David Cassidy was the television version of the cool older brother I never had. Hearing that he has dementia feels like some protective cone over my childhood has been wrenched away.
As an only child growing up in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I often felt out of place in working class New Jersey. Most of the families on my street had four or five kids, and at school some kids used to call me a “lonely only” or make snide remarks about my being “spoiled.” I loudly told them to shut up, but part of me felt bad about being different. I sometimes fantasized about having lots of siblings, but mainly my daydreams centered on one thing: Having an older brother who would protect me.
I imagined this perfect big brother beating the shit out of Donald Schmidt when he punched my arm in the coatroom in fourth grade. (Instead, I challenged Donald to a fight outside and got punched in the face.) I imagined this big brother pushing the junior high kids off the bridge when they threw lit cigarettes into my bookbag. (The cigarettes made brown burn holes.) When a gang of nasty seventh-graders ganged up on my friend Judy Chen and called her a “Chink,” I envisioned my big brother grabbing them by their hoodies and hauling them off to the principal’s office like some kind of civil-rights-era Sir Lancelot.
A few years later, I found myself wishing for a cool older brother who would bring his guy friends over to the house so I could get to know them.
Back in elementary school, my go-to role model for an older brother was Keith Patridge, as played by David Cassidy on The Partridge Family. He was relaxed, funny, confident—the de facto father figure in a household run by his widowed mother. He went to high school, apparently, but his life centered on music, girls, and keeping all the little Partridges in line. At the time the show aired, I was too young to have a crush on him–I was more Danny Bonaduce’s or Jeremy Smith’s age–but now when I look at pictures of Cassidy, I can understand why teen girls went crazy for him. Those hazel-brown eyes, the crooked grin, the silky dark hair: He was hip with a touch of wistful androgyny, nothing too threatening about him. Think Justin Bieber with a shag.
Like most teen idols, Cassidy found it rough when his time in the spotlight was up. He sang a bit. He acted a bit, and he married three times, fathering two children. An alcohol problem intensified in his later years, and in 2010, 2013 and 2015 he was arrested on DUI charges. In 2015 he filed for bankrupcy and declared an income of only $1,300 a month.
As bad as that sounds, things became even worse for Cassidy’s health. Last month, after falling offstage at a concert in California, the former teen idol revealed that he has dementia. He had been slurring words and forgetting lyrics in concert and didn’t want fans to think that he had returned to drinking. His openness about his diagnosis has brought forth a lot of sympathy from fans and from fellow celebrities, including Harry Connick Jr. and Katie Couric. Visit his blog to read the very kind messages that fans are sending.
After learning about Cassidy’s diagnosis two weeks ago, I figured that I would absorb it like any other celebrity news and move on, but it hasn’t been like that. Every couple days I find myself thinking, ‘David Cassidy has dementia,’ and I get this sad little ping in my heart. It’s not that I fall over weeping–I was never one of those hormonally crazed fans–but, still, I am surprised that this affects me more than hearing of other musicians’ illnesses and even their deaths. Maybe this is because, as someone who has cared for a person with Alzheimer’s, I know what lies ahead for him: increasing confusion, anger, loss of control, loss of self. I think of him one day maybe not remembering how to play the guitar, not knowing how to put his pants on, mistaking his wife for a stranger. I think of him feeling scared. David Cassidy. That.
So why does this affect me so? I’m mourning my childhood, the loss of a secret part of me that I never told anyone about. I’ve always been proudly independent. You would have never caught me admitting that I wanted a big brother to take care of me. Evidently, my psyche buried that for forty-something years. Now that childish idea has been routed out, and I’ll have to make peace with that.
If anything, Cassidy needs our help and protection. According to the Daily Mail, he’s in debt for about $200,000, and a judge this month rejected his $500-a-month repayment plan, telling him to go appear on Dancing with the Stars to “reboot” his career.
If you are familiar with dementia, you know how cruel the judge’s verdict is. Dementia patients are overwhelmed by attempting new things, let alone doing so in the public eye. Suggesting that someone in his condition go star on a reality show shows a shocking lack of awarenesss of what having this disease entails.
My last thoughts on the matter: Maybe someone should crowdfund for him, so he can rest and take care of himself, as his doctors suggest?