A lost boy, seared by abuse, he somehow found his way
Scott Brown was shaped by his dreams and ambition, but also by a childhood in which his principal goal had to be simple survival
WAKEFIELD — When Senator Scott Brown was 9 years old, his mother, a sometime cocktail waitress overwhelmed by caring for her two children, sent him to live with her sister for a year. Brown recalls a miserable household of onerous rules and a cousin who mocked him for his absent parents. But nothing was more wretched for him than the hamburger dinners they shared.
Although there were five people at the table, Brown’s aunt generally prepared only nine of the juicy burgers, declaring that Brown’s mother was not giving her enough money to feed him the second helping the others could have. Brown, as he recalls it, was routinely denied the extra hamburger he craved, and “I would always be served last.”
It is the piercing recollection of a neglected and angry little boy, a glimpse of the emotional turmoil with which he had to contend. Its personal meaning endures, even if, not surprisingly, others present at the time recall the episode quite differently.
Nancy Lobdell, Brown’s maternal aunt now living in Dover, N.H., also remembers the year of Brown’s visit as a difficult one, but for different reasons. Her nephew, she said, struggled to comply with the family routine and “insisted on doing whatever he wanted to do, which was difficult for us. Rules were a big challenge for Scott.”
As for the hamburgers, Lobdell added, “Ridiculous. It just never happened that way.”
Brown’s turbulent childhood, which he recalled in an interview with the Globe and laid out in vivid detail in his popular memoir, “Against All Odds,” is a story of Dickensian dimensions — of a boy, lonely and largely left to raise himself. In the tight race for his Senate seat, a contest in which personal biography has come to occupy center stage, Brown’s narrative of his youth has become the subject of fascination among those he grew up with north of Boston. Not everyone remembers the events of more than three decades past as he does. Subjected to both repeated abuse and chronic neglect as a child, Brown’s memories seem deeplycolored — some about whom he writes would say distorted — by his childhood emotions.
Lobdell, for one, believes his account of the year he spent in her home is skewed by his profound unhappiness at being separated from his mother. She, like many other friends and family members, knew little of the violence and neglect that he endured.
It was a childhood, as he recounts it, of much suffering. Abandoned by his father, Brown was physically brutalized by two of his three stepfathers. He was sexually assaulted by a counselor at summer camp, and sexually threatened by a teenage boy when he was 7 years old. Often riven by hunger, he stole steaks and hamburgers from the local supermarket, and was ultimately arrested. His mother, who frequently smacked him in vodka-fueled rage, noticed little of what was going on, oblivious even when he began to wheel her white Chevy Impala around town at age 12.
Terrified of his predators and embarrassed by his chaotic home life, Brown told virtually no one of his trials. Even his wife and two children were unaware of many aspects of his experience, including that he had been sexually abused, until he completed his book, Brown said. He revealed to his sister, Leeann Riley, for the first time that he had been beaten by her father when “he read me a page from the book about that,” Riley recalled. Others in the family, including a cousin and one of his stepfather’s relatives, recall Brown less as a victim than a willful child who bridled at discipline. His closest friends in school, and the coaches whom he credits with helping him get his life back on track, said that while they were aware that Brown’s home life was difficult, much of what he wrote is new to them.
Brown, 52, said that until recently, his past has been too painful to talk about. It has been easier, he said, to compartmentalize and seal away the searing memories.
“You just kind of have a little place in your head and you put it up there and you lock it away,” he said.
Brown decided to unlock those memories not long after he was elected to fill the seat of Senator Edward Kennedy early in 2010. Publishers, he said, found his story “compelling.” His book, released last year, made the New York Times best-seller list this year and has earned him over $1 million, including his advance, to date.
“I wanted to tell the whole story . . . the good, the bad and the ugly,” said Brown. “It was very difficult trying to wrestle with some of the things that happened, things I hadn’t talked about in forty years.”
