A helicopter soars past Waikiki Beach, bare-chested Thomas Magnum shoves a clip into his .45 caliber pistol, a yellow car bursts into flames, Magnum holds a prone woman afloat in the Pacific as he stares at her bikini-clad ass, a red Ferrari speeds down the Kamehameha Highway, Tom Selleck looks over his shoulder and raises his eyebrows with a smirk.
I picture my brother Steve watching all this. He's lying belly down on our dad's bed, his chin propped up by one hand. He's sixteen, seventeen, eighteen—years away from his too-early death at the age of forty-five—and his six-foot-four body is still muscular. Steve wears blue gym shorts, a blue and white aloha shirt, and a Detroit Tigers baseball cap. He's growing a mustache that's filling in strong.
Steve never missed an episode of Magnum, P.I., never missed a repeat, kept episodes on videotape so he could watch them again and again. Magnum, P.I. premiered on December 11, 1980, three days after his fifteenth birthday. That age, fifteen, is when my mom and dad and I later agreed that Steve's drinking problem started, when his sudden inability to fit into his own social and athletic world erupted and when—I now know—the first signs of bipolar disorder often appear. If I could go back in time, I'd watch my brother watching. I'd try to see what he saw in Thomas Magnum that he so badly wanted to emulate.
Magnum, P.I. was a fun show, with car chases and gun fights, pretty shots of Hawaiian beaches and palm trees, all peppered with Magnum's self-deprecating sense of humor. His buddy, Rick, owned an exclusive beach bar, and pal T.C., reluctantly provided his helicopter to aid in the solving of Magnum's cases. His friends were constantly annoyed by Magnum's dependence on them and their resources, but they ultimately had his back.
The pilot episode was a two-hour movie that begins with Magnum swimming in the Pacific, with a verdant Hawaiian cliffside as the backdrop. He steps foot on the beach and runs along a seawall, carrying a mysterious plastic bag. In voice over, Tom Selleck says: "It's funny, the things a grown man will do for a living. Especially me. Take this morning: I'm breaking into Robin Masters' estate. You know, the writer? The one with all those best sellers?" And then he says wistfully: "All that money."
Robin Masters doesn't live at "Robin's Nest," his estate on O'ahu—he just flies in once or twice a year—but allows his friends to spend time there. Higgins, an uptight, former British military officer who is the keeper of the manor, resolutely believes Robin's Nest is an impenetrable fort. Magnum, in exchange for living free in the guest house and driving Robin's candy red Ferrari, stages a series of break-in attempts to test Higgins' belief. Magnum gets to sleep in, hang out at Rick's beach bar, and drive a snazzy car provided by the owner of the house. Despite his apparent envy of Robin's financial means, it would appear that Magnum has very little need for money of his own.
My brother also concocted a lifestyle that required him to earn very little money of his own. For the majority of Steve's adult life, he lived with our dad, Pete, rent-free with a car bought by our dad. He "worked for" Pete in real estate, but rarely had to report to an office and often slept until noon. I wonder if Steve got the idea from Magnum that it would be cool, somehow, to live on someone else's dime—to enjoy the freedoms of being an adult, without any of the responsibilities.
But Magnum, P.I. quickly establishes that Thomas earned his carefree lifestyle. While still crouched along the seawall, Selleck says, "Like I said... funny, the things a grown man will do for a living." The camera zooms in on a ring decorated with a French cross, his hand rubbing his scar-laced shoulder. "But I've done funnier."
The scene dissolves into a black-and-white quick-cut montage: beret-wearing military men shooting machine guns in the jungle, Magnum carrying a wounded soldier across his shoulders amid a hail of shrapnel while another man falls at his feet, a commander who'd taken Magnum's gun shooting toward the unseen enemy, T.C. setting his helicopter down in a precarious clearing so Magnum can board, the commander being mortally shot, the chopper fleeing to the sky.
The scene returns to present, to color, to Magnum in the paradise that is Hawai'i. In that seven-second PTSD flashback we learn that Magnum and his friends were once men of honor. They were highly skilled and believed in what they were doing. But, like many Vietnam vets, they became disillusioned. They witnessed brutality they'd never been exposed to before, especially in themselves. They are forever bound by loyalty to the men with whom they served, but are suspicious of the government for whom they served.
