For those of you who have known the Lermans for awhile, you know that Em and I are very close. In fact, I like to think of all my siblings as my best friends, which is why I have no qualms letting everyone know that, as close as Em and I are now, our relationship growing up makes the bitter rivalry between the Hatfields and McCoys seem like a mild tiff between two groups of hostile, gossipy Yentas. It’s for this reason that I have no choice but to roast her here tonight – in front of all her family and friends – because, to quote Phil Collins, “I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life. (Pause) Oh Lord.”
By and large, my childhood can be summarized as follows: Em would constantly kick my ass; Zack would stand by and watch, laughing maniacally. Were I to seek any sort of redress through my Dad, he would defer any and all claims of wrongdoing to my mom—after he was done laughing maniacally; and Mom would continue playing bridge or mah jong with her friends. If I was really lucky, the babysitter was home. To Steph’s credit, she would often try to help me, so long as she wasn’t busy pretending she didn’t actually have any siblings. If Em had me pinned to the ground, Steph would pull her off of me. If Em was being mean to me, Stephanie told her to stop. If Em called me ugly, Steph would say: “Em – that’s not his fault.”
To label this relationship a rivalry is really a misnomer, as it may mislead one to think that I ever actually had the slightest chance of coming out ahead. Whatever the situation, and regardless of who instigated what, Em always got the upper hand. And it’s exactly for this reason that, for many years, my favorite Em story is the time I cut off all of her hair.
It was the middle of the night, and all of a sudden a loud, high-pitched crying fit reverberated throughout the entire house. Because there is absolutely zero possibility of confusing the sound of Em’s powerful, high-decibel wailing with the softer, weaker cries of her fellow siblings, Mom and Dad immediately rushed to Em’s room. By the time they had arrived, all that remained was Em and the third-worst haircut of her entire life. I don’t actually remember any details of the incident, but I basked in it and considered the unwanted trim a crowning victory.
About a decade later, Mom once again told the story, but as soon as she finishes, Em claims to recall the story differently, and says, “Yeah, just so you all know, that’s not what happened.” Everyone looks around at each other, confused but wild with anticipation. Em continues: “What actually happened is that I cut off my own hair, and when I went to look at myself in the mirror, I immediately became so mortified by what I’d done that I began to cry hysterically. When Mom and Dad asked me what happened, I knew they’d be angry at me, so I blamed you.”
I must say, I really can’t help but applaud the sheer boldness and brilliance of Em’s actions, and I maintain that her eventual confession remains one of the greatest long cons ever devised. To this day, I still have yet to decide which part of this entire scheme is most shrewd: is it the fact that 6-year-old Em thinks to blame someone who probably couldn’t have even identified scissors in a lineup? Or is it the fact that, after waiting for a decade, she finally comes clean and takes responsibility for the act which she knows damn well had been the one and only remaining testament of my status as her formidable contender?
Now, most of you know my Dad, a.k.a. Big Steve. He’s a highly-trained lawyer. He graduated at the top of his class from GW Law, and continues to manage his own law firm. And my Mom, Charla. What many people here may not know about my Mom is that prior to her career in real estate she had a very successful career as an investigative journalist after graduating from UNC Chapel Hill. Both my parents have made a good living based on their abilities to ask the hard questions and the right questions; to collect and evaluate evidence; and to discover the truth based on facts.
And yet, somehow, Em managed to conceal her culpability in the haircut incident for ten years. Where were the questions that day, Mom and Dad? One would think that between an experienced journalist and a veteran super-lawyer, three-year old Jeremy might have gotten some due process.
In addition to the fact that Em almost always got away with her absurd behavior, another source of my resentment toward Em while growing up was my feeling that our parents never seemed to treat the two of us fairly. In fact, all the siblings mutually recognize that, in the hierarchy of child favoritism, Em clearly occupied the top position. And my parents clearly recognized that I felt this way growing up, which is why Mom used to read me a children’s book about a family with a brother and sister, both of whom would complain that their parents treated them unfairly. I don’t remember all the details or even the name of the book, but the main lesson I was meant to take away was that my belief that my parents favored Em over me was simply a matter of perspective, and that Em felt the exact same way I did.
And as I’ve gotten older, I have a much greater appreciation for my parents as being very enlightened and smart about the way they went about raising four kids. Which is exactly why, when I reflect back on my time growing up with Em, I occasionally remember that book and think to myself: “Why were my parents feeding me this horseshit propaganda?” My parents will continue to vehemently deny any and all accusations that Em is and always has been the favorite child, but I know it, Em knows it, and more importantly, the American people know it.