It is a crisp spring day on Wakefield’s sleepy Main Street, and Brown, standing beside his famous green GMC truck, is identifying the landmarks of his youth for a photographer. He points to a squat beige building across the street, once the home of a popular department store.
“That’s where I stole the suit. It’s in my book. And then the A&P is where the CVS is now,” he said, pointing farther down the street. “That’s where I used to steal the food.”
As a teenage boy in the 1970s, Brown chose bib overalls as his signature garb. Overalls were hip, a statement of cool. More important, the ample front pocket provided a tidy hiding place. Meals were irregular in his mother’s chaotic household, and Brown often shoplifted food, dropping the fresh hamburger meat and expensive steaks down his front. That his overalls were designed with colored stripes seems to him somehow fitting.
“They had black and white thin pin stripes,” Brown recalled in an interview. “Kind of like jail stripes, like an omen of things to come.”
Although he was once arrested for theft as a boy, Brown never served time. But his teenage years were a succession of troubles. By the time he was 18, Brown and his family had moved 17 times, as his mother migrated from one disastrous marriage to the next.
“It was a phase of my life . . . a wild phase,” Brown said. “I was rebellious. I was angry. And you know I didn’t have hardly any money and I stole food and clothes. There’s really nothing more to say. I’m kind of ashamed of it.”
Brown’s difficulties were rooted in the wreckage of his parent’s short-lived marriage. Claude Bruce Brown was a charmer, an Air Force man who married pretty Judith Rugg months after he met her in New Hampshire. About a year after Brown was born in 1959, his parents divorced. Bruce Brown eventually remarried and lived in Newburyport, seeing his son rarely.
Judy Brown went on to marry three more times, relocating her children to a succession of apartments, many of them rented walk-ups. Working a series of low-paying jobs, including waitressing and secretarial posts, she was often gone for long stretches of the day, leaving Brown to roam the neighborhood alone on his bike.
Her second husband, Dan Sullivan, was a truck driver, a sullen loner with a large capacity for beer, as Brown describes him. He also had a violent temper. On an early morning in January 1966, the day that Brown’s half-sister, Leeann, was born, Sullivan brutally beat 6-year-old Scott, pounding his head and smacking his body. Brown, dumbfounded by the attack, had been told by his mother to wake Sullivan, apparently so that he could be present for his daughter’s birth. Eyeing the sobbing boy, Sullivan warned, as Brown wrote in his memoir, “If ya tell your mother, I’ll kill ya.”
Brown never did tell, until he wrote his book. Leeann Riley, who never saw her father after he left home when she was an infant, said that when Brown read to her about Sullivan’s beatings, she cried.
“It was kind of upsetting what he has been through,” Riley said. “I never realized half the stuff that my brother went through with him.”
Riley, a 46-year-old mother of two living in Portsmouth, N.H., thinks Brown’s silence was intended to protect her. “I speculate that my dad wasn’t around and Scott had a dad,” said Riley, whose father died in 2002. “I think he did not want me to feel any less. He tries to bring out the positive in people.”
Brown’s mother divorced Sullivan after less than a year, and she and her two children moved in with her parents, then living in Wakefield. Brown was close to his grandparents, Bertha and Philip Rugg, who took him to Hilltop Steak House on special occasions and played long hours of canasta with him. But Brown also yearned for his father.
By the mid-1960s, Bruce Brown was living in Newburyport with his new wife and their two children. Then working as an insurance salesman, the sweet-talking Brown, a towering 6 feet 5 inches, reappeared in his son’s life for a time, full of stories about his flying career and basketball-playing days as a boy growing up in Pennsylvania. Sometimes his sleek convertible pulled up at the front door at the appointed time. Often, it did not.
“I remember looking out this window in the door right here and waiting for my dad to come, waiting and waiting,” Brown said, parked in front of his grandparent’s home. “I remember when I was probably 6, 7, 8 years old, saying I’m never, ever going to keep my kids waiting.”
