In fiction writing, we have something called the “unreliable narrator”—a story-teller that we eventually discover can’t be counted on for objective accuracy or full disclosure. We readers often end up surprised by what the “truth” is.
“Truth,” however, is a slippery concept. There is a sense in which all of us are unreliable narrators. The narratives we construct about our lives are invariably subjective and may radically differ from those of other folks who experienced the same events.
I was reminded of this when I had several heart-to-heart discussions about our childhood during a recent visit with my two older sisters. When I was a newborn, and my sisters were four and seven, our mother had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized. Our father’s initial response was to send the three of us out to California for two years to live with his mother-in-law. She was less than thrilled to take us in and was very cold toward my sisters—pushing them off her lap if they sought comfort when they missed their mommy and daddy. Meantime, the housekeeper my dad had hired to care for us was fixated on me, the baby, and ignored my sisters.
In those early years, I experienced my sisters as not particularly friendly. They were a tight dyad, bound not only by the closeness in their ages but by the experience of what amounted to a double-abandonment by their parents and the total absence of any adults they could count on for love and support.
So what did I take away from all of this? First off, a lot of guilt that I somehow caused our mother’s breakdown. I was yet another girl instead of the highly desired boy my parents had hoped for—and I even arrived with a birth defect. Moreover, I was convinced that my sisters blamed me for their mother’s abandonment and furthermore, heartily disliked me as the housekeeper’s favorite. So convinced was I that my sisters’ rejection was due to associating my arrival on the scene with losing their mom that this became part of the narrative I shared in “Flying at Fifty,” the semi-autobiographical dance concert I produced the year I turned fifty.
Imagine my surprise when my sisters insisted they had no memory of ever blaming me for their mother’s disappearance from their lives. My middle sister told me that like me, she had blamed herself for our mother “going crazy” and felt terrible about herself because she wasn’t able to fix our mother. My oldest sister insisted she’d never blamed either one of us—or herself for that matter. At seven, she knew her mother had a serious problem and needed help, and it never occurred to her that this was her fault.
As for why they weren’t especially friendly toward me—well, there was the big age difference and the fact that the “idiot housekeeper” wouldn’t let them anywhere near me. Most big sisters find their much younger kid sisters annoying (and I was). Besides, they were busy trying to survive.
What is the “truth”? All of the above, and none of the above. Each of us owns our memories, feelings, and subjective versions of reality. A beautiful fictional example of this is the acclaimed series, “The Affair,” in which we see the same scene played out from distinctively different points of view. The dialogue and the sequence of events dramatically diverge.
None of us is the keeper of the “truth” about our lives. All we can do is to continue to stay open to new information and other people’s points of view. There will probably always be that part of me that doesn’t fully believe there weren’t moments when my older sisters didn’t resent the hell out of me, and that piece of me, however irrational, that feels guilty that I didn’t experience the same level of suffering that they did. (There are, after all, some advantages to being a blissfully unaware infant.)
But what really makes me happy is that my sisters and I have drawn much closer as we’ve gotten older. I no longer feel like the unpopular outlier. We not only love each other deeply, but we really appreciate and admire one another and feel proud that we haven’t allowed a problematic childhood to define our lives as adults.
We’re survivors. And you know what? That feels pretty darned good.