When I met the Brown siblings and their parents in 1999, they seemed like a picture-perfect family. I was a publicist at The Juilliard School at the time, and the five brothers and sisters were studying piano at the school with Yoheved Kaplinsky, then chairwoman of the piano department. The entire family had uprooted from Utah to New York, and just as noteworthy as the siblings’ individual talent was the sense of unity and closeness that seemed to exist among the children, as well as with their parents, Keith and Lisa Brown.
I first got to know them after proposing the siblings as subjects for a BBC documentary that would feature young people with inspiring stories from around the world. As the press liaison from Juilliard, I was present for the full day of filming at New York City’s Steinway Hall (then on West 57th Street), and at the Browns’ home in Hartsdale, New York. Desirae, Deondra, Gregory, Melody, and Ryan charmed host Geri Halliwell with their musical abilities, jovial personalities, and down-to-earth demeanors. Keith, soft-spoken and affable, appeared to be the epitome of a supportive, proud father.
The documentary aired in England in 2000, and was followed by a New York Times feature on the family in September of that year. The Juilliard press office was subsequently inundated with calls requesting interviews, book deals, and television appearances. Together with the family, we decided on an exclusive feature with 60 Minutes II, which involved months of filming at the school and at the family’s home. The segment aired in October 2001 — a heartwarming story from New York at a time when the country was mourning the attacks of September 11th.
I lost touch with the Browns after I moved on from Juilliard, but I followed their rise to fame and knew that Keith Brown had taken on the role of their manager. It came as a complete shock to me, as it did to so many others, when the news broke that their father had sexually abused all three sisters and pled guilty to one first-degree felony count of sodomy and two second-degree felony counts of sexual abuse of a child in 2011. He was sentenced to 10-years-to-life in prison; his next hearing is in 2022.
The Brown siblings continued performing together, but largely avoided in-depth interviews with the press after the abuse was made public. When filmmaker Ben Niles, who had worked with them on a Steinway video shoot, approached them about doing a documentary in late 2016, they ultimately decided the time was right to share more about their experiences. “For years,” Gregory told me, “we had been guarded about the issue, especially with media, and it didn’t feel like we had been given a chance to tell the story in a long-form way. Sound bites just weren’t going to cut it for what my sisters went through — and for how everything went down.” Gregory and his younger brother, Ryan, were unaware of the sexual abuse of their sisters until after the three women confronted their father about it in 2007.
“We agreed that we would only do [the documentary] if we were going to be very honest about it,” Desirae says. “We hadn’t given any of those kinds of interviews — like, very honest about the experience — out of respect for other survivors. We didn’t want to make it seem that it was easier than it actually is, the journey from victim to survivor, and how to move past that, so we tried to be as real as we could... everybody eventually agreed to do that, which was difficult and taxing.”
Niles’s film, The 5 Browns: Digging Through The Darkness, focuses not only on how the siblings dealt with the revelation of their father’s abuse, both privately and publicly, but also on their evolution as musicians — and, in the case of Desirae and Deondra, as advocates for survivors of sexual abuse. The two continue to work with politicians to establish a national standard for the statute of limitations in child sexual abuse cases.
“After we had come forward with the abuse in our family,” says Desirae, “I remember a phone conversation that I had with Keith Brown, when he said, ‘You know, I looked into it and it’s like five years past when anything with law enforcement could have an impact.’
The power of music and the integral role it has played in their personal and collective healing process is a thread woven throughout the film.
“I knew he was trying to intimidate me, and so we had our own lawyers look into it, and he was totally wrong. I came to realize that other states did not have the laws that Utah had, and other victims were barred from seeking justice, so that’s where we decided to focus our attention. It shouldn’t change, depending on where an American child gets abused, and it shouldn’t change how much justice they deserve.”
Niles also incorporated home video footage of the siblings when they were children, sometimes together with their parents, into the documentary. Lisa chose to stay together with Keith even after he was convicted of the charges, and the siblings have severed ties with both parents. Desirae and Gregory agreed that while those moments in the film are difficult to watch, figuring out where they stand in relation to their past is an important aspect of the process of moving forward.
“The five of us are starting to get to a point where we can look back on the good things, and we talk a little bit about that in the film,” Desirae says. “Our relationships with each other were always really great, our experiences — all the games and the pool time and the chatting and playing through the night in our bunk beds. All those experiences were real, and it’s hard to sort through it all as part of the pain of healing.”