About a year after her divorce, Brown’s mother married her third husband, this time a bartender who worked at a Wakefield restaurant. Unhappy about moving from his grandparent’s home to his new stepfather’s house in Malden, Brown, then 7, began to roam the neighborhood and get into trouble, smoking cigarettes and randomly flipping matches until one day he accidentally started a small forest fire.
One afternoon as he wandered in the woods, a teenage boy he knew approached him and abruptly pulled out a knife. The boy swiftly dropped his pants and ordered Brown to “put my mouth on him,” he wrote. Brown said he grabbed a rock and smashed it into the other boy’s face and ran as hard as he could.
“It was a guy that I knew and was friendly with and trusted,’’ Brown said, “and for him to do something like that was very scary.”
Terrified, he told no one, even when his attacker’s friends began to chase him home from school.
“When you’re that age you don’t know what to do,’’ he said. “Your whole perception of what’s right and wrong is totally turned upside down.”
Shortly before his book was published, Brown told his wife, television reporter Gail Huff, and their daughters about the attack. He also revealed that he had been sexually assaulted by a camp counselor when he was 10, an incident that was featured widely in the press when the book was released.
“They were very surprised, as was Gail,” Brown said. “Gail cried. She hugged me and then asked why I didn’t tell her. I told her it’s very difficult for survivors to work those things through.”
Brown doesn’t like to dwell on his own troubles. He is more animated on the subject of Huff and their daughters, Ayla and Arianna, and he keeps a photograph of the four of them next to a silver heart taped to his dashboard.
When the phone rings and it is Huff returning his call, he exults, “Just want to see how you are doing.” They speak briefly, and he signs off exclaiming, “Go win an Emmy!” A campaign spokesman said Huff was unavailable for an interview.
Still in Wakefield, Brown wheels the truck down Albion Street, where his mother moved with her children after she divorced her third husband after less than two years together. The three of them had barely settled into three-room apartment when Brown’s mother, apparently overwhelmed by the demands of caring for her two children, told Brown that she had arranged for him to move in with her sister, Nancy, who lived a short distance away.
Then 9, Scott Brown was unhappy and confused about the move. Aware that his mother was giving money to her sister for his support, Brown wrote, “I knew that I was a transaction. I always felt like a poor cousin who came to visit.”
Brown is critical of the household in his book. His aunt is “a bit frumpy,” while his uncle “liked to pontificate.” There were strict rules for eating and “the exact minute when you had to be home.” He wrote that his cousin, Wendy Lobdell, taunted him, “Your mother isn’t even here. She didn’t want you. . . . Where’s your father?”
Wendy Lobdell, of Dover, N.H., said she never said anything like that.
“I adamantly deny it,” she said.
Nor, she added, was the Lobdell household as Brown described it. “It was just that for the first time in his life Scott had any rules to obey, any constraints at all, and he did not like it one bit. His book is extremely self-serving and distorted about my family. It is the voice of a 9-year-old saying, ‘I am a victim, I am a victim, I am a victim.’ My parents were very hurt by it.”
Brown now says he is “thankful that they were there and that they took me in.” But he has not been in touch with the Lobdells since his grandmother died over a decade ago, and the two Rugg sisters had little more to bind them. “They’re kind of private.”
Not long after Brown returned to his mother’s home at the end of the school year, the relationship between the two of them began to deteriorate. Returning from work in the evening, Judy Brown invariably headed to her gallon jug of vodka and carton of Marlboro 100s. At times Brown would come home to find her passed out on the couch or vomiting in the toilet. When the two of them fought, they screamed at one another, their faces inches apart. And then Brown’s mother, he wrote, would be “smacking me, with a towel, a belt, or the dreaded two-by-four.”
Brown said he and his mother are now close, but his public telling of their story has been painful for her, too. Interviewed briefly at her home in Hampton, N.H., Judy Brown said only that, “It’s hard to read. But the truth can be hard.” She declined to answer more questions.
