Judge Broderick hopes you won’t judge his son too harshly – and learn from their experience

  • Former justice John Broderick and his wife Patricia talked candidly about their son Christian who attacked the judge in 2002. John wants to bring mental illness out of the closet and into the mainstream discussion to help others who may be struggling. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Judge John Broderick and his wife Patricia talked candidly about their son, Christian, who attacked the judge. John wants mental illness out of the closet and into the mainstream discussion to help others. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Judge John Broderick and his wife Patricia talked candidly about their son, Christian, who attacked the judge. John wants mental illness out of the closet and into the mainstream discussion to help others. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Published: 6/4/2016 11:49:29 PM

One day, maybe the judge and his elder son will finish the book. At least that’s the plan.

Right now, it’s a thick manuscript, hundreds of pages long, sitting in a plastic box. It’s waiting for John Broderick, the former chief justice of the state supreme court, and his son Christian Broderick to complete their thoughts on mental illness, how it disrupted their lives, how it still haunts them today.

For Christian, the memories remain too painful. That’s why he declined to be interviewed for this column. And that’s why he told his father and potential co-author, who retired from the court in 2010, that he needed more time before discussing that day in Manchester in 2002, when he beat his father with a guitar while the judge slept in bed, nearly killing him.

Christian suffered from depression, anxiety and panic attacks at the time. Had for nearly 20 years before assaulting his father. John suffered broken facial bones, which required six hours of surgery.

“I told him if it was too painful to keep writing, don’t do it,” John Broderick, seated next to his wife, Patricia, said in the Monitor conference room Friday. “It took a toll on him, reliving everything. They wanted a book about (Christian) and me and conflict, but he didn’t grow up that way.”

John Broderick wants you to know that. He wants you to know that Christian had a happy childhood in Manchester, playing Little League baseball and driveway basketball with his brother, Matthew. He wants you to know Christian is not responsible for what happened on Good Friday 14 years ago, because Christian was sick with a disease that very well might be living within your family’s comfort zone, without you even knowing it.

He wants you to know that he ignored the signs, and that the medical community back then was ignorant when it came to mental illness, and that he and Patty continue to blame themselves for the Scarlet Letter Christian now carries with him, after spending three years in the state prison.

But the judge wants you to know something else, too. That’s why he’s touring the state like the Grateful Dead, spreading his message that what happened to his family need not happen to yours.

“I was worried (Christian) would say, ‘Dad, what did you do?’ ” said John, referring to his recent efforts to pry mental illness from the shadows by talking to the press. “But he called me and said, ‘Thank you so much for doing that. I am so proud that you’re involved with this campaign.’ He really thinks it’s valuable.”

Spreading the word

John and Patricia Broderick want something called Change Direction to sweep the nation. It began with Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D., who mobilized thousands of mental-health professionals to volunteer their time to counsel those in need and put this misunderstood ailment under a spotlight.

For her effort, Time magazine named Dahlen one of the world’s most 100 influential people in 2012. Now she’s out front of Change Direction, which seeks to alter America’s attitude toward mental illness, and she’s using John Broderick to spread the word.

Broderick climbed aboard, making New Hampshire the first state to officially back Dahlen’s effort. And who better to take center stage than a high-profile figure, a former supreme court chief justice, willing to share something so personal?

“We’re stepping into a moment in time where I believe our culture is ready,” said Dahlen, who joined Broderick at the Monitor a week before my interview with him and Patty. “There are signs, the way we responded to (Robin Williams). I think we’re onto the right path. This campaign is touching at the right time an issue that is ready to burst.”

The movement comforts Broderick, while also forcing him to reflect on a time of great sorrow. As Patty said, “It took a tragedy for us to see what this was. I want to prevent that child as well as the parents from making the same mistakes we made. It never entered my head at all, ever. We really did let (Christian) down in a sense that we did not see this.”

What they saw

First, they saw a normal kid, the one who played with Star Wars action figures with his brother, Matthew, 23 months younger than Christian. Matthew slept on the floor in Christian’s room each Christmas Eve.

“I was very close with my brother,” Matthew said from his home in Simsbury, Conn., where he’s raising his three children. “One year we watched our parents move a pingpong table from our neighbor’s garage, thus learning Santa’s true identity.”

Things began to change when Christian was 13. He began to retreat to his bedroom, close his door and draw, one of his passions. He kept to himself and didn’t have a large circle of friends. Was that a sign of trouble? Who knew back then, in the 1980s? Who would know even today?