A decade later in Honolulu, Magnum and his pals aren't living the lives of normal thirty-three-year-olds: none of them are married or have children, work for anyone else, or have to report to an office. They are resolute on grabbing their lost youth back from the jaws of war.
Magnum and his friends' tours and trauma in Vietnam is more than just a minor thread in the series, it is the thread holding all the others in place. Over eight seasons, plotlines return to it again and again. It's not as if a dedicated viewer like my brother could have, somehow, glossed over this part. But in my experience, Steve was not someone who embraced darkness. His uniform was colorful Polo shirts and dark blue jeans. He sang along to light-hearted pop music and Rat Pack standards. He could recite all the lines from Chevy Chase movies. Deep, philosophical conversations about love and death never sat on his lips. Even after our mom died when Steve was 28 and I was 26, he didn't want to talk about the loss, about our shared grief. I don't know if my brother gravitated to Magnum, P.I. because the tropical lightness allowed him to temporarily escape the growing torment in his own brain, or because threads of it actually reflected the fear, isolation, and paranoia within his fractured psyche.
By the spring of 2009, my dad and brother were mired in dire physical and psychiatric straits. My brother had been hit by the triple whammy of untreated mental illness, vascular necrosis that destroyed his hip sockets, and our dad's inability to steer him in a healthy way. All Steve needed to be pain-free was to have both his hips replaced. Total hip replacement is a relatively safe surgery, with mortality rates ranging from .3% to .65% and occurring almost exclusively in people over the age of seventy. My brother was forty-one when the procedure was first recommended for him. Yet he and my dad were both so beset with anxiety and certainty that Steve would die, they decided against the surgery. Whatever input I offered that bended towards "reason" was brushed aside. Pete convinced Steve to try alternative methods—which largely included some contraption a quack from the Midwest claimed would heal any and everything. Guess what? It didn't. There is no secret cure for the disintegration of your bones.
My brother's pain intensified. He needed a walker to navigate the top floor of their house. He gulped down prescription morphine and oxycodone. But his hips were bone on bone. He sat in a medical recliner most of the day. The lack of mobility caused his legs to swell to twice their size, and infections ravaged his skin. He added Xanax and Ambien and whiskey and beer to his opioids. The cornucopia of pills was prescribed by five different doctors—including ones in Los Angeles, King of Prussia and Philadelphia, P.A., and Puerto Rico—and filled by three different pharmacies, including the local Walgreens and The Meetinghouse Community Pharmacy, which was closed by the DEA in 2009 for providing mail-order distribution of controlled substances.
Steve was unable to get out of bed, unable to sit up, and laid horizontal for months on end. He lost muscle, but didn't waste away. Fat billowed around his body, creating another buffer between his fragile insides and the harsh outside world. The only time he left the house was when EMTs wheeled him out because of an overdose or life-threatening infection.
It took a toll on our eighty-year-old dad. He hired "caregivers" (scare-quotes intentional), who let Steve take as many pills as he wanted, whenever he wanted. They constantly screamed at Steve and Pete, and threatened to abandon them. "If we leave, who will take care of you?" they'd yell. "No one!" Between Steve's uninsured pill habit and the circus of caregivers, his medical care was costing nearly $10,000 per month. Pete was desperate and panicked and swallowing his own fair share of Ambien and Xanax. In phone call after phone call, he told me, "Every night I pray, take me, Lord."
I tried to convince him to see a therapist. He tried to get me to move from Portland to Denver so I could be the one to dress and kiss their blistering wounds. I encouraged him to move Steve to a skilled nursing facility. He said he'd never abandon his son like that. I coaxed him to hire new caregivers. My dad tried to kill himself.
He didn't take enough pills to complete the task. He didn't even take enough for the hospital to take it seriously—not the first time, at least. "Sometimes old people forget how many pills they've taken," the nurse told me, even though I relayed his desire to die. After seventy-two hours, the hospital sent him home.