Tall for his age, his brown hair grown down to his shoulders, Brown could easily pass for a high schooler even when he was a pre-teen. He spent his time hanging out with older boys in the neighborhood and playing basketball. He attended their parties, occasionally taking a sip of their beer and trying to be cool. Already blessed with the strong jaw and beckoning brown eyes that would launch him to modeling success in later years, Brown was also popular with the girls who mistook him for a high schooler.
But in fact he was deeply lonely and distraught about his home life. He was, he said, “a lost kid.” At night, Brown often cried himself to sleep with his basketball tucked in bed next to him.
One lonely summer afternoon, Brown noticed a group of children playing on a school playground and drew near. Judy Simpson, a reading teacher at a summer remedial program at the Doyle Elementary School, noticed the gangly boy in ratty shorts with a basketball under his arm and walked over to him. Brown obviously wanted to be a part of the group.
Patterson checked with the school principal, and found that Brown was already well-known as a boy who longed for acceptance.
“In order to compensate for his parents’ problems, Brown had made up stories about his father in school,” Simpson said. “His father was coming with gifts, tickets to a big game, ice cream, that kind of thing. None of it was true, of course. These were just the things that he wished. But the kids were catching on, and his circle of friends was diminishing.”
Brown was allowed to join the summer school class, and Simpson and her soon-to-be husband, then the eighth-grade basketball coach, became Brown’s mentors and lifelong friends. Brad Simpson, now the varsity basketball coach at the Wakefield High School, was the first of three coaches who Brown said were crucial to his development and who helped him to straighten out his life’s path. The Simpsons ultimately named their son Scott in part because of their fondness for him. And on Brown’s wedding day in 1986, his three coaches, including those from high school and college, shared a table and cheered him on.
For Brown, basketball became the passion of his youth, an anchor against his downward drift and a way to claim an identity in basketball-loving Wakefield. He was good at it, and he worked hard to get better. Brown was a left-handed player, and when Simpson urged him to develop his right side, Brown promptly began dribbling all over town with his right hand.
“He always loved a challenge,” said Simpson. “Always wanted to show he could do it. Most kids would have kept on playing with the left hand, but Scott wanted to be the best. He wanted to be in the NBA.”
Brown played constantly, roaming from court to court in search of a game. He recorded his progress in a scrapbook, carefully noting his point-totals and rebounds. Linda Dixon, Brown’s paternal aunt, remembered that the one time Brown came to visit her family in New York in 1971, he had his scrapbooks with him.
“When he showed up he had two huge albums under his arm,” said Dixon, Bruce Brown’s sister. “First thing he did when we got in the kitchen was show us all the awards he had won, all the clippings from the newspapers telling what he had done. It was heartbreaking in a way. Some of my son’s friends took a dislike to him because they thought he was a braggart. But he was just trying to show that he had done something.”
Dixon said she knew very little about Brown’s life back at home. On reading his book, Dixon said she was stunned that Brown described her own mother — his paternal grandmother — whom he had never met, as a “loose woman.” Dixon said tearfully that his description “upset me very much because she was not that at all.” But she said she was just as upset about what Brown wrote about himself.
“If I had known what was going on, Scott would never have left our house. Ever. Ever. Ever,” said Dixon, who did not see Brown again until decades later. “We would have kept him.”
On his return to Wakefield, Brown and his mother continued to battle. Brown often ran away from home, dropping in on neighbors or family friends for several days.
“We were just, you know, struggling to survive,” said Brown. “I was angry, she was angry.”
Once when his mother angrily threatened to break his cherished sports trophies, Brown said he bicycled 35 miles along Route 1 to Newburyport to see his father, freshly divorced and then a member of the city council. Whether he was seeking shelter from his mother’s abuse or hoped his father might invite him to move in, it didn’t matter. Bruce Brown offered his son a shower and a place on the couch, and that was it. The next day, his father drove him back home. The elder Brown, according to family members, suffers from severe Alzheimer’s disease and was unable to be interviewed.
