My Sister and Myself (April 2007)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 02:26

My Sister and Myself

 Saga Magazine April 2007

My sister was the first grandchild on my father’s side of the family and her parents’ only child. According to one of my aunts, my sister took considerable pride in her position. On her sixth birthday, when she was sitting on the birthday chair and her class was singing Happy Birthday to her, someone came and told her that she had a baby sister. Her world fell apart.

The psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell says that, on the birth of the second child, the firstborn suffers a trauma from which the child never recovers. Mindful of this, most parents nowadays spare no effort in preparing their first child for the arrival of the second. There’s much patting of Mummy’s tummy, and conversations about and with the baby inside, and, on the day of the birth, a very special present. Sometimes whatever parents do is not enough. One mother told me that she thought that her four year old daughter had accepted the new baby, but one day the little girl, casting a disparaging look at her sister, said to her, ‘Couldn’t you have kept her inside you for longer?’

My mother never mentioned anything relating to sex, so of course she had not warned my sister of my arrival. Nor would she have tried to understand what my sister was feeling once I had arrived. Instead, she became very distressed and angry at all that was being demanded of her as a new mother. It seems from family accounts that her distress tipped over into depression. So my father and the aunt who was looking after me decided to send my sister to stay with another aunt. Her absence from her home might have been no more than two or three weeks, but to a six year old this would have aeons of time. Although my sister was always frightened of her mother she was anxiously attached to her, and she loved her father dearly. To be separated from her parents and from her home was torture.

Children have no control over their circumstances but they do have a choice over how they interpret those circumstances. Some of their early interpretations have major repercussions for the rest of their lives. When a new baby arrives and the older child feels displaced, that child has a choice of whom she should blame for the tragedy, her mother or the interloper. When Charles Dickens’ improvident parents sent him to the blacking factory so that his sister Florence could continue her music lessons, Dickens chose to blame his parents. However, he was twelve and already had a close, loving relationship with Florence. A child as young as six knows that she depends on her parents for her survival, and so she cannot afford to blame them. So the newborn becomes the one who ruined her life. This not only set the course for much of my sister’s life, it also set the course for much of mine.

When I was twenty my father told me about another sad event that followed my birth. He said that he had wanted a son who would become the passionate sportsman that my father was, and when I was born he was so disappointed that he did not love me. In an effort to awaken a spark of love, each evening when he came home from he would cuddle me and talk to me. One evening he heard my sister say to her mother, ‘Doesn’t Daddy love me anymore?’

Our parents never talked to my sister and me about our relationship. I felt that my sister did not so much dislike me as despise me. When we are wounded, in anger and pain we may seek to wound others, and thus my sister set about undermining my self-confidence much in the way that her mother was undermining hers with constant criticism. Our relationship was at its best when my sister was teaching me something, because she loved to instruct and I loved to learn. However, I was much more academic than she was, and once she could no longer instruct me she scorned me for being ‘brainy’. We had learned to express our anger in the way that our mother did, loudly and often violently. Our parents would break up a fight if our noise disturbed them, but they never sat us down and talked to us about what led to our fights. Feelings weren’t talked about in our house, because the strongest feelings expressed in that house were my mother’s rages and what I came to call sulks. She could go for as long as six months not talking to us, though occasionally issuing orders from behind her bedroom door. During these times my father and I found the tension in the house close to unbearable. What my sister felt I do not know. When I’ve raised the subject with her she’s said that she doesn’t remember, not even the six month sulk that Mother had when my sister, a respectable married woman, became pregnant.

It was not until I was in my thirties and working in a child guidance clinic in Sydney that I realised that I’d been born into a problem family. The children of problem families have to adapt as best they can to the situation in which they find themselves. When they find that their parents are incapable of parenting them, some siblings form a close bond so that they can look after one another. I longed to be close to my sister, but I think she felt that she didn’t have the strength to look after me as well as herself. Part of surviving a long term difficult and dangerous situation involves making a decision about how to remember painful events. There are two basic techniques. One is to push the memory of bad events deep into your unconscious mind so that your memory of the past is patchy and vague. The other is to think about past events, trying to understand what had happened so that you can be prepared for whatever may come. It’s a choice between amnesia and paranoia. My sister chose the first and I chose the second. Each method worked well for each of us while we were still at home. My quest for the answer to, ‘Why does my mother behave as she does?’ widened into the question, ‘Why do people behave as they do?’ which became my life’s work. However, in later life, our different ways of dealing with the past has created an unbridgeable gap between us.

When siblings grow up they can have some fun conversations and some almighty arguments about whose memory of their shared past is correct. When I was researching for my book on siblings I frequently came to the conclusion that some of the pairs of siblings I met had grown up in different universes. Reconciliations are possible, but only when both siblings are prepared to accept that neither sibling is in possession of the absolute truth and that compromises are needed on both sides. This is not possible when one sibling has repressed all memory of her past and wishes to keep it that way.

In the course of my work as a psychologist I have seen how secrets destroy people lives simply because they are secrets. Whenever we think that we have to keep something secret, the content of the secret assumes a mythical importance way out of proportion to its importance in reality. When secrets are taken out into the clear light of day, they shrivel, becoming ordinary, even amusing. However, uncovering dearly held secrets requires a good deal of self-confidence. My mother thoroughly destroyed my sister’s self-confidence. She had never recovered from this. As a result, if I inadvertently allude to something in the past, be it some happy event, or an event where I feel great sympathy for my sister, she silences me with a look of considerable ferocity.

I used to find this very annoying, especially if I was seeking some information about my family’s history. Now I find it sad. Like my mother, my sister has become benign in her old age. When she was eighty, Mother gave up watching her daughters closely so that she could vent her displeasure if they dared to break one of her rules. She had spent her life inveighing against the universe, but now she told me, ‘I’ve had a good life.’ This was the equivalent of Ian Paisley declaring that he’d always admired the Catholic Church. Similarly, after a lifetime of ordering me around, my sister now thanks me if I phone or call to see her, and she expresses concern about my health. It’s only quite recently that I’ve felt brave enough to write about her and the effect she’s had on my life, and doing this has helped me reach a point where all I feel is sadness that the kindly relationship we enjoy now didn’t exist for all of my life.

© Dorothy Rowe 2006