Four days later, my dad signed the papers for a reverse mortgage on my childhood home.
"You've probably been investing in your home for years, making monthly mortgage payments, doing the right thing, and it's become your family's heart and soul."
Tom Selleck is seventy-four years old the first time I see him in a commercial for American Advisers Group. He "looks good" for his age, meaning he appears to dye his hair and is a little jowly, but at least he has hair (including his trademark mustache), and is in good enough health to star on the CBS drama Blue Bloods. When he speaks, it isn't with the upbeat lilt of Thomas Magnum, but with a calm, folksy resonance. At least, that's the persona he uses in the ads promoting reverse mortgages that started airing six, seven years after my dad and brother died.
Throughout the two-minute ad, Selleck ambles from one bucolic scene to another—from a rolling pasture, to a tree-lined road, to a wood cattle fence. He's wearing a light blue plaid cotton shirt and a camel suede jacket, unzipped.
"Look, this isn't my first rodeo," he says. "And let me tell you something: I wouldn't be here if I thought reverse mortgages took advantage of any American senior or, worse, that it was some way to take your home."
Selleck talks to the viewer casually but seriously, reassuringly waving his hands and shrugging in a golly-gee sort of way. You can trust him, is what all this is designed to convey. AAG's previous spokesperson, Fred Thompson, had also ambled across grass and leaned on ranch fences. Thompson was a former Republican Senator from Tennessee, and an actor whose roles were often those of a district attorney or judge or sheriff. He was an old white man who'd portrayed or held positions of power in the vanguard of old white men. The Greatest Generation cohort found him trustworthy.
But after Thompson died and USA Today published a scathing exposé on the devastating impact of shady reverse mortgages, the industry realized that seniors weren't the only demographic who needed to be sold. The younger heirs who might be consulted in decision making, who might seek solutions to keep their beloved childhood home, had to believe in reverse mortgages, too. AAG conducted extensive research to find the right celebrity spokesperson, asking consumer focus groups questions like, "If you could choose one celebrity to have over as a dinner guest, who would you invite?" and "Who do you think best represents your age group?" Their research showed that Selleck garnered "widespread recognition and respect across generations."
AAG's research explains why they wanted Selleck, but not why Selleck took the job. Selleck was already making a pretty good living at $150,000 per episode of Blue Bloods, with a net worth around $45 million. In an AAG press release, Selleck is quoted as saying that it was Thompson who "sparked" his interest in reverse mortgages, and that he thinks it's important "for many Americans sixty-two and older" to know the benefits of a reverse mortgage. Like everything else Selleck gets paid for, it's obvious that he's adhering to a script.
I guess it is funny the things a grown man will do for a living.
"A reverse mortgage loan isn't some kind of trick to take your home," Selleck says. "It's a loan, like any other loan. Big difference is in how you pay it back."
The word "trick" implies a certain silly/paranoid level of conspiracy theory behind all the reverse mortgage naysayers (like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for instance). After all, Selleck says, it's just a loan—except that it's not exactly a loan like any other loan. A reverse mortgage (aka: a home equity conversion mortgage, aka: a HECM) is based solely on the equity in your house. The reverse mortgage company (the lender) appraises the value of your house, and you can borrow against that amount. The percentage of the total equity you can borrow has fluctuated over the years, but has never been more than 80%.
"Other mortgages are paid each month," Selleck says, "but with a reverse mortgage you can pay whatever you can, when it works for you. Or you can wait and pay it off in one lump sum when you leave your home."
Generally, seniors leave their homes because they require more care (i.e., assisted living) or because they're going out feet first. Assisted living costs between $4,000 and $8,000 a month, depending on the level of care. But wait! The senior first has to pay back the HECM they borrowed however many years ago, the one that would allow them to stay in their home and pass it on to their kids.
The majority of seniors who take out HECMs do so because they need money for health care, home maintenance, and basic living costs. Assuming they've been using the loan for those purposes, they probably don't have a lot of extra dough lying around to pay it back and finance the next step in their life—especially since reverse mortgages often come with hefty compounding interest rates and service fees. My dad's reverse mortgage accrued $33,000 a year in interest alone.
