The Blood of the Farentholds

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

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 the bartender, and buying a few rounds for newfound friends, his sweetly fiendish face locked in a state of glee. It is a pretty thought, but today pretty thoughts only invite more anguish. Her experience tells her to fear the worst. She speaks of him in the past tense.

He took chances,” she says. “He took chances all the time. You know, he was a very sweet person. Charming too, but more basic than the charm was that he was very sensitive. He could be hurt. The Vincent thing had been so painful that I probably didn’t talk about it to him as openly as would have been helpful. But I thought I was shielding him. Just like when I moved him into a different bedroom. You know, you’re just feeling your way—there are no rules.”

She slumps against the back of the couch in the living room of her Houston high-rise apartment and stares furiously at her clasped hands. For whatever else 65-year-old Sissy Farenthold might be, at this moment she is a grieving mother, small and alone and powerless. The posture does not become her, for Farenthold is not the self-pitying sort. The days of cleaning up the Texas Legislature and mounting a quixotic campaign for governor are two decades behind her, but her activist barnstorming continues. These days she travels from Washington to Brownsville all in the same week, lobbying for progressive causes, picketing missile bases, spearheading think tanks on federal government reform. As a speaker she remains in high demand: This very morning, a Saturday, she addressed a delegation
of high school students at a United Nations Model Congress.

In her discreetly fashionable dress and black stockings, her feathery white hair lending a light touch to her morose and narrow face, Sissy Farenthold cuts an elegant figure of almost brutal composure. Evidence of her age is strictly physical—and for that matter she wears her years well, insofar as her older face reveals the essence of the woman in a way the more youthful face never did. Now her determination and intensity of belief are highlighted by wrinkles that are impossible to miss, just as her battles against corrupt institutions are a matter of public record. Yet it has remained a matter of mystery that both her face and her crusades have always betrayed a complete absence of joy. For all of Farenthold’s public life, reporters have observed her gloomy aura without knowing what to make of it. “A melancholy rebel,” the Texas Observer tagged her; “She seems to have a great capacity for inner sorrow,” wrote author Myra MacPherson. In the heat of the fight, Farenthold could be heard bemoaning the cruel conditions—corruption, bureaucratic insensitivity—that made the fight necessary; with triumph in her grasp, she would ruminate on the price of success. Hers was, and still is, the quintessential bleeding heart.

All of the moods and themes that preoccupy Sissy Farenthold can be traced to her family, which has played a visible role in Texas history for well over a century. Her Alsatian great-great-grandfather, Peter Bluntzer, brought forty families to settle the South Texas county of DeWitt in 1843. Her Irish great-grandfather, Robert Dougherty, helped settle San Patricio and

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