Posted on May 6th, 2020
For several months in sixth grade I couldn’t sleep. To solve this problem, my sister shared her bedroom. It had two beds in it (we lived in Texas, space came big and cheap) and my sister’s hushed whisperings before falling asleep cured my insomnia. Her words, her language that I spoke so fluently, comforted me then.
When we were young Julia was “the athlete” and I was “the writer.” These identities were fueled by our respective chosen activities of sports and poetry writing at Barbara Bush Middle School and Ronald Reagan High School (again Texas).
The imaginary novel I would write was always about my family. It would be big and convoluted, the way my family felt. I knew deep down I would write this novel and talked about it incessantly. As a family we often joked about “the book.” One Christmas my mother was sobbing over a box of cheap ornaments. She looked up at me through tear stained eyes laughed, and said, “don’t ever write about this.”
For many years the construction of narrative identity has been studied by analyzing how individuals reconstruct their own stories. In Kate McClean’s book “the Co-authored Self” she discusses the concept of narrative ecology. Essentially “narrative ecology comprises the stories that are available to a person as he or she develops, the stories that form each person’s particular narrative landscape.” (Mclean 2016) In this way we can imagine our identities as not simply shaped by our own internal story-making process, but rather as being formed through an ecosystem of stories we tell, stories told to us, and stories told about us.
Julia published her first article about our family’s history with addiction on July 8, 2015. In my imagined identity, I was the story-teller and Julia was a character. Instead, it ended up being the other way around. In the article she wrote, “I hold very thin relationships with my biological family who have caused this pain” which at the time felt like news to me. Later in the piece she says that she “was baptized” and that a new family had “all but adopted” her. I was hurt, furious, anxious, and stunned.
With those words I could imagine her walking away from our family. Her back is to us, but before she is completely gone she turns back and marks us. She marks our family’s identity as abusive, dark, sick, and damaging. Then she turns back around and keeps walking. I feel the loss of that identity acutely.
Some of my best memories with Julia have been relegated to her dark pre-evangelical past. Getting stoned and dancing to Bob Marley’s Buffalo Solider in our living room, filling an entire room with laughter at parties together, polishing off a bottle of wine while we bitched about our parents, and sneaking cigarettes with our “bad aunt” during family reunions are all stories I imagine her telling her new family with remorse. I am not remorseful. These are part of my identity, my narrative ecology, and I feel as if they have to be erased.
My identity, my narrative ecology, forever shifted when Julia began to write our family’s stories down. Julia’s narrative will always be first. She shaped the narrative. She told the story.
I am uninterested in my sister’s chosen genre and subject matter. There is plenty of alcoholic/abusive family confessional writing in the world. We have those stories, they have been done well, and I don’t think our family is particularly unique or interesting enough to warrant this type of public writing.
Thousands of miles away in Namibia, a country I have never been to, Julia is on a mission trip. There is a good chance she too is writing this very moment, as I put these words onto the page. We are not sharing our words anymore, whispering in the night, now we are adults who are writing. Language, her language, our language has always been and remains important to me. Who has ownership over these stories we both orbit? Like two moons, with vastly different trajectories, we circle the same planet, pulling its tides in different directions.