Don’t Write about Me!

dreamstime_xs_32322120“Keep writing, but don’t write about me!”

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.

 

Published by Anne Becker

Anne Bernard Becker is the author of Ollie Ollie In Come Free: A Memoir of Swallowed Time. Her book, published in October, 2014, explores the impact of her three older siblings' deaths on her childhood and growth in to adulthood, and is based on seven years in psychoanalysis in the 1980's and '90's. Anne grew up in South Bend, Indiana, and studied at Indiana University, the Sorbonne, University of Pennsylvania (M.A. in French) and Fordham University (M.A. in Religious Education). In 1978 she took a position as a campus and parish minister in Cincinnati. Since 2001 she has worked at a learning center as a reading specialist. Anne facilitates Family Constellation workshops that blend her ongoing interest in history, psychology and spirituality to explore the effects of ancestral trauma on family systems. A mother of three grown children, Anne lives with her husband Gerry in Cincinnati.

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11 Comments

  1. Anne,
    Your post resonates with me, truly. As you may remember, I am working on my own memoir and have been struggling with my adult angst about hurting my parents and/or siblings. When it comes down to it, it seems most important to be true to ourselves. Our childhood perceptions of those around us are just those– perceptions. The thing is, though, our perceptions then deeply affected our development, and therefore the rest of our lives. It is a learning experience for us all to realize how significant our childhood experiences are in the formation of our selves. Long story short — kudos to you for being true to your childhood voice! I did not view your sister as a monster at all. I immediately recognized the sibling power struggles for what they were– normal! I also identified with your childhood sensitivity. Some of us are just wired that way, and it makes these sibling battles loom very large in our psyches.

  2. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment, Ellen. This is such an excruciating issue for memoir writers. There is no clean and easy solution — I wish there were! I appreciated very much your affirmation about making the choice to be true to my childhood voice, and you state so beautifully the reasons why this is critical. Your thoughts were really moving to me. I am so looking forward to reading your memoir!

  3. This arose for me recently when a person only given a line or two in my memoir because we had never had contact suddenly crossed my path IRL. The occasion helped me reflect on how my lines (work in progress) may need a kinder lens.

  4. Thank you so much Anne. I am smack in the middle of wriitng my childhood memories in my MEMOIR. My sister was also a mean bully towards me. She actually would knock the breath right out of me, punching me in the stomach, locking me in the bathroom for hours threatening to kill me etc. I read a post in my journnal from age 11 ‘I think I need to run away from home. Ellen threatened to kill me!”. hmm.
    She is now 56 . I am 54. I am tempted to eliminate or ‘censor’ my writing about her (thinking it really isnt that important to dwell on?) but another part of me thinks it IS a vital/key piece to my story. She was also a drug addict at age 12 (She is now in AA and is sober) and recently she made some amends to me about her past.
    Id love to hear your thoughts on this situation? Thanks again.

  5. Thanks for these musings. I can so relate. My memoir also covers the sibling rivalry. But funny thing, though my sister and I are in our 60s, the first thing we did when she came for a visit recently was bicker about the Tiny Tears doll she stole from me. :o)

  6. Michelle, I really feel for you in undergoing all that abuse from your sister as a kid. The impact of these situations is so underestimated. If she made amends to you about the past, maybe she is in a position for you to have a conversation with her about the memoir — this is something I don’t think would have been a good option for me, but each situation is different. I really recommend Family Constellation Work for those of us who write about our families. It made a huge difference for me. If you go to my other website wwwceremoniesfamilyconstellations.com you can get some information about it — not sure where you live, but it might be something to seriously consider. Good luck to you!

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