There were other signs, like a student with a near-genius IQ, one who read Shakespeare for fun, skipping classes and not reaching his potential in school. Like the youth player who didn’t want to pitch one day, but was forced to by his coach, then proceeded to hit the first three batters he faced before being removed from the game.

Christian wanted to skip his middle school graduation. He resisted going to the grocery store when Patty needed help.

In hindsight, Christian was frightened, nervous, full of anxiety. He was ill, like someone with cancer, or diabetes, or anything else listed in a medical journal.

Hard-core drinking followed, leaving John and Patty no choice but to force Christian into various facilities, in Keene and Connecticut and Florida, each of which built deeper resentment within their son.

They were told by experts that Christian needed to hit “rock bottom” before he’d change. They had to push him on to the streets, make him see the light, force the beer from his lips, through homelessness and despair. They put him in protective custody so he wouldn’t drink and drive. He lived in his car and once slept in the laundry room across from the family apartment.

Mental Illness? Couldn’t be, could it? Christian was a drunk, weak, rebellious, whatever. He certainly wasn’t sick, right? He had control over his behavior, didn’t he? This was his choice, wasn’t it?

“We were told he had to hit rock bottom, or he would die in our house,” John said.

The downward spiral continued. John was arrested one night for slapping Christian, who had refused to stop drinking and clean up the apartment while his parents were away on a much-needed weekend getaway.

John, admittedly frustrated, said he tapped his son a few times on the cheek, sort of a light wake-up call. Christian said he’d drop the charges if his father gave him $300.

“I said to the officer, ‘Don’t you see what’s happening here?’ ” John Broderick said. “They took me away. I was arrested.”

The Union Leader soon called and the story was out, the one about the New Hampshire State Supreme Court Justice busted for hitting his son. Then, on March 29, 2002, after an argument between father and son, all seemed okay. The two made up and John went to bed.

The attack and aftermath

Patty, troubled by years of stress and heartache, was restless that night and went to sleep in the guest room, leaving John alone. Sometime during the night, Christian, then 30 and the victim of more than 15 years or torturous inner turmoil, entered the room and slammed a guitar into his dad’s face. News media reports from the time said every bone in John’s face was broken.

John remembers nothing. He spent a month in the hospital and needed a feeding tube when he got home. Meanwhile, Christian, who plead guilty to assault, spent months in Manchester’s Valley Street Jail, awaiting sentencing.

Reflecting on what Christian had endured since the age of 13, Patty said, “He had no sense of what was going on. Hindsight is a wonderful gift for John and I because we can look back and realize now that we can fill in the blanks of why these things happened. It all made sense.”

Matthew called his mother the “rock for the family.” She visited Christian when allowed, once a week. She placed her hand on the glass that separated them. Christian did the same from the other side.

When not permitted to visit her son, she’d stand in a designated spot at a certain time, far from the jail yet visible to Christian. Unable to see Christian, she’d give the thumbs-up sign to comfort him, then head to the hospital to comfort her husband.

Christian was sentenced to 7½ to 14 years in prison, with four years suspended. He was paroled in 2005. He had trouble getting a job in his desired field, as a graphic artist.

In the years since, Christian has said he’d never forgive himself for what he’d done, while Patty and John have struggled with their own regret over missed signals.

Ironically, it took prison for Christian to receive the help he needed, through a proper diagnosis and the right medication.

John and Patty have since moved out of state, to North Andover, Mass. They needed to leave, haunted by things like the sight of Joe King’s, where Patty ordered sneakers for Christian, to be sent to him at the state prison.

“It was very painful here,” John said.

Christian married his longtime girlfriend, and the two wed in a ceremony presided over by John at the state prison. The couple has a 7-year-old daughter. Christian’s wife and child live in Sweden, while Christian is in New England recovering from back surgery. The attack, in some ways, seems long ago.

In other ways, though, it doesn’t.

“It’s a painful memory and I’m sure (John) lives with it every day,” Matthew said. “This campaign dad is in is an important part of it. To take what happened and transform it into something good will get other people to talk about it. Our family’s story is pretty remarkable.”

John said it’s just a matter of time before Christian steps forward and begins speaking freely about what he’s been through.

You may read about it in a book one day. John and Christian began writing about 10 years ago, before the project was shelved, placed in that plastic box and stored in the Broderick home.

It’s a timeless topic, John figures, once hidden from view, but ready to move into the light. That’s why he’s here talking to you.

“Between us we typed hundreds of pages and many, many chapters,” John said in an email to me Saturday. “I hope one day Christian will be able to go back to it. He is a powerful writer.”

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

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