The Blood of the Farentholds

The mysterious disappearance of Sissy Farenthold’s youngest son is only the latest chapter in a tragic family history.

He was a small child, not yet four, and so the floorboards did not betray his movements as he slipped out from under his blankets, walked past the bed where his twin brother slept, and headed down the dark hallway. His parents were out for the evening, while the baby-sitter, his half brother, was somewhere downstairs, preoccupied with a girlfriend. The boy’s other siblings were asleep. No one heard him enter the bathroom and climb atop the stool in front of the sink. No one heard the stool give way and the child fall, his head colliding against the tile floor. The boy suffered from a form of hemophilia; by the time they had taken him to the hospital, he had already bled all there was to bleed. A few days later, they buried him in a family plot just west of downtown Corpus Christi, under a simple marker that read: “Vincent Bluntzer Tarlton Farenthold. February 8, 1956–January 26, 1960.”

The funeral was an agonizing experience for the boy’s mother, 33-year-old Frances “Sissy” Tarlton Farenthold, and all the more so because the tragedy brought her face to face with an image from her childhood that reared up to haunt her now and again. The recurring image was that of another dead three-year-old boy: her brother Benjamin Dudley “Sonny” Tarlton III, who had died from complications following surgery to remove a quarter he had swallowed. When her great-aunt Mary hoisted the then two-year-old Sissy up to view her brother stretched out in the casket, the little girl beheld the old women sobbing all around her, then looked down at the boy’s motionless body. All she could think was: Why won’t Sonny get up?

Sissy Farenthold would never forget that feeling of bewilderment. She would remember her mother’s reclusiveness, remember her snapping up all of the pictures of Sonny and putting them away where they would never be seen again. She would remember her father, a towering and mirthful man, and how he commemorated his eldest child’s passing by spending each May in a state of weeping depression. Recalling the tragedy of her childhood years, Sissy Farenthold resolved two things following the death of her son. First, she would not become a captive of grief. She would move forward from Vincent’s death, throwing herself at one challenge and then the next—a crusade of diversion that became another crusade entirely, one from which Sissy Farenthold emerged as the state’s best-known liberal politician and one of the nation’s most prominent feminists.

By comparison, her second decision seemed uneventful though just as heartfelt. Recalling how the image of her brother in the casket had stayed with her, Sissy Farenthold decided that her youngest child, Jimmy, Vincent’s identical twin, should not attend the funeral with the rest of the family.

It was one of those parental judgment calls for which no one could possibly fault the mother—no one, that is, but Jimmy, who in later years would speak remorsefully of not having had the chance to say good-bye to his brother. Jimmy never volunteered this sentiment to Sissy. She found out during a conversation with one of her son’s many drug counselors, and by that time all the damage had been done: His life, like hers, had taken a decisive turn upon Vincent’s death. Both mother and son pursued their destinies with seemingly unstoppable momentum. But while Sissy bulldozed her way into the heart of the political arena, her youngest child lunged toward the edge, beyond which his twin awaited him.

Three years ago this month, 33-year-old Jimmy Farenthold vanished. Not a soul has heard from him since. Policemen, detectives, friends, and family have spent the intervening period poring over clues but have nothing to show for their efforts. The hopeful few who believe that Jimmy has simply gone underground so as to elude the expectations of his family cannot explain why he would also have broken off contact with all of his close friends. Virtually everyone who knew Jimmy and the dangerous life he led suspects that he is dead. Yet no body has been found. It is as if the surviving twin had never existed.

What befell Jimmy has become a matter of wild speculation, except that it is generally accepted that whatever happened to him did not happen randomly. Rather, it happened to Jimmy Farenthold because of who he is: the doomed runt of a great but precarious brood, heir to all of its curses. His disappearance is only the latest installment of a larger tragedy, one that has plagued a prominent family for generations. Quietly, very quietly, it has ravaged what might otherwise have been a kind of dynasty. Evidently Jimmy’s fate was to join the fallen, just as his mother’s lot in life has been to survive, ascend, and then, from a lone vantage point, ponder the devastation of her kin.

I USED TO POINT TO THE WHITE STRANDS in my hair and say to him, ‘See where it’s white, Jimmy? That’s from you.’” Sissy Farenthold’s voice fades to a murmur as she unconsciously runs her fingers through her hair, which is now completely white. “It didn’t mean I didn’t love him.” She manages a smile. “And today, if Jimmy would walk in, he had such a personality that he’d have us laughing and feeling good. He had that, that sense of the ridiculous. He was that way… .”

For a moment she dares to think hopefully of her son. Then Sissy Farenthold bows her head and tightly closes her eyes. Today is one of those days when it is best to avoid encounters with strangers: Grief has the final say in every given moment, and one’s very resolve seems awash in tears. It is February 8, 1992. Vincent would be 36 today, had he not bled to death. Today is Jimmy’s birthday as well, and if he is alive, then surely he is celebrating the event by sleeping in until, say, mid-afternoon and in the evening doing things up in high style, throwing wads of cash at

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week