Bradley’s mother tried to compensate for his absent father. She adored her son. “She wanted a boy so bad,” Brian said. “She doted on him terribly. You know, over here we’d say, ‘Spoil him rotten.’ ” But she could barely cope with day-to-day life, let alone a family’s needs. She didn’t drive and didn’t write well enough to make out a check. She soon slid into alcoholism, starting early in the day, and couldn’t always remember to give Bradley money for school trips.
Susan Manning divorced her husband in 2000, the year Bradley turned 13, and the next year, she took him to Wales, where she has a large family. (Bradley’s sister, then 24, stayed behind.) There, Bradley became the man of the house; on financial matters, his mother said, “Ask Bradley.” Bradley made some friends and showed some intellectual talent, even taking second place in a national math contest, as he boasted to ZJ. But he didn’t fit in. Students would be mean to him, abandoning him once on a camping trip, and teachers reminded him he was “a Yank.” “i hadn’t really assimilated,” he told ZJ. For Bradley, loneliness would always hover nearby; in Wales, it closed in on him. He imagined his sickly mother getting even sicker. Then he’d be completely alone. “at 17 y/o in desperation i called my father,” Bradley told ZJ.
His son’s call confused Brian, who’d all but written Bradley out of his life. They’d barely spoken in four years—except when the alimony check was late. Then his mother put Bradley on the phone to demand the money. And Brian had new loyalties. He was remarried, to a former co-worker, and his new wife had brought along her child, just a year younger than Bradley.
But Brian couldn’t turn Bradley down. “He’s my son,” Brian said, and that bond meant something to him. Perhaps there was a chance to make up for lost time. By then he’d moved to a ranch house in Oklahoma City—the homesteading experiment had ended, as had the European postings. In 2005, Bradley moved in, and for several months, everyone coexisted peacefully. Bradley landed a great job as a developer for Oklahoma City–based Zoto.com, which once hoped to compete with Flickr. The job earned him not only a paycheck but also his father’s respect. Brian said, “I took him for the interview, and …he comes out with the president, who told me, ‘Sir, you’ve got an extremely intelligent son here. I’m going to hire him on the spot.’ I felt really good about it.
Bradley loved the job at first, and two years later, he boasted to ZJ, “they’re still using designs I developed.” He told ZJ he was let go after about four months over manpower issues, though the press reported his erratic behavior was a contributing factor—reportedly, at times he just stared into space.
With Bradley out of work, life at home deteriorated. He was sullen and depressed—the family doctor prescribed Lexapro. Soon his father’s long-simmering resentments surfaced. As Brian saw it, “Having … complete power over his mother, Bradley became very assertive. And he comes back over here and he finds out he’s no longer the head bull. He didn’t like that at all.” Bradley’s stepmother was busy with her own son, who also made demands on Brian’s attentions, which tormented Bradley. To her, Bradley was a freeloader, and his father backed her. “When he lost his job, he just felt like we should just take care of him,” said Brian. “That didn’t go across very well.” Bradley was by then living openly as a gay man. Brian accepted it, he said, but his wife thought he was faking, playing gay to get attention. Bradley responded by throwing it in her face. He sometimes applied eye makeup before going out to a gay club and even brought a boyfriend home to spend the night.
On March 29, 2006, tensions boiled over. His stepmother said something about him getting a job. In anger, Bradley grabbed a butcher’s knife and threatened her. His father, who was recovering from prostate surgery at the time, tried to get involved but slipped and fell. Bradley’s stepmother called the police. “Get away from him,” she can be heard yelling at Bradley on a 911 call, though in the background, Bradley seemed calm. “Are you okay, Dad?” he asked plaintively.
His stepmother wanted him out, and the police escorted Bradley from his father’s home. The next day, he was an 18-year-old on his own, driving the country in a vehicle his father had given him. “Lived in a pickup truck, sleeping in the ohare parking lot, commuting downtown during the day … LONG story,” he wrote to ZJ, who lives outside Chicago. He worked at a bunch of dead-end jobs: a pizza store, a guitar center, an Abercrombie & Fitch, and a Starbucks in the D.C. area, where he’d moved in with his father’s sister, Debra Manning. She wanted to help him along in the world. He was no bother. “He was not used to having anyone do anything for him,” said his aunt. “He didn’t ask for anything,” mostly keeping to himself, listening to music or surfing the web. Sometimes he’d break out of his shell, and then words came quickly. “He’s high-strung, talks fast, talks at people, and he’s impatient with people who don’t pick up quickly,” his aunt said with affection. And he was a know-it-all. She laughed, adding, “He knows what’s best for everybody.” Bradley liked playing the authority, which made admitting failure difficult. He made a halfhearted stab at a local college but quit after failing a final. “He was used to everything coming easily and seemed shocked that he didn’t know everything,” said his aunt. To ZJ, however, he related a more flattering version. “i spent a semester at montgomery college in maryland … shuffling 2 and 1/2 jobs and covering old topics, and still not being able to afford it … it didnt pay off.”