Funny I didn’t even notice, till my sister Peggy pointed it out, how central she was to my memoir. I thought the book was just about me! I was stunned by her accusation that she was “on every other page,” and hardly presented in a glowing light.
My child narrator had asked neither Peggy’s permission nor mine. Had my adult self taken the reins, she no doubt would have toned down the sibling rivalry scenes. After all, as an adult I had no bone to pick with my older sister. We had long since worked through our childhood stuff and I could truthfully declare I had nothing but utmost respect and love for her. But tell that to my child self.
My memoir emerged from the free-association I had experienced in psychoanalysis. In my few adult sections I could be respectful and balanced. But my overarching goal was to give my child self, as a stand-in for all children, the voice she never had. I let her talk. I did not attempt to soften what she had to say. And I never expected her to be reasonable and take an adult perspective.
After my former psychoanalyst read my manuscript, I was admittedly a little dismayed when he volunteered that he’d fallen quite in love with my bossy older sister. He exclaimed that she was spunky, spirited and delightful. Really? I pointed out to him that she also had been quite mean to me, and I wrestled with a sense of betrayal that he identified with her over me, his long-time client. He had to reassure me he hadn’t gone over to the dark side.
It is striking that I didn’t even notice the problem with my book that took center stage for all my sisters, who declared I had “vilified” Peggy. How had I missed it? Sibling rivalry had always been part of the air we breathed. Didn’t all families breathe this same air? While I was perennially wistful, I felt no outrage about Peggy’s behavior because it felt so normal– an inevitable backdrop in psychoanalysis, and in my memoir as well. I had never worried my depiction of my sister would leave her vulnerable to people’s judgments.
Another blind spot for me lay in the very fact that Peggy was my big sister: the mixed-up child-and-adult Anne still couldn’t imagine that I had the power to hurt her. As far as I was concerned, she was still indomitable. I could pummel her on the chest for hours with the weight of my little fists and she wouldn’t budge. Not that I had ever dared try.
I had actually thought Peggy and I had cleared the air twenty-three years ago when I revealed to her, tremulously, after endless therapy and much spiritual preparation, my realization that she had played the abuser when we were kids and she had played the victim. My words were strong but loving and without judgment. I had come to see that neither one of us had had any control over the roles we had taken on in our grieving family. At that encounter over lunch, she had taken in my words with a soulful gaze and responded, “I think you’re right.”
In all the years I spent writing my memoir, that conversation stayed with me. It was tacit approval from my big sister to tell the truth about our childhood struggles. And so I wrote freely about our mutual jealousy and resentments, believing Peggy was fully on board. In my mind, we had mourned our bumpy ride and forgiven one another. But I learned after publication that this pivotal moment in our relationship as adults seems to have not carried the weight for my sister that it had carried for me. Did she even remember our conversation at all?
When Peggy and I were kids, I was the one who was preoccupied with being good. She, on the other hand, seemed to relish transgressing boundaries in small ways , and she was admired even by our parents for her high spirits. She grew up, though, to be thoroughly good, a community leader, altruistic and compassionate. To see herself in the mean role drawn with the crude strokes of a little sister’s crayon was no doubt shocking. She hadn’t spent years, as I had, coming to terms with her shadow side.
It is obviously not possible, unless you have been a hermit since birth, to write a memoir about yourself without it being about others you love. It is surely no more possible to write a memoir and retain your sense of innocence within the family. I wanted to tell my story from the child’s perspective, raw and overwhelming, never co-opted by the adult tendency to minimize. There was no way to do this honestly without causing hurt. As I published Ollie Ollie In Come Free I really believed, naively, that I had managed to create a book that was essentially kind. But if it were so risk-free to be honest we would all do it all the time. And clearly few of us do.
So this blog post is all about me, but I am writing about my big sister too. How can it be otherwise?
for information on Ollie Ollie In Come Free: A Memoir of Swallowed Time, visit www.annebernardbecker.com.