Big Sister, Part I

sisters in matching outfits

Years ago, I read a book called ‘The Sibling Bond‘ after reading an enthusiastic review somewhere. I remember its theories and insights as uniquely thought-provoking. Now, it’s all just depressing.

The sibling bond is like no other relationship. It is fraught with everything under the sun – issues of identity, intimacy, security, fairness, all woven together in  a complex knotted mess.

I’m calling it a mess because I’ve had a major falling out with my sister, the sister I grew up with, the sister who was half of what my mom called “You Two Brats.”

In healthy families, children’s roles and identities are not fixed at birth or rigidly imposed early in life. In other families, however, parents fuse their children, treating them as if they were the same. The children are lumped together, treated as if they were each other’s twin despite differences in age, stage, sex and temperament. The children can become fused in their minds, because they are fused in their parents minds.

Sibling bonds will become intense when, as children, the siblings have had plentiful access, contact, AND have been deprived of reliable parental care.

I remember myself as an anxious, fearful child who looked to my sister for warmth and companionship. She was two years older, husky and athletic. I was skinny and clumsy and still can’t ride a bicycle. We ate together, bathed together, were punished together and rewarded together. When we fought and I tried to get our mother’s attention, she would scream, “You two fight it out!”

I gave up on the hope that my mother would intervene and protect me. So when my sister devised tortures to try out on me, I learned to accept my fate. The worst came at bath-time. My sister would take my cotton undershirt and hold it under the hot water tap until steam came off it. Then, I would have to put it on. It hurt and I cried but there was no escape.

The other bath-time torture was the wet bar of soap: She would order me to choose whether I wanted it “in the eye or in the mouth.” I remember the panicky brain work of making the choice. The choice was always wrong, naturally.

My sister had a huge problem with being copied. She became enraged if she perceived any copying. If I drew with a blue crayon, it might be construed as copying. She made up a thing to yell when she started to do something, meaning it was her idea and could not be copied. When she decided I had copied her, there was ‘slavery.’ It was actually called slavery.

Did everyone grow up this way? I really have no idea. But I loved my sister, because she was all I had. We made up a private language that we could speak a mile a minute. She taught me how to shave my legs. We both had to smoke our father’s cigar when he picked us up for Divorced dad dinners in expensive restaurants. We both had to endure his criticism of our hair and our teeth, and his self-congratulatory appraisal of his latest girlfriend.

Once, my sister was determined to get even with some guy for something, and the only way she could do it was to sleep with someone. I tried every argument to change her mind. When she announced that she planned to pick a stranger off the street, I told her to just use my former lover, a compliant stoner. She fucked him alright. She fucked him for around six months. At some point, I begged her to stop, but she wouldn’t. She told me that she wasn’t through getting even.

It was still a choice of the eye or the mouth, but without the choice factor.

We spent years of our lives, fused together or enraged at each other. We used to rely on each other to be what we called a Reality Guarantor, to compare our experiences or point of view. It was so reassuring. Whatever I might be worried about, she swore that it was nothing serious, it would go away or never happen or that she had it too and it wasn’t cancer.

Now we have crossed a line. Too many grievances have been aired. I see her as pathologically competitive and sadistic. She has rewritten my history, casting me as the villain in pieces where I was once the clear victim. Maybe it’s better to be the villain. The truth doesn’t matter to her, and I am the truth police, as everyone knows.

According to her, I’m the devil himself. “You think your shit don’t stink?” she shouted at me over the phone. Who even talks like that? Who are we, Mob Wives? Shouldn’t she at least say ‘doesn’t stink’?



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17 Responses to Big Sister, Part I

  1. Liz Moore says:

    I feels ya.
    I have six, count ’em, six younger sisters. We come from great dysfunction, and at this point I just don’t have the time, or energy, or hormones left to deal with the abuse of several. A few more I just kind of wave to in passing.
    There will likely always be a distrust and disconnect with other women due to these primal relationships with my sisters (and late mother.)

  2. annemarie says:

    My only brother stopped talking to me five years ago. I don’t know what kind of comments you want or expect to get on a post like this, but I’m going to risk being an annoying cunt and give you advice rather than sympathy! (Though of course I also sympathize; it’s out of sympathy that I offer this advice.)