If the senior leaves their home toe-up, then the entire loan balance is due immediately. That's fairly unrealistic, because a deceased person's accounts are often frozen as the estate goes through testate or probate, and money can't be distributed until it's settled. Knowing this, most HECM lenders allow heirs to take out extensions on the due date, during which time interest continues to accrue. If, when all is settled, the estate has enough funds to repay the loan, then cool. The heirs can do whatever they want with the house—keep it, sell it, split the profit.
If the estate doesn't have enough funds to pay off the loan, the heirs have the option of selling the home and repaying the HECM with the proceeds. This all goes horribly sideways if the lender over-inflated the value of the house for the basis of the loan, and there's no feasible way for the heirs to sell it for that much. That's when "your family's heart and soul" goes into foreclosure.
There are many, many details I don't know or understand about the demise of my dad and brother—mostly because they kept realities from me, or told outright lies. I don't think they were trying to protect me, the youngest, the girl, from hard truths. I think they were trying to protect themselves, convince themselves, convince anyone who would listen that they hadn't really fucked up as badly as they had. But the gnarliest knot I had to unkink was my dad's financial situation.
Pete had once been a well-off man, a rags-to-riches son of poor immigrants, who eventually made millions through shrewd purchases of land. But just as my dad could be smart when looking at acreage, he'd be equally as foolish in choosing business partners. He was blinded by flash and big talk, even before old age, and lost money to more than one snake oil salesman. By the time he was elderly and his son was disabled, he suffered from desperation and slight dementia and a propensity to solve problems with prescription sedatives. Somehow, by spring 2009, Pete's liquidity had dwindled to having about eighteen months of living expenses for him and Steve.
I don't know how the reverse mortgage idea came to him, because I didn't know about the reverse mortgage until it was too late to ask. Here's what I do know: HECM companies advertise around shows like Wheel of Fortune, M*A*S*H re-runs, and odd-houred cable news shows. Back in the 2000s, brokers peddling HECMs also placed hangers on doorknobs and sent out junk mail. The envelope would say in big PAY ATTENTION TO ME lettering that inside was a Notice of Government Benefits (um, not true). The fliers promised seniors a "risk-free/tax-free" way to access the equity in their home, so they could stay in it as long as they wanted (also not true). All they had to do was call this 1-800 number now.
It's easy to imagine my desperate dad seeing one of these TV ads, finding one of these fliers on his door, opening a piece of mail, and saying, "Yes, this is what will save me and my son." So, he spoke to a broker at Reverse Mortgage Solutions (RMS).
According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, RMS routinely told potential customers they needed to sign by the end of the day, or the company would "turn your file down and you will miss out on a tremendous money-saving opportunity." One of the few clues I found about how, exactly, my dad signed this shifty reverse mortgage came from his attorney, after both he and my brother died. The attorney said Pete had called him about the loan, saying, "I think I made a big mistake." The attorney looked over the paperwork, agreed it was a big mistake, but found a loophole—a three-day look period—and helped my dad back out. Whew, my dad was safe!
Except he wasn't. Because his financial desperation hadn't been cured, nor his suicidal depression, nor his mentally and physically disabled, drug-addicted son. More than that, there was nothing protecting him from follow-up phone calls from Reverse Mortgage Solutions saying things along the lines of, "Are you sure? Listen, I promise this is risk-free. If you act now, you still have a chance to get this money." You can still be saved. So, Pete once again signed on the dotted line—and this time didn't back out.
The lump sum granted was $485,000—supposedly 80% of the value of his home. Full draw/lump sum loans are no longer allowed, precisely because the low, low chance of them being repaid led to mass foreclosures. The magical thinking behind a lump sum loan was that the home value would appreciate, so it would be easy-peasy to pay back! In reality, reverse mortgage lenders had this annoying (and by "annoying," I mean "hugely unethical") tendency to over-inflate the value of the property, and balances due usually far exceeded the market value.
