Ray Duckler: Ken Braiterman, laid to rest, fought until the end

Last modified: 6/19/2014 11:38:47 PM
Ken Braiterman, who taught half of the state’s police about patience while dealing with the mentally ill, always seemed to be fighting, up through the day he died.

He fought leaders at a Jewish summer camp, fought his grandfather, his brother, the voices he heard in his head, the stigma attached to mental illness, the accepted cause of mental illness, Riverbend Community Mental Health’s treatment of mental illness and the disease that tried – and failed – to strip him of his dignity and courage.

The battle ended Sunday, when Braiterman died of Lou Gehrig’s disease at age 65. He was buried yesterday in Henniker, after a service at Temple Beth Jacob, a place of worship that had soothed his spirit the last few years of his life.

Peace, as you may know, was hard for Braiterman to find, or at least accept. While advocating for those suffering from depression or anxiety, his own emotional war raged inside him, causing several breakdowns through the years.

Meanwhile, he showed law enforcement that emotionally troubled souls needed sympathy and kindness, just like someone stricken with cancer.

In short, Braiterman humanized a condition that people continue to poke fun at.

“The bravest, most courageous person I’ve known,” his sister, Marta Tanenbaum, said after the service. “It’s the way he dealt with his demons and passions and turned them around for good. He liberated people from their troubles.”

Tanenbaum, a retired school teacher, came from Brooklyn to pay her respects, along with her husband, Irwin, a rabbi in New York City.

Relatives and friends who knew both the caring and argumentative sides to Braiterman were there. Care workers from Concord’s Harris Hill Center nursing home, who watched his muscles atrophy, forcing him to spend his last months in a wheelchair, were there.

Even a retired police captain, appreciative that Braiterman had shown tough guys in blue how to use a softer approach, was there.

They came to celebrate a man who became the face of programs such as the Office of Consumer and Family Affairs and In Our Own Voice – structured formats geared at de-stigmatizing mental illness.

He encouraged people to talk, to interact, to reveal their feelings, free from embarrassment or shame. And he brought these themes into the classroom, teaching, by one estimate, 2,000 police officers how to defuse a tense scenario.

“Officers could listen to him and ask any questions and not be afraid of being criticized,” said Bob Stafford, a former police captain and training specialist for the state’s Police Standards and Training Academy. “It wasn’t just new officers, but seasoned veterans who thought he was the star of the show because they could talk to him about anything.”

While Braiterman was a valuable state resource within the mental health community, he clashed with traditional views on the subject, and, in fact, had clashes his whole life.

He brought dance, music and progressive ways 40 years ago to a Jewish camp, which had recruited him and then dumped him once its goal had changed from programming to fundraising.

That made him mad, a grudge that lasted for decades, until the camp, in the Berkshires, expressed gratitude at a recent reunion.

His first of two divorces – he had no children – also left him bitter, and his grandfather’s harsh criticism of the memoir Braiterman had written for him stung until the day Braiterman died.

“Jesus Christ, Ken, when are you going to get over this?” Braiterman’s brother, Concord lawyer Dave Braiterman, asked rhetorically during his eulogy. “Many of you heard about this for 35 years, and (our grandfather) died 25 years ago. Ken never forgot it, and it was part of his mental illness.”

Even there, in the medical field, Braiterman thought he knew more than doctors. Braiterman said emotional instability came from life experiences, not blocked synapsis or chemical imbalances.

As for medication, forget it. Talk it out, Braiterman always said. Let it out, he reasoned.

In fact, Braiterman railed against Riverbend Community Mental Health and the state’s National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, once wearing a T-shirt to a NAMI anniversary celebration that read, “Communicate, Not Medicate” on the front and “Trauma Is Not Mental Illness” on the back.

But that didn’t stop NAMI’s director, Ken Norton, from nominating Braiterman for a service award last fall, and it didn’t stop Riverbend from giving him that award, either.

By then, Braiterman had been handed a death sentence, diagnosed about 1½ years ago. He had fallen in his Concord apartment a few times. He had crashed his car more than once because he couldn’t peer over his shoulder to see traffic in blind spots. Grocery shopping and doing laundry had become out of the question.

He moved into Harris Hill last summer, when his brother’s love for him surfaced like never before. “It was never Ken’s way to make things easy, and today is no exception,” Dave Braiterman said during the service. “But he made something that was hard worthwhile.”

I visited Braiterman a few times this spring, after his limbs had gone limp forever. His eyes, under thick eyebrows, stared at the ceiling, his ability to turn his head gone.

We talked about his love for baseball and his fear of dying, the people he loved and those he didn’t.

On Sunday, his respiratory system failed, one in a series of bodily shutdowns, caused by a disease that kills motor neurons before they reach the muscles. The brain stays sharp while the body dies.

Yesterday, Stafford, the retired police captain, relayed a story, the final chapter in his nine-year relationship with Braiterman.

The police training academy in Concord held a seminar last December. Braiterman, always fighting someone or something, always resisting, never yielding, had one last fight left.

“It was his final presentation,” Stafford said. “He was in unreal physical pain and mental agony. He wasn’t sure if he could deliver for us.

“But he did,” Stafford continued. “He delivered one more time.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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