There is nothing in this world more brutal than family. Nobody can twist the knife like a parent or sibling. The attacks come from all angles, and you never know whether to duck and cover or join in the fray.
I always laugh when women talk about sisterhood like it's a kumbyah thing. It can be, sometimes. And sometimes it's a war. Yet even when you swear you hate each other, the fact of the matter is your sister would do anything to save your life. And that brings us to Gina Frangello's My Sister's Continent, my nomination for Spring 2006.
Two years after her twin sister disappeared, Kirby Braun tries to piece together the truth of her sister's life. Kendra returned home just as Kirby entered therapy to deal with what is apparently a case of serious pre-wedding jitters. Kendra's very presence unleashes chaos, shattering the veneer of the Braun family. Without their glossy All-American surface, this family cannot hold together.
My Sister's Continent is a contemporary reworking of Sigmund Freud's "Dora" case study. As Kirby digs into her sister's journals, she discovers ugly truths about Kendra's world -- and the source of her twin's penchant for multiple types of masochism. Each layer of Kendra's life reveals another secret. While Kirby discovers her true self in her exploration, she learns the secrets that lead to Kendra's ultimate act of self-destruction.
A description of My Sister's Continent cannot do the story, the writing, the raw edges justice. This is a book that requires reading to appreciate the frankness and violence. And what better place to start than with an introduction:
Like most siblings, Kendra and I went to school, took family vacations. We separated when she went away to New York while I remained behind, close to our parents, whose sole attention was finally mine. Had she never moved back to Chicago at all (as was her intent), everything would have turned out differently. She did return, and we welcomed her, a prodigal daughter who, as always, would frighten us a bit but make our lives more interesting. My father, mother, and I, who had always formed a tentative union against her impropriety. Her impropriety. Mild by most standards: she was neither junkie nor criminal—not even prone to interracial dating or homosexuality. We were a tame family, and her small-scale rebellions, such as they had been, were enough to keep us awed and ill at ease. We worshipped her, and resented one another for it. Or do I misremember everything? You had known us, some of us, for a decade. No doubt there were demons to which you became privy that even now I cannot glean.
The storm that had been brewing in my family for that entire decade, though, did not officially hit until the November of my twenty-second year. The world was approaching a millennium. Nuclear weapons were becoming popular again. America had divided along lines of those who believed Bill Clinton the devil, and those who thought the devil to be Kenneth Starr. In a recently gentrified area of Chicago, in a newly constructed loft, I was living with my longtime boyfriend, Aris. Aris and I were getting married. Everyone was happy about the engagement. Everyone likes weddings, particularly when they are expected. My engagement ring was quite big. Aris made a good living considering his age, which was twenty-six, but the ring was a family heirloom, so neither of us was responsible for its grandeur. Since getting the ring, I had taken to polishing my nails. They were short and stubby, but looked reasonably nice if I didn't paint all the way to the sides—just a slash of red to elongate. I'd learned the trick from my mother, who despite her devotion to God, always managed to know such worldly details. Because my sister lived far away, in a universe where the ghost of Balanchine was the only parent a ballerina required, I was often able to receive the full brunt of my mother's considerable wisdom.
Kendra did not approve of my engagement. She found me, I assumed, a pathetic sell-out to some lofty, unspecified goal that marriage at an early age would surely thwart. Luckily, nobody much cared what she thought, since she rarely came home, and the fanatical rigor of her life, with its accompanying dismissal of love as a lower art form, made us squirm. All we required was that, come the following October, she dutifully don a maid of honor's dress that would not outshine my restored, Victorian wedding gown, and give a well-mannered toast before getting sloshed. Then she'd be free to seduce a groomsman or glare at my new husband as she chose.
First, however, before my father would fork over the requisite miniature fortune for my century-old dress, he insisted I make an appointment with his former psychiatrist (that'd be you) about the matter of my diarrhea. Mere vomiting he might have understood: we all have delicate stomachs in my family, and somebody or other was always throwing up in the bathroom, the car, along the side of the road. Even my mother began to suffer from nausea the longer she was exposed to my father's lineage, as if having borne my sister and me was enough to transmit our shortcomings into her purer blood. But diarrhea was another thing entirely. Vomit is bad, but shit transcends all boundaries of good taste.
Come back the week of May 8 to join in the discussion about My Sister's Continent. Gina Frangello will be guest blogging, Ed's put together a great podcast, and we'll be talking about the book. A lot.