Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Stories About Brothers

Thousands of police are all over the Boston suburbs as I write this, trying to corner a 19-year-old terrorist named Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. “Dumb boys” is the first thing that comes to mind, “boys” being the key word: You rarely hear of girls losing their way socially or mentally, and then deciding that the best way forward is a pre-written script perceived as a shortcut to heroism that involves killing strangers and waiting for the law to come down. “Why doesn’t it happen more often?” is another gloomy sentiment that comes to mind.

What’s truly heart-breaking about it, though, is the age difference between the two brothers who pulled it off: 19 and 26.

Lots of gangster movies, including many of Scorsese’s films, take place mostly inside the duality of two brothers or close male friends. One brother sees that his alter-ego is no good for him, but either his love is too great to cut him off, or there is something deficient in himself that his brother clearly has a whole lot of.

All the time, I am writing, even if I am just sketching out a story in the roughest phase, scribbling it on index cards in my jacket pocket. When I listen to the news today I imagine Dzhokhar Tsarnaev the college undergrad, graduate of a Latin high school, interacting with 26-year-old Tamerlan.

Preliminary word is that Tamerlan was a boxer who hated school. He spent years in the US but never mastered English. None were particularly religious or political. Perhaps the parents had a good reason for moving back to Central Asia, who knows? But they left Dzhokar essentially in the care of Tamerlan, and that wasn’t the best move.

Dzokhar was at that age when he’d really start to think for himself, so Tamerlan had to provoke a crisis now. This is what the brothers we call “dynamic characters” do: provoke a crisis to preserve the bond with their brothers, because they have nothing to lose. Their brothers, the protagonist-heroes, then face a hard choice between loyalty and goodness. These plots often have a woman who personifies that “goodness,” or that life beyond the confines of the stupid male peer group. Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and On the Waterfront come to mind.

Had he waited a year, Dzokhar would have figured out that Tamerlan is an asshole. They were both athletes, Tamerlan a frustrated one, so he hatched a plan to bomb the mother of all American athletic events. His uncles have no compunction describing Tamerlan as a “loser,” so it’s not hard to figure out that Tamerlan was in turn adept at hazing his little brother, who wore his hair bushy to distinguish himself from the commando. He hung out and studied with women in his dorm, and it was a matter of time before he started spending holidays in Woonsocket with a girl whose parents had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” sleepover policy for college boyfriends.

A part of Dzokhar didn’t want to do it, but he went along. Now he’s holed up with a gun.

Of course, I’ve made the story about me. I’m the youngest of four brothers, and see myself in Dzokhar’s sweet face. When I was his age I was skipping sociology class to volunteer for an environmental organization.

Another writer might feel for Tamerlan. Poor guy, semiliterate, gets into boxing but doesn’t quite fit in in that world. People make fun of his accent. Makes a serious go at the Olympic team but fails. Dreamy-eyed little brother falls under the sway of a radical thinker, and Tamerlan goes along for the ride.

We’ll see. The facts are finite, but the writing goes on and on.


  1. Thanks for sharing, Charles. This is an astute reading of what little we know, but what we can easily surmise. And thanks for reminding us what movies can do to illuminate our world.

  2. great insight. i have a feeling you are not far off… but who knows

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