But if the favoritism was somewhat infuriating while growing up, at this point I can’t help but find its continuation quite comical. Consider the following e-mail from my Dad, who, along with his army of loyal TEP fraternity brothers, was engaged in a virtuous effort to raise $100,000 in order to fund the Ari Johnson scholarship, established in memory of our good friend Ari. The TEP brothers had thus far come up a bit short of the 100,000-dollar mark, and one of the TEPs suggested that ten more people make pledges of $564 to close the gap. So the Lerman siblings joined forces to collectively donate one of the $564 pledges, not only to honor Ari’s memory, but also to pay tribute to Big Steve, whom all of his children deeply love and admire.
So Em sends the following e-mail to Dad: “Dad: Your offspring and offspring-in-laws will combine efforts to make one of the $564 pledges, in honor of Ari and because we love our Big Steve! We’re so proud of your hard work, generosity, and heart, Dad!” My dad, clearly moved by the gesture, replied: “Thanks Emily. Beyond the call!”
“Ok,” I thought to myself, no acknowledgment of the other children and children-in-law. Really not a big deal, just standard operating procedure, and I genuinely didn’t feel slighted in any way by my Dad’s very minor oversight. Big Steve makes too many sacrifices for his children – especially this very broke graduate student – for me to get upset over something that is really about something much more important than me. And of course, it didn’t take the TEPs long to hit the $100,000 goal, at which point my Dad sent out a second congratulatory e-mail to all involved: “Thanks TEP. Plus Emily…and friends!!”
Dot. Dot. Dot. An ellipsis? Really? Now again, I’m really not one to get bent out of shape over this kind of thing, but at a certain point it almost seems like Big Steve is actually trying to stick it to his other kids. Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly proud to be a lifetime member of Emily Lerman and her E Street Band, but even Bruce Springsteen had the decency not to insult the band with an ellipsis. And back-to-back no mentions? Even Casey Affleck remembered to thank big brother Ben the second time around.
Even though Em was clearly the favorite, I wouldn’t want to give off the impression that she was able to get away with everything. To be sure, Dad never had the muscle to punish her. She’s been playing that sucker like a fiddle for 35 years. It’s for this reason that, when it comes to the Lerman organizational structure, Mom is necessarily the highest-ranking officer. Do not be misled by this woman’s mere five-foot stature and seemingly calm, quiet reserve. When shit hits the fan, this woman is a force of nature – especially when you fuck with her coffee.
When we were kids, Mom’s most effective weapon in her arsenal was what the Lermans have come to know as: The Count to Three. Em has previously blogged about The Count To Three, but for those not familiar, The Count to Three was Mom’s verbal threat to her children that if they didn’t immediately stop engaging in their idiotic antics and do exactly as she said by the time she finished counting to three, they would surely regret it.
The three count proceeds in two phases. Phase 1 is what I like to call, The Announcement, during which Mom utters the key phrase: “I’m going to count to three, so you better do what I say OR. SO. HELP. ME. GOD!” The Announcement was usually sufficient to instill the fear of God into us, and at this point it was typically game over.
But on the rare occasion when the children were feeling bold enough to tempt fate, they ignored her initial warning shot, at which point Charla proceeded to Phase 2: The Count. “1…2…2 and a half…” The “2 and a half” was Mom’s way of signaling to the kids, “I am showing you mercy, which you mistake for weakness at your own peril.”
Surely many of you are wondering, what happens after 2 and a half? Nobody knows – not even Em. The Lermans had watched enough Disney movies growing up to know that when the Beast tells you never to enter the West Wing, you don’t fucking go in there. If Charla ever gets to three, you’re not where you’re supposed to be.
Even when Em and I were children, it wasn’t as if we were fighting 100% of the time, and even during these years of bitter turmoil we were still very close. After all, an abused puppy still loves his master. But when she wasn’t busy torturing me, Em was always very fun to be around, so long as she was feeling generous enough to let me hang out in the same vicinity as her. Even at that age, I always admired and looked up to my big sister, and that admiration has only grown stronger as we’ve grown older.