Churning over his parents’ neglect, Brown began to push the envelope ever further. As his teenage appetites broadened, Brown began to throw his shoplifting net farther afield. No longer was it just food that he dropped down his bib front, but records and clothes as well. Like most of Brown’s closest friends from his teenage years, Michael Quinn never knew about Brown’s experience with abuse or sexual assault. But he was well aware of what was going down his overalls.
“We took kid stuff, a hockey shirt, things like that,” said Quinn, a Wakefield classmate who sells real estate north of Boston. “Scott had a great ability to put things down his pants.”
In the summer of his 13th year, Brown’s thieving came to an abrupt end. Arrested at the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers with several record albums in his overalls, a quaking Brown found himself seated in front of Judge Samuel Zoll. Brown’s sentence: to write a 1,500-word essay on how he had disappointed his siblings, “and how I think they would like to see me play basketball in jail,” Brown wrote.
Brown said henever stole again. And not long after he left Zoll’s chambers, he cut off his long hair for good.
By the time Brown walked into the red brick Wakefield High School in 1973, his reputation as an ace basketball player was well known. The co-captain of the basketball team in seventh and eighth grades, Brown had learned a lot from Simpson’s coaching and had become a one-man “scoring machine,” as he describes himself. Although he ran track and cross country as well, basketball was going to be his ticket out of town.
Soon after the start of his freshman season, Simpson remembers finding Brown running the length of the basketball court back and forth repeatedly, an exercise known as “running rats” and often used for punishment. The ninth-grade coach told Simpson that Brown, the only ninth-grader to play junior varsity, was running voluntarily.
“He said that Scott did that quite often on his own,” recalled Simpson. “I have never, ever seen a Wakefield player run rats on his own. He was totally, totally driven.’’
Basketball was a big event in town and fans, many of them girls, flocked to the gym to watch the long-legged Brown in his No. 10 jersey. He was, according to his friends, immensely popular with the girls. For special dates, he frequently borrowed Simpson’s hip leather jacket with the wide lapels.
“When he showed up to borrow it, I’d say, ‘Another new girl, eh?’ ” said Simpson. “He’d just smile.”
As those among his tight group of friends frommiddle school saw it, “Brownie,” as he was called, might have enjoyed himself socially, but when it came to his school record he was leaving nothing to chance. When he began studying Latin and joined the Junior Classical League, an association of students studying Latin or Greek, many of his friends suspected he did so to enhance his profile. When he joined the Drama Club, they were sure. He was an average student with mostly Bs and Cs, but he was going to have a resume that rocked.
“When Scott joined the Latin Club, we said, ‘What the heck are you doing?’ ” said Bruce Cerullo, the president of the class of 1977. “Latin and the drama clubs weren’t cool at all. . . . But Scott always had a plan. He felt they would help him get to the next step, which was college. He was always working to get somewhere.”
By his second year in high school, Brown had another reason to want to get somewhere else. His name was Larry McShane, and he’d come courting Scott Brown’s mother. McShane was well known around town as the longtime baseball coach at Wakefield High, but he’d recently won notoriety for another reason. In 1971, McShane was severely injured in a gas explosion that burned his fingers down to the knuckles, leaving twisted stumps of flesh. Three years later he was awarded $830,000, at the time the largest individual injury verdict in state history, according to newspaper accounts.
McShane became Judy Brown’s fourth husband in the winter of 1975, and soon afterward she and her children moved into his brown house on June Circle, a Wakefield cul-de-sac. Brown described the house as “a place more horrible than the house of ‘The Exorcist.’ ” When it was up for sale some years ago he considered buying it and burning it down.
At first the fighting was just between McShane and Judy Brown, ugly confrontations well-lubricated by alcohol. But when Brown leapt in to protect his mother, McShane shifted his attention — and his fists followed.
“It was very intense,” said Brown. “Banging each other up against the wall, pushing, shoving. See, he had no fingers, so he would . . . like hit you like a fist. He would actually jab you. . . . Jab you in the throat. Jab you in the kidneys, you know, try to jab you in the balls.”