    I’m not the Dalai Lama. I say this not out of compassion, but rather out of cynicism. If someone is deliberately mistreating you and in return receives only patience and openness, they will feel pretty good about themselves initially (Ha! That got her!), but eventually they’ll start to feel bad about being bad and then they’ll stop. They will even begin to feel grateful that although they acted despicably, you never judged them because you always recognized their true essence and inherent goodness. They will forever be indebted to you. Master-Slave reversal!
    For me, this is a hard-won and still-being-learned lesson. I’ve spent most of my 37 years assuming the worst of people because, for a damaged and insecure person like myself, there is nothing worse than feeling vulnerable and exposed to bad people and so it makes sense to always be ready for them when they strike. This belief has led to a life of nearly continuous conflict. I’ve come to realize, quite recently, that presuming the worst, even if I happen to be right, is always wrong.
    This is a hard thing to do when you think of yourself as the Truth Police. I also think I am always right and it’s made my life really fucking hard. It’s exhausting being right all the time, and I have no choice because I truly believe, hand-on-heart, that I am ALWAYS right (because I am) (<– see?). Essentially, all I want is for people to love me, but they have to love me on my terms. If they don't agree to the terms, it is a breach of love and I am unsafe. But of course I am not unsafe! I'm not a vulnerable, frightened child anymore.
    You can still be the Truth Police. I have no intention of ever getting off my high horse, but I realize now that I don't need to cling to it so hard. The horse isn't going anywhere.

    Your mistake was to make her the Reality Guarantor. I understand this– my friends have always been my Reality Guarantors. If they like me, then I must be ok. My confidence and self-esteem were systematically dismantled throughout my childhood and consequently whenever I fall out with anyone (which has happened more than I wanted– see above) I am virtually catatonic with depression for days and weeks afterwards. I think you should give this sister a long leash to act out and be a really bad bitch if she so desires. "Let her have her fun," as my granny used to say. Don't be offended by what she says. Who the fuck cares what she thinks? This is your life, not hers.
    (*Although some people will say that this is "easier said than done," I maintain that it is in fact very easy to DO something. The more you do it, the mind will follow. Quitting smoking taught me that.)

  3. Andra says:

    I just don’t understand this.
    My only sister is my very favourite person in the whole world. We have never had a cross word in our lives and I am arranging for her to come and live with me right now as she is slipping into dementia.
    I will care for her forever.

  4. Debbie says:

    I felt riddled with shame as I read this post. I am nine years older than my little sister. I tortured her and scared her and was horrible to her. I don’t even know why. When I grew up and matured I begged her for forgiveness. She has always said I was the best sister … omg … Still, whenever I recall the things I did to her I get sick to my stomach with shame. Over many years, I am 57 now and she is 46, the tables have turned. She has a lot of anger towards me (understandably) and I walk on eggshells around her. She has a mean streak and can eviscerate with her words. I guess I feel I deserve it. But with all that said, I love her dearly and if there is an issue or a problem between us I literally cannot sleep until I make it right. I think families are EXTREMELY complicated. We also had a mother who had lots of issues. So long story short, I don’t think your story is that uncommon.

  5. ali says:

    I like Annemarie’s post. Especially the discussion of the reversal of “the master-slave dialectic”. (God sometimes I want to puke when I read the sentences I write)

    Also, as a big sister, I can relate to you and I can relate to Debbie. I tortured my sister and she tortured me. I love her to death. I would die for her. Your post scares me because I could see us (my sister and me) getting to the point you’re at right now – but without my sister, I don’t know what reality is.

    I already quoted you once today in a conversation with a stranger, “Reality Guarantor”. Brilliant.

  6. ali says:

    sending you love. sister stuff is difficult. I adore you. xoxo

  7. Sil says:

    I don´t talk to my brother because he is dead. He was born 5 years before I was, and died 11 days later, so I have no choice about that. I am single child, so I cannot imagine being evil to a sibling, but I wish I could have the chance to talk to my brother.

  8. Dj says:

    I have two older sisters. Growing up we had no issues, no rivalries etc. the oldest is 10 years older and always mothered me, the second, 6 years older wouLd occasionally let me hang out with her and friends, never a problem it wasn’t until my 30s that my middle sister turned on me. I had come home from a disastrous relationship in New York, with nothing except the 3k I took from my fiancées sock drawer. It took three years for me to get my life back in order thanks to therapy, meds and my parents. My sister became jealous of the attention (believe me, it was critical for me to be in a supportive environment). Anyway, I finally moved to a new city and took a few things from my parents garage, an old bed frame, a couple of pieces my mother didn’t want, to set myself up.once that happened, the claws came out, accusations, horrible feelings. This went on for at least 15 years, she had a cushy bank job, I was schlepping trying to work , keep jobs, relationships etc. it went on and on. My other sister caught her on kind of hell from this sister, but that’s another matter. As we have gotten older things have mellowed, but there has been a lot of water under the bridge. Walking on eggshells. Too many very hurt feelings. Even my mother said years ago you can love her but that doesn’t mean you have to like her (my mother was also included in my sisters’ jealous wrath). My husband who grew up in a Leave it to Beaver household, cannot understand these dynamics. He often says it’s a shame the three of us can’t vacation etc together. He is dreaming. Fuses are short and it can become defcon 2 in an instant….love them but leave them alone…..

