanted. The problem for Edwin's customers was that he would get a house half painted with his custom-mixed paint, and then he would leave as soon as he received his first payment. Often, he never returned. 

Living during a time when alcoholism was not considered a brain disease, Edwin did not receive the kind of sympathy he would receive today. He had no excuses offered to him for his choices. He had to take full responsibility for his behavior. It must have been a rough world for him. In turn, he made his family's world rough, too. 

The brain-disease excuse, offered by ever-so-sensitive persons in powerful places, has been debunked by several scholars. According to Sally Satel, M.D. (a practicing psychiatrist and lecturer at the Yale University School of Medicine), and Scott Lilienfeld, (a professor of psychology at Emory University), addiction is not a brain disease. These two scholars claim that "characterizing addiction as a brain disease misappropriates language more properly used to describe conditions such as multiple sclerosis or schizophrenia — afflictions that are neither brought on by sufferers themselves nor modifiable by their desire to be well. Also, the brain disease rhetoric is fatalistic, implying that users can never fully free themselves of their drug or alcohol problems. Finally, and most important, it threatens to obscure the vast role personal (accountability) plays in perpetuating the cycle of use and relapse to drugs and alcohol." 

A lone nomad, Edwin sometimes traveled to Havana, Cuba. Usually, though, he went no farther than Wheeling or Akron, Ohio. He came from a Protestant family, but when he needed help, he went to Catholic churches out of town where nuns took him in and treated him with loving kindness. He knew how to be charming around strangers when his circumstances demanded charm.

He was not totally evil, although I thought so for many years. In retrospect, I know he was as complex as the DNA helix that encompassed his genetic profile. Among my mother's possessions was a yellowed newspaper clipping with the only photograph we have of my Uncle Edwin. The story beneath his picture tells of his finding a large sum of money, turning it over to the police and receiving a small reward for his honesty. It was difficult for me to believe this was the same man who years earlier had stolen my watch so he could pawn it to buy alcohol. Also, my mother told me Edwin had only one love in his life, but she had rejected him because of his imbibing. As was true of my mother and her other siblings, my Uncle Edwin had known great heartache.

The second and last newspaper article about my uncle reveals the sad ending to his life's story. He died as a vagrant in a jail cell in Wheeling and was buried there in a paupers' graveyard. As in life, he remains alone and far from his home place. He lived a tragic life, caused partly by the choices he made. 

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