My dad applied for a HECM only six months after the financial collapse of 2008. This was precisely when the Denver real estate bubble burst and home prices were at their absolute lowest. Yet, RMS appraised Pete's house at $572,000. Okay, sure, it was four-thousand square feet, but the kitchen hadn't been updated in over twenty years and the bathrooms hadn't been updated since it was built in 1966. The house was also in a neighborhood where the average home went for $300,000—$380,000. There was no possible way his house was worth $572,000.
The average term of a reverse mortgage is seven years, which I suppose is theoretically long enough for the market to bounce back and a home to appreciate. But Pete was 82 when he took out the loan. The average life expectancy of a male in the U.S. was 78.5 years. I'm not a mathematical or statistical genius by any stretch of the imagination, but even I can spot the problematic gap between the average life expectancy, and seven years past the age when my dad took out the loan. There would never be enough time for the house to appreciate.
My dad died in June 2010, fourteen months after taking out the reverse mortgage. Both my parents were dead. I was forty-three, so it's not like I was some Dickensian foundling forced to live on the street, but I felt orphaned, alone, nonetheless. I flew to Denver and went straight to my family home, where my brother lay flat in his hospital bed. We cried and I kissed his soft cheek. Steve looked me directly in the eyes. "We'll make all the decisions together," he said. "It's just you and me, Sis."
But Steve was so physically and emotionally disabled, so constantly lost in an opiate haze, I had to make and pay for all the funeral arrangements. I had to figure out what to do about this damn reverse mortgage due as soon as the borrower dies. We didn't just owe the principal amount, but also an additional $45,000 in interest and processing fees—bringing the amount due to a grand total of $530,000.
The only way to sell the house quickly enough to repay the loan would be a "fire sale" at a drastically reduced price, and I guess combine the funds with the remainder of my dad's estate. Small problem: It turned out my dad's estate was surprisingly paltry. He died with a lot of debt and very little cash. The remainder of the lump sum he'd received from RMS was nowhere to be found, and Pete's bankers and lawyers and accountants couldn't find even a breadcrumb of a trail as to where the money had gone. We were extra screwed because Steve was living in the house with 24/7 live-in care. There was no money to move him to an assisted care facility. Plus, he wanted to stay in our childhood home.
"I'm going to find a way to save the house," Steve told me on the phone in the months after our dad died. We took out two 180-day extensions on the loan (while $3,000 per month in interest and vague "service fees" continued to accrue), but I knew there was no way to pay it off. Over a half-million dollars wasn't suddenly going to drop out of the sky. The house would go into foreclosure and be repossessed by the bank. So, the question became: Where would Steve go?
Steve went the only path he could have gone, given the circumstances of his life. A few months after our dad died, a severe overdose sent him to the hospital. He briefly tried to stop abusing drugs and alcohol and attempted physical rehab. But his mental illness—and enormous grief—wasn't addressed, and he eventually retreated to drugs and drinking, to overdoses and infections. To his bed.
My brother died in his sleep on August 29, 2011, somewhere around three or four in the morning. He'd just gotten out of the hospital for another overdose, another infection, but it wasn't another overdose or infection that killed him. It was two unpredictable pulmonary emboli. After his funeral, his friends and my friends went to a bar for a wake. We were eating Irish Nachos—potato chips covered in tender corned beef and cheese and green onions—when my friend Marie asked me what was going to happen to the house.
"Officially, it went into foreclosure on the one-year anniversary of Pete's death," I said, which was three months earlier. "But I can't find any official documents saying when we have to be out by."
"When our condo was foreclosed on, we just came home one day and there was a sign on the door saying we have forty-eight hours to clear the premises," Marie said. "Then they change the locks and board it up. Anything left behind they sell or throw away."
Living a thousand miles away, I wouldn't see some official notice taped to the door. And even if a local friend stopped by the house every single day just to check whether or not the death knell sign was posted, how could I possibly scramble to Denver in enough time to clean out that enormous house in forty-eight hours? Everything, everything from cradle to grave would get sold to strangers or thrown away.
