I hope this letter finds you well. I really appreciate your column, and thought I'd solicit your advice on a rather hairy situation I'm embroiled in.
My older sister is furious with me. She hurt herself last weekend, and I had promised to get our brother to give her a ride to her job the next day, since she couldn't drive (she's on crutches temporarily). She hurt herself quite late at night and wasn't able to make other arrangements for her job (she's a Realtor). I was seeing my brother at my dad's house for brunch that morning, so I figured I would ask him then.
Unfortunately, it slipped my mind. It was a stressful morning -- I don't see my father often, and he immediately started sharing all this family history with me -- much of it incredibly sad and moving. He never speaks to me in this way, and I didn't want to interrupt him. By the time he wrapped up talking with me, my sister called, furious that my brother wasn't at her house yet. I felt terrible that I had lost track of time and not asked my brother earlier, and told her he was on the way.
This quickly escalated with numerous calls back to my father's house: She also needed her office keys, which were with her car keys. I had driven her car back from the emergency room the night before and still had it. However, I had gotten a lift with my husband to my dad's house: My sister's car and keys were at my mother's house (my parents are separated). I called my mother and asked her to meet my brother at my sister's house. All my family members live within 20 minutes of each other.
I thought that would take care of it, but my sister was livid. She screamed into the phone that I screwed her over. She then continued that she hadn't needed my help the night before (when I met her at the E.R.), but that she needed it that day, and I'd screwed her over.
I feel genuinely terrible about getting my brother to her late. The mishap with her keys -- well, I don't think I should take total blame for that. I had asked her, when I brought her home, if I should remove just her car key from her key chain so she could keep the rest. She said not to, since it would be a bother later. I implicitly assumed that meant she had other office keys around her house or that she didn't need the keys I was taking. My understanding was that I just had to get a ride figured out for her. I definitely messed up -- but she did get a ride. She was late, but she got there.
My concern is how to handle her anger. She once "disowned" me a few years ago when I walked away from her screaming at the front desk man at my older brother's condo. The clerk hadn't buzzed us in, though he could clearly see us. She really tore into him, threatening to have him fired. I walked away because I couldn't support how she was screaming at the guy, but was too cowardly to say this directly to her. She lit into me as we were driving away from my brother's home, saying how I've never had her back. She worked herself up quite a bit, then started saying that I was fundamentally selfish and didn't care about her. Even if she was doing something I disagreed with, she felt that as her sister I should take her side no matter what. It was an ugly fight, and I ended up hysterically getting out of her car in a not-so-great part of town. She drove off.
It took a long time (a few years) for things to settle down between us. I am not as close to her as I used to be, and frankly feel anxious sometimes when I see her: I worry about saying something wrong or inadvertently upsetting her. With this latest slip-up on my part, I'm afraid that she'll feel all her low opinions of me are confirmed: that I don't think of her, don't care about her, etc. I know I screwed up, but I also feel that it was a pretty human error. Maybe I should have asked my brother earlier that morning to get her. I got distracted trying to finish up a project with a firm deadline of that afternoon before going to see my dad. Sigh.
My sister is incredibly intelligent and thoughtful. She's great at getting things done. She also has anger issues -- they don't flare up often, but when they do she is terrifying. She also says incredibly hurtful things when she's like that (and even afterward, when her fury has transformed into an icy, long-lasting rage).
I called her to apologize (left a message). I want to speak directly with her, but feel also that this will just lead into several personal attacks that are ultimately unresolvable, i.e., she thinks I don't love her, when I do. A mistake is just that -- a mistake. Does it have to portend some deeper psychological attitude?
I feel fatalistic about the future of my relationship with her. The last time she blew up at me, she said something to the effect of "I will always have to love you because you are my sister, but I really can't care about you anymore." Those words hurt me more deeply than any others I've ever heard. Since then, I've protected myself from her by not getting too close anymore. I'm saddened by this. I feel like I might just have to wait this out, but worry that she won't come around.
Sigh. What do you recommend I do, Cary? Help me out.
Dear Resignedly Sad,
In the beginning of this letter your sister hurts herself and you set out to do something to help her but then there is this compelling obstacle: Your dad starts telling you this stuff about the family.
And you can't tear yourself away. It's a compelling scene. We can imagine you there, getting caught up in it. Later, upon reflection, we wonder: Has your sister's accident dislodged something in your dad's psyche, so that he tells you this stuff? Because we are creatures of narrative, always decoding, we assume that what your dad is telling you in this moment of crisis is in some way a clue to your sister's nature. But how are they connected? What is the story of your family?
He's telling you this crucial story but you're distracted by thinking about doing what your sister asked you to do. Maybe you're a little irritated with your dad, but also you're thinking, Why didn't you ever tell me this before? Then the phone rings, and it's your sister yelling at you, as she has been yelling at you all your life.
In this family, you are in the middle. What about your own life, you must be thinking. How is it that you are the one who has to ask the brother to drive the sister to the office?
Nobody should be yelling at you. Maybe your sister is unbalanced. You know, maybe she's one of those people who have a personality disorder, where they yell. So your job in that respect is not to take the yelling. You can love your sister without having to talk to her.
What interests me is how the details of your cars and keys and houses make for a situation of blame. Your sister seizes the privileges of the injured; she invokes the drama of emergency in which we yell because whatever it is has to be done right now and there isn't time for explaining or dilly-dallying because the world is going to explode. The person who is injured or who possesses knowledge about the ticking time bomb is in the right and everyone else is a fool and must bow down to this person because she knows.
Movements have to be synchronized. If your sister were there, of course, she would orchestrate it perfectly. But she is injured. So all you incompetents must be trusted with this task and of course you will fail.
I'm sure it's very difficult being your sister.
Is this how it is all the time? Is your family a military family? There seems to be a lot of logistical coordinating going on. Maybe your sister is good at that, because she's always driving out to show houses. She's always getting the keys to the lock box and arranging meet-ups at title companies and insurance offices and little diners out near the house she's showing. That's what she does for a living. And people must get their shit together for her. Because she is making things happen and everything has to happen at the right time, and correctly, because she is a Realtor. So she thinks she's hot. But she's a bully. She likes to threaten people and throw her weight around. Does she have a lot of weight? Does she eat when she's angry? How is her heart? Well, that's none of your business. Your job is to stay out of her way, and stay calm, and not let her mess with you.
You are different from your sister.
If I were you, I would find out more about what your dad has to say about all these sad things in the family. And keep your sister at a distance. She is dangerous. You can't change her. You have to keep her at a distance and take care of yourself. And move yourself out from the middle of these situations to somewhere on the periphery. Make yourself unavailable.
If you move yourself to the periphery, your sister will find replacements. I'll bet she has a second string of eager players who can be whistled into her game to take hits and fall in the mud. Let her call on some of them. You have better things to do.
Like get your father to tell you the rest of this story.
Here are some little ideas for you, like bonbons:
Live your life fearlessly.
Write this in lipstick on your mirror: "My sister is nuts!"
Go to a therapist.
Talk to your father more.
Cultivate sane friends.
Ask your brother if he thinks your sister is nuts.
Don't ask your brother if he thinks your sister is nuts.
Be glad you don't all live in the same house.
Have a celebration, with a cake, celebrating the fact that you don't all live in the same house.
For now, try to live your life in such a way that your sister's weirdness occupies a tiny little fragment of your consciousness. Shrink down your thinking about your sister until you can hardly even see it. Then take a blowtorch to that little speck and burn it off.
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