When the fight ended, it was hardly over. McShane often threatened to return at night, promising, “When you’re asleep, I’ll take you out.”
And then McShane took one step further — he threatened to break Brown’s hands, the hands he played ball with, his passport to a life beyond Wakefield. Brown started sleeping with a baseball bat. He channeled his rage onto the basketball court, running harder and shooting more aggressively than ever before.
His high school coach, Ellis “Sonny” Lane, remembered that Brown entered high school as a “hot shot,” with showy maneuvers and a something of a me-first offensive game. But Lane pressed him to work on his defensive skills and to become more of a team player, “which is exactly what he did,” Lane said. In three years, Brown scored a total of 940 points, the second best in the school’s history. In his senior year, he was named co-MVP of the Middlesex League.
While Brown said the violence at home continued to escalate, McShane and a couple of his relatives have disputed his account. One of them said that when she was drinking, Judy Brown was the instigator, verbally abusive toward her husband.
McShane, who died in March, dismissed Brown’s description of him as “90 percent lies or mistruths,” in a Boston Globe interview after the book came out. He added, “I never hit anybody.” Several weeks after the book was published, McShane’s nephew, Kirk P. Mansfield, wrote a letter to The Wakefield Item, saying McShane “is not the monstrous stepfather who abused Scott Brown as alleged in the Senator’s book.”
Mansfield, who said he and some of his siblings were often in McShane’s house during the two years that Brown lived there, said he never saw the kind of violence that Brown described.
“What I saw was a disrespectful teenager and an irritated stepfather,” Mansfield said in an interview. “Scott was very mouthy and back-talking. He did what he wanted to do when he wanted to. Larry would ask him to do chores, like clean the pool, and he just refused. Larry was a strict man but he certainly was not violent.”
Cynthia Reardon, McShane’s cousin, also said Brown had a knack for annoying McShane.
“Scott was always out by the pool sunning himself with an aluminum reflector, and he refused to wash the car or do any chores,” said Reardon, who lives in Wakefield. “It just irked Larry. He could not abide this kid. He was so full of himself.”
But Brown’s sister, Leeann Riley, said Mansfield was rarely in the house, and never when the beatings took place. She said McShane was so physically abusive that she often feared for her mother’s life. McShane, she said, “was awful. On many occasions Scott had to jump on him when my mother was getting the ---- kicked out of her.”
It was largely because of McShane, and Brown’s determination to protect his mother and sister, that he choose to attend Tufts University in nearby Medford, after he graduated in 1977.
Just a 15-minute drive from June Circle, Brown could hop in his car and be home swiftly when his mother or sister called screaming for help. Brown, by then a muscular 185 pounds, wrote that he once pinned McShane against the wall, and declared, “You . . . touch my mother again, you . . . touch my sister again, and I will kill you.”
The beginning of the end came on a late night in 1979, what Brown called “the worst night of my life.” McShane had pinned Brown’s mother against the wall until her face began turning blue. When Leeann began hitting him, McShane turned physically upon the teenage girl for the first time and hurled her across the room. Someone grabbed the phone, and the police arrived soon afterward.
During the course of their turbulent marriage, McShane and Brown each filed for divorce accusing the other of abusive treatment. In the end, the judge granted a divorce to McShane in 1980, finding Brown guilty of cruel and abusive behavior. There was no trial or hearing. Instead, the couple signed a separation agreement under which McShane paid Judy Brown $24,000, and she agreed to move out of the house.
For Scott Brown, it was the end of the most turbulent and defining chapter of his life, a passage that forged the character of the man he would ultimately become. Now liberated from his role as protector, he was at long last free to determine a course of his own.
“My experience defines me, absolutely,” Brown said. “I was blessed that I had some good people around me. But for those people I could have been a very different person. . . . I should have been one of those people that you read about.”
Sally Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.