  9. Rosie says:

    I think big sisters are meant to be mean to younger sisters, surely this is the way of things. My sister was mean to me (not nearly as mean as yours’, but maybe that is a lack of imagination on her part, or she didn’t think she could get away with it). I idolised her and wasted too many years trying to be like her, and now I can’t understand why. She still tries to tell me what to do and how to live my life and how stupid I am, but I live on the other side of the world now and don’t have to see her much, but I love her a lot, and she just seems a bit sad and angry to me and I feel sorry for her now.

  10. Lynne says:

    This post and replies strikes close to home for me as I have two sisters I’m estranged from for different reasons. I am the oldest, but it was the middle sister who tortured me, and bullied my youngest sister. She is true bitch in every sense of the word, manipulative and ruthless. For years, I did everything to make our relationship work despite getting trashed every time. When I finally got strong enough, in my 40’s, to say no more, the whole family unit has crashed. I can’t be part if the craziness but by pulling away and setting boundaries, I have changed the dynamic (very dysfunctional) and have become their target. I have a very good job, bought a house, have been married happily for four years etc., meanwhile she has no job, no money, lives rent free in my parents house, has been through more men and marriages then most women have shoes, but somehow I am the bad person? She can’t stand it that I don’t care about what she thinks anymore, and she spends a lot of time filling my parents heads with bullshit…that they listen too. I could on and on but I won’t. Sibling relationships, especially in such a damaged family as mine, are treacherous and can ruin your life if you let them.

  11. Dj says:

    Love ’em and leave ’em……..

  12. Kellie says:

    I always wondered if I had missed out having a sibling.
    The correct answer is no. I am satisfied that i have missed nothing.
    I am so sorry that family life for you is so full of turds.
    We love you, and they dont count anymore. Let them go.


  13. Cricket9 says:

    Annemarie said it all: Who the fuck cares what she thinks? This is your life, not hers.
    I had two older brothers, they tortured me and beat the crap out of me – mostly the younger of the two, now dead, who also used to blackmail me into doing things or else he’ll hurt my cat. It took a while before I realized that he would never actually do it… Thanks to my brothers I’m quite resistant to pain and never, never never give up. We weren’t terribly close but went along well as adults. My oldest brother is a good to the bone person, and I love him…besides being my brother he’s just a really good guy.

  14. Duchesse says:

    Annemarie: Brilliant, and I hope you can take succor from that.

    A few decades of this shit taught me:
    1. Some relationships are limited, period. There is no guarantee that being a blood relative makes someone act decently toward you (or anyone else).
    2. Time outs can keep you sane. Permanent estrangement is like abortion: sometimes necessary and always sad.
    3. Accepting either the victim or villain label is a mug’s game. We all have some of both and the sooner we do not make ourselves our own hostage to either one, the better off we are.

  15. well your sister sounds like an asshole. SADLY we don’t get to choose our family members.

    i don’t know that this will make you feel better, but i have 3 siblings. one sibling/sister is my favorite person on earth. but then there is my oldest sister — sister christian. all she thinks about is jesus/god/church/living right/going to heaven/matthewmarklukeandjohn. church church church. jesus jesus jesus. heaven heaven heaven. celibacy celibacy celibacy (did i mention my family isn’t even CATHOLIC, so sadly a nunnery is out). she attends church 3x a week, plus bible studies every friday night. BLEH! we have next to nothing in common, short of our parents, and i become incensed within minutes every time i am around her. pretty sure she feels the same way about me. yay.

    and then i have a brother that sells HERBALIFE. talk about the devil himself!

    well, sorry, i didn’t mean to make this all about me. i am sorry your sister is a dick! i hope she mends her ways, but until then steer clear. it’s all about self-preservation if/when possible!

  16. Angie says:

    “In healthy families, children’s roles and identities are not fixed at birth or rigidly imposed early in life. In other families, however, parents fuse their children, treating them as if they were the same. The children are lumped together, treated as if they were each other’s twin despite differences in age, stage, sex and temperament. The children can become fused in their minds, because they are fused in their parents minds.”

    Thanks for this. Now I have something to quote the next time my mom calls me a “monster” because she had a fight with my brother.

    Honestly your relationship with your sister sounds codependent (not trying to be offensive, just my honest take on it)…it really might be better to get some space from her.

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