And the truth is that, in Emily, I see not only many of the traits and habits I see in myself, but also other traits I wish that I possessed or had more courage to exercise in the way that she does. The people closest to Em are familiar with her razor sharp wit and her unique ability to point out the hilarity of the absurd, the contradictory, and the hypocritical. It isn’t just that Em is incredibly smart, which she clearly is. There is a depth to Em’s intelligence that cannot be attributed merely to commonplace notions of intellect. She possesses a unique and even uncanny ability to sense what people are feeling and to genuinely empathize with their emotions to an extent unparalleled by anyone I’ve ever known. And while she may not know a damn thing about anything I study or about the details of my career, Em understands the core of who I am in the ways that matter most to me, and in a way that I can honestly say that nobody else in the world really does.
The source of these qualities that make Em such an amazing person and sister is often the very source of some of her most difficult struggles, which she has frequently spoken about, openly and honestly, with the kind of courage and determination that is so often lacking in the world around us. But as difficult as it is to see my sister when she’s in pain, what she may not know is just how inspired I am by what she is able to accomplish in spite of the obstacles.
And again, part of this is because, during these struggles, I see so much of myself in her: the perpetual self-doubt, the crippling anxiety, the fear that so often accompanies the continual change that life’s circumstances throw our way, and the sadness that threatens to overwhelm us as we struggle to come to grips with the possibility that so many of the big plans we ever dared to dream are all too often beyond our control. Time becomes more scarce, and the sacrifices we’re forced to make begin to weigh on us. Even with all the beauty and boundless opportunity the world has to offer, particularly for the people in this room, most of us can’t help but feel that reality as we experience it is not always easy, regardless of who you are or whatever your circumstances.
But being able to witness the strength with which Em not only fights her battles but also channels her energy into helping others fight theirs has been one of the greatest sources of inspiration in my life. Her efforts are, in my humble opinion, the very embodiment of heroism. And I think that, for Emily, one of the hardest things for her to deal with is that she never wants to disappoint those she cares about the most or feel like she might possibly be burdening them in any way. She wants to be the one helping and taking care of others – that’s just at the core of who she is.
All the Lermans take pride in bragging about how amazing and special our family is, and we make no apologies for doing so. But the truth is, as much as I make fun of Em for being the family’s center of attention – and believe me, I have no plans of rescinding this conclusion tonight – there comes a point where, as her brother, I feel compelled to admit that, in some of the most important ways, Em is the heart and soul of our family. She’s the one who makes the effort to remember all the stuff that no one else remembers. She makes sure to know what’s going on with everyone else in the family, whether it’s a big thing or something small that no one else can seem to keep track of. To be clear, unlike my parents, I love all my siblings equally. But when the family gets together and Em isn’t there, her absence sucks the air out of the room, and the difference in the family dynamic is palpable.
Despite most of this speech being dedicated entirely to Em, this isn’t just about her. Eric – What can I say, brotha? I can’t help but be very excited to have you join the Lerman clan. As much as I appreciate that Eric is a very funny and genuinely great guy, what’s more important is that he makes Em incredibly happy. No one could deny his love for her when they’re together, but what I also appreciate about Eric is how much he cares about getting to know the entire family and how seemingly effortless it’s been for him to find his own niche in the land of Lerman.
Watching him settle into the family brings me almost as much joy as I gain from witnessing his ability to absorb the torrential flood of shit that Em drops on him like a cascading waterfall, and to do so with the kind of grace and humility that Em will surely take advantage of for the rest of his life.
Don’t get me wrong, Eric is no pushover, and that’s one of the things I most respect about him. But believe me when I say that Eric is bound to run up against some hard limits. Many of you are probably familiar with the story of how Eric proposed to Em, but I’m willing to bet that none of you know the following details of the precise moment when Em and Eric mutually acknowledged that they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together.
It was the middle of the night, sometime before the engagement proposal, and Em was having trouble sleeping because she had suddenly come to the realization that she was ready to take the plunge and she was too excited to sleep. So Em gently shook Eric to wake him up. When he didn’t wake up, she shook him violently. When he gained consciousness, Em said to him: “Hey Babe, I think I’m ready.” “Ready?” Eric inquired. “Yeah,” Em said, “I’m ready to get married.” “Oh,” Eric said. Em could sense the hesitation in Eric’s voice, and wasting no time, she closed the deal the only way she knew how: “Eric,” she said. “I’M GOING TO COUNT TO THREE…OR SO. HELP. ME. GOD.” Mazel tov to bride and groom!