I needed to come back to Denver soon so I could make those decisions for myself: what to keep, what to throw away, what to sell, what to shred. Three weeks after Steve's funeral, I returned to Denver with my husband and, with the help of a half-dozen intrepid friends, set out to clean a 4,000-square-foot house that had been occupied by two small-time hoarders for forty-five years. Keep, throw away, give away, shred, was the mantra for every object in every room.
Steve had three bedrooms in the house. His "adult" bedroom was upstairs, in what we always called The New Addition, even though it had been built onto the house in 1984. By 2009, the increasing frequency with which EMTs had to haul Steve's 400-pound body downstairs prompted his move into my dad's downstairs study. Pete's shiny oval desk and plaid club chairs were pushed into a corner of the garage, and Steve's hospital bed was wheeled in.
His first bedroom, the one from his childhood, was forever frozen in time: the mustard yellow bedspread on his twin bed, a closet full of old sports uniforms, plastic Army men and Matchbook cars, bookshelves lined with gold- and silver-toned trophies (basketball, baseball, football, bowling), and a Detroit Tigers baseball cap. The wallpaper was a muddy cacophony of avocado green and gold, on top of which hung posters from Steve's teen years: Farrah Fawcett in a red one-piece bathing suit, Daisy Duke in a gingham top and cut-off shorts, and Tom Selleck sitting in a red Ferrari as trademark character, Thomas Magnum.
I cleaned out the house several years before Tom Selleck was reassuring folks that reverse mortgages aren't some way to take your home, and if he trusted reverse mortgages then "you can, too." I experienced no immediate sense of irony upon seeing the Magnum poster hanging in my brother's bedroom as I desperately prepared the house for foreclosure. The link between that poster and Tom Selleck ambling down pastoral roads makes one thing perfectly clear, though: there was no way I could have saved my childhood home from the swindle of a reverse mortgage, no way I could have saved my dad and brother from the bad choices born from their mental illnesses.
Even if the federal government had investigated and fined Reverse Mortgage Solutions and their ilk before Steve and Pete died, even if the scathing media exposés had come five years earlier, it still would have been too late to save my family. See, that's the reason AAG hires celebrities as their spokespeople, whether it's Fred Thompson or Tom Selleck. "When [retirees] see a celebrity, it's like, 'There's a life raft,'" said a gerontologist interviewed by The New York Times. "'I've got problems, and Tom Selleck... represents someone who has solutions.'"
My brother's hero, the person he wanted to be—or, at least, the actor who played him—would have calmly assured my brother that a reverse mortgage would preserve the walls and furniture and everyday objects that provided his sense of safety. Fred Thompson probably reassured my dad. There would always have been someone Pete and Steve believed had easy answers to their complex problems.
In October of 2011, after a harrowing four days of keep, throw away, give away, shred, I closed the door to the house I grew up in for the last time. The bank repossessed it, and eventually sold it for $330,000. Coincidentally, in 2015 the estate used for Robin's Nest in Magnum, P.I. was sold for half its asking price, and was demolished in 2018. The estate is still a pile of rubble.
Amid my own rubble is a photograph of Steve standing at the gate of Robin's Nest. His six-foot-four body is muscular, his brown mustache filled in. He wears blue gym shorts, a blue and white aloha shirt, and a Detroit Tigers baseball cap. He looks happy, smiling, exactly where he wants to be. Over his right shoulder is a stone sign that says "Pahonu," the real-life name of the estate used for filming Magnum, P.I. On the show, Robin's Nest was a 200-acre estate located on Kalakaua Street on O'ahu's North Shore. In real life, Pahonu is three acres on the Southeast side of the island. I'm sure these inconsistencies didn't bother Steve, as he knew certain fictions are necessary to build illusion.
To Steve's left is a sign that says, "Do Not Climb on Gate or Rock Wall. Do Not Destroy the Plants. Please Respect Private Property." The sign hangs on a locked wrought iron gate, begging my brother to stay outside.
Images provided courtesy of the author.
"Magnum Force" is included in Liz Prato's nonfiction collection, Kids in America: A Gen X Reckoning. The book is being released in June 2022 by SFWP. ISBN: 9781951631253.