Gregory says the footage from their childhood reminds him just how complicated life, and relationships, are. “There are so many great memories I have, not only with my siblings but with my parents as well — and that’s part of what makes the whole thing even more painful. Because these relationships that have since dissolved, like mine with my parents, were real relationships with real feelings and real pasts, and that makes things complicated and painful and difficult in a way that I hope people come to respect after watching the film.
“A lot of people come up to us when they hear our story, and say, ‘Of course you wouldn’t want to talk to your parents after something like this,’ or ‘Of course these relationships feel black and white,’ and yes, we have come to that point. But it was a difficult and long process to sort out all of the complicated factors of a relationship. And yet, at the same time, the issue of sexual abuse is black and white: what happened to my sisters is black and white; it was obviously wrong and illegal and terrible and shocking, but the relationships are less black and white than that.”
The film was part of several festivals in 2018, and will run at the IFC Center in New York City from January 23–29. “We have people at these screenings who are coming out for the very first time,” recounted Niles. “Standing up in a theater of two hundred people and saying, ‘I never told anyone this, but my uncle abused me, and I want to thank you for being so courageous.’ I think for all of them, that’s very rewarding. And as a filmmaker, I’m getting emails from abuse victims, too, looking for help. So that’s a profound thing. I don’t go into these things lightly... but I just felt that this is such an important story, and God knows we could never have predicted how incredibly relevant the film was going to be after the Me Too movement took off.”
The documentary is heavy, but also uplifting: the bond among the five siblings is clearly genuine. Niles said therapists have commented that it’s something of an anomaly that the family is still together. “Obviously mom and dad aren’t in the picture, but these things tend to really rip families apart. The fact that Gregory and Ryan not only believed their sisters but have wholeheartedly supported them, it sounds weird to say, but it’s not always the case.”
The power of music and the integral role it has played in their personal and collective healing process is a thread woven throughout the film. “For so many years,” Desirae reflects, “the feeling that you’re hiding so much of yourself, or you have to keep quiet about so much, there was also a feeling that you can’t be really genuine, which is a loss as far as being honest as a performer. So once this stuff came out about the abuse, it felt really freeing: I felt like I could really express anger. And frustration. There were a couple of years of just catharsis; we were touring with The Rite of Spring and playing some really aggressive stuff, and it felt really good, because I remember even at Juilliard, professors were like, ‘Oh you are just such nice girls, can you play with more blah blah blah?’ and you’re like, ‘You don’t even know!’ So once you release the inner beast, it’s so freeing to just be who you are, like all of it, and I felt that on stage: I don’t care what the reviewer says; I don’t care what anybody says; I’m playing this for me, and you can join in if you want.”
Gregory echoes the sentiment. “There’s something that happens as an individual artist, when you have gone though something emotional and painful, and then have been thrown into a public sphere where you have to confront this thing. I think the honesty inherent in that has given me a greater honesty in my artistry, made me feel more comfortable on stage being raw artistically and emotionally, I think it has taken away some of the inhibition that’s naturally there as a human being and made me feel more comfortable on stage.”
An errant thought that ran reflexively through my head during my recent conversations with both Gregory and Desirae, witnessing after 17 years since I had spoken to them what eloquent, compassionate and reflective adults they had become, was “your parents must be so proud.” And then I would quickly recall the reality of their experience. I told Desirae I felt guilty and ashamed that, over the course of the two years that I had worked closely with the family, I’d always thought her father was a kind, upstanding man. She responded: “There’s a misconception that child abusers are these creepy guys on the other side of the tracks, on the bad side of town. The majority of prolific child abusers and pedophiles are white-collar, dynamic, charming men who are very involved in their communities and very well liked. And my father fell into that category. Everybody thought he was wonderful and lovely.”
Desirae hopes the documentary will help advance her and Deondra’s efforts to push forward legislation to change the laws surrounding sexual abuse. She said a congressman who had seen the film already reached out and asked how he could help. They recognize that telling their story is a way for them to educate both legislators and the greater public.
Gregory added, “Maybe people go into the theater expecting to be sort of dismayed by the state of the world, but I’d like to think that they come away with a little bit of hope, that everybody goes through pain and trauma in their lives, and we have that as a shared experience as humans. I hope that people will take a look at how my sisters have been able to overcome what they were dealt in life, through the beauty and hope of music, through the beauty of healthy, positive relationships, and find hope through watching them stand up for themselves and say this is something that’s not okay to happen to us, or to any child, and become incredibly powerful voices in the advocacy world. I’d really like to think people will find hope in this film.”
The 5 Browns: Digging Through The Darkness opens January 23 at IFC Center in New York City.