When noted bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel was young, he thought it was normal that games of Monopoly with his brothers ended in bloodshed. Come to think of it, muses Emanuel, “In our house, there was blood every night.” In one of his three offices at Penn, Emanuel—gray-haired and stethoscope-thin—slurps tea and tries to sit still. He’s been reflecting a good deal on his childhood lately, because of a question he and his brothers are often asked.
“‘What did Ma put in your cereal?’” Emanuel recounts. Because while Zeke Emanuel is chair of Penn Med’s Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy and a former Obama adviser, he’s best known as the eldest of the overachieving Emanuel brothers. Middle brother Rahm is mayor of Chicago and former White House chief of staff. Ari, the youngest, is CEO of talent agency William Morris Endeavor. “There’s obviously a family resemblance. We’re hyperactive; we’re pretty in-your-face,” Emanuel continues in something of an understatement, since Rahm once famously sent a pollster a dead fish, and Ari’s brusqueness inspired the combative character Ari Gold on HBO’s Entourage. “But it does get you thinking: Is your family normal?”
Emanuel digs for answers in his new book Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of An American Family. He describes the Emanuel household as a chaotic, affectionate place where their pediatrician father and stay-at-home mother encouraged the boys’ competitive natures. That aggression played out most grandly during the profanity-studded confrontations that passed for family discussions. No matter what the topic, the whole clan would pile on in gleeful bouts of shouting, sometimes ending with a showstopper, like their father wielding a butcher knife, or their mother declaring, “I hate everyone equally.”
Yet as the boys battled, a tight bond emerged—the Emanuels speak by phone three times a week. Sometimes, when they sign off, it’s with the gruff endearment “I love you, asshole.”
“I couldn’t make that the title of the book, unfortunately,” says Emanuel.
This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine.