A decline of the importance of descent
and a rise of the importance of alliance.
— Juliet Mitchell, Siblings
I find myself wading out past that barren
island and into other waters, warm and loving,
but frightening too, because of that very
thing — the love that one can find, looking
past the wreckage.
— Hilton Als, Alice Neel, Uptown
I think I don’t know my faraway sisters well, but then I remember that one hates cinnamon and the other likes last night’s leftovers for breakfast. I call them “faraway” sisters because they are the farthest of my sisters from me: The distance measures 5,433 miles (J) and 9,994 miles (V). My other siblings are around 800 miles from me — a little but not so far away, on the same continent, in Europe. As children we lived under the same roof, within the same structure, so these nearer siblings cannot be thought of as far away, even now that I have moved away from them. I used to lie on my bed in the nearer siblings’ household, that of my mother and stepfather, thinking across to where J and V, my faraway sisters, were. Perhaps, in the case of my writing about family here, it is easier to begin from what’s farthest away than to begin from what’s close to home, because there’s more space for projection.
The faraway sisters, who moved many times during their upbringing, say, “Home is where the family is,” or “Home is where the mother is.” Their mother is not my mother, so this orientation does not include me. It has been a long time since home was where my mother was — since the birth home, in rural England, which exists far back in my mind as a kind of originary base. I say: Home is split — one place plus someplace else — and it is in this split that I became a writer.
Home is not — for me or for them — where the father is, although our father was the beginning of what we had (have?) in common. For me, home has never been with him: His places, which kept changing, were proposed as second homes, but this never became a felt reality. Their home was once made with him and their mother, and now isn’t. They share the experience of this breakage, whereas the event of his first departure from my mother and me is not something I can access, apart from through an absence in what came after. This gap between how life is lived in each of the homes — out of sync across time zones — sits at the bottom of my stomach.
I still see my father in the mirror, even now that I have stopped seeing him. I see him in odd places, like my calf muscle and forearm freckles, and in obvious ones, like my nose bone. For these two sisters, there is no biological evidence of him, for they were adopted from different mothers at birth, but he “raised” them, as he didn’t raise me.
I am writing about these two sisters because our relation exists in difference and in comparison. If we each feel in some sense out of place, the reasons behind this — depending on race, class, surroundings, and positions within shifting family structures — are divergent. After the end of the idealization of our father, I am writing about these two sisters because our relation endures in a way that seems almost miraculous. Because, in the words of psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell, what is present does not need re-presentation; what is missing does.
In her lecture “Kinship Trouble in The Bacchae,” gender theorist Judith Butler looks to the feuding families of Greek tragedy to consider how time and space are ordered through relation. Kinship, a wider matrix of relations than family, reaches beyond blood and conjugality; it can be “derived from reproductive relations or patrilineality or freely chosen associations legally or non-legally established.” She asks, “But if we do define [kinship] that way, as an enduring or defining set of relations, clearly mappable, have we perhaps infused a certain idealization into the definition that is defied by the practice itself?” Yes — the real life of kinship eclipses fixed terms or models, in tension with the colonial-modern prerogative to confine family to a countable, locatable unit.
The geographical mappability of my family did little to help me situate my self within it. The line of writing came to try to imprint an I in place and time, in relation to imagined others reading. Yet when a family history is in pieces, its narratives also resist stability, resist wholeness. Even past the smaller unit of family, the links of farther-reaching kinship are characterized by breaches and breaks. Relations frequently fail and fade, to the extent that, in Butler’s words, it may be more truthfully “defined by its own ruptures.”
Kinship has a talismanic ring to it, but behind the word lie a multitude of severed histories. In the afterlives of transatlantic slavery, as enunciated by black-studies scholars Saidiya Hartman and Christina Sharpe, the pronouncement of kin can be as much an invocation of community as a marker of loss. The other side of this is the heralding of Family, capital F, by white nationalists: an insular form that when reproduced at scale reaches only the borders of Nation. If Father exists on the side of Family, then sisterhood, in its concern for alliance more than descent, errs on the side of kin.
I turn to psychotherapeutic texts, which in their origins also turned to Greek tragedy, to try to understand these familial structures — and so to get past them. In “The Politics of the Family,” psychiatrist R. D. Laing describes how the parts, objects, people, that make up “the family” are a fantasy. He writes how “the family of origin” — by which I think he intends the household(s) one grew up in, rather than “origins” in a racial sense — becomes the “family” as a psychic structure — an internal schema — which is then “mapped back onto the family and elsewhere.” The family household, where one lives as a child, becomes internalized, a blueprint for social relations, until its semiconscious patterns are seen through, if one tries as an adult to reckon with the structures inherited.
Laing writes that “the family is a common we, in contrast to them outside the family.” This separation spells out the potential violence of the nuclear family unit, suffocating to insiders and hostile to those on the outside. But there are also subgroups of we and them within the family, and this is true for stepfamilies in particular, with parts overlaid, vectors rearranged, edges rubbing with friction. Me over here, them over there. Him and her and now she, without me. Then another break, then another her with him. The stories told on either side of the divide may not add up.
In stepfamilies, there is often a past family that has ceased, and present families, plural; their grammar is less simple, more conditional. A stepfamily can only exist after a first family implodes, and is only partly related to biology. It supplements the original parent and sibling sets with unlikely duplicates, expanding as well as fragmenting the home base. With disparate children now placed side by side, there is new rivalry, along with the possibility for new bonds and comradery. Yet insofar as its children do not choose it, the step-situation is more of a complication of the family than a liberation.
With these quasi-mathematic mind maps, or in the space-time axes of storytelling, I look for ways to lay out the multiplication of relations. Living them stays entangled, disorientating.
Although my family was more dispersed than those of most white people in my school, the predicament of feeling out of place or without place within family is not unusual. Such actual and felt displacement is heightened — to different and particular degrees — in diasporic families, in families of exile, in families broken by the Middle Passage. In the words of poet Sandeep Parmar, in “generation[s] twice [or more] removed from ‘home,’” in second- or third-generation children, in mixed-race children, and in children of divorce. These categories are not mutually exclusive, nor exhaustive, and the spaces between them hold more than their naming. Most are not my material reality, though I think across the overlaps as I try to make present a personal feeling of absence.
My faraway sisters, now young adults moving through the world, have used the term “third culture” to describe themselves, in that they were adopted separately in Southeast Asia by white parents and raised in an “expat,” “blended” family, which moved metropolises multiple times according to the demands/desires of the multinational corporations for which their adoptive parents worked. In their family, which they also sometimes call “rainbow,” these two sisters share the fact of their being adopted and of their racial difference from their parents and siblings. Uprooted identities, the structural product of imperialisms, which extend into the mixed-up present. Two girls, who in this situation, quite common in its strangeness, I would call my sisters too.
My coordinates, like theirs, are shifting, or else missing. But if I lost my sense of place in the world with the fragmentation of the family, this displacement is less physical and more psychic. To my sisters, I am also a distant point, preexisting their birth. I am from their adoptive father’s previous life. During their childhood I lived in the same country as our shared set of grandparents — a cold, gray place, with rolling green hills in the summer, whose vampiric empire had scored out large parts of the fractured map we all live in. At the sunken heart of such relations is implacability, so that given terms like oldest sister (I), adopted half sister (she), or younger stepbrother (he) are only placeholders.
With faraway, rather than half- or step-, I realize I place the emphasis on distance, rather than fraction. Wondering about the roots of step- in English, I imagined an abbreviation of “one step removed,” but when I looked it up I found that the prefix refers not to distance but to loss. Step- comes from the Old English steop-cild, meaning orphan, lost child, with roots in steupa-, “bereft,” “pushed out.” Upon reading this, I was struck by, or seen in, a home truth of language. The idea of a child being orphaned by divorce may be a little hyperbolic, but with the likelihood of one parent’s departure or withdrawal, it seems at least half true. There is certainly the loss of a previous world. (Would my sisters, from the perspective of being adopted, relate to this too?) The dictionary entry continues that Germanic variants end with “f” (stief-), because of assimilating, at least according to one theory, the first sound of subsequent words for father. Sometimes etymology runs as deep as the unconscious.
Step- as a prefix to sibling has a different effect than stepchild or stepparent; it ought to signal an addition, not a subtraction. Yet Juliet Mitchell argues in Siblings: Sex and Violence that the birth, or preexistence, of any sibling, not only a half or step, presents a latent threat to the other sibling’s uniqueness — and whole existence. This is a primary negotiation of defining a self in relation to an other, of working out one’s sameness and one’s difference. A conciliation can be reached in childhood, or later, or develop into deep-seated rivalry. The originary struggle between siblings is held by Mitchell as an ongoing substructure of peer relationships throughout life — for identification against alienation, for the feeling of being part of (or apart from) a series, for similarity versus specialness. It plays too into social power dynamics: into the damaging binary of us vs. them, defending territory from outsiders, projecting hate onto not-kin, or idealizing those that seem enough like us — like us, but just slightly different. Explained in terms of the ego’s experience of simultaneous love and hate, all these have part of their psychic origins, for Mitchell, in “the trauma of threatened replication.”
In the case of the arrival of first V, then J, a couple of years apart, there was not this so-named idea of replication or replacement — there was too much distance and difference between us for that. There was a wave of something during the weekly phone call from my father, in which, as usual, he struggled to press words from this taciturn 7-year-old; in which, this time, he told how they, he and my stepmum, had adopted a baby daughter — V, my new sister. I am sitting at the bottom of the carpeted stairs, cordless phone, still in pajamas. I stand up with the news, pacing a few steps in the hallway, pink wallpaper with nineties sponged pattern. A rising wave of something . . . brief anger at him, for not having been asked or told earlier; she wasn’t recently conceived, yet to be born, she was already there. The washing over of a fear, based on a reality, of being left behind by their new life. The wave hits a seawall, before it can crest: the barrier that keeps me out.
Upon hanging up, after a pause, now sunk and re-risen with acceptable smiles of anticipation, I passed the news on to my mother. The words of my immediate reaction on the other end of the phone have been lost to immemory. I know they would have been brief, edited early by the prohibitive, Pollyanna motto of my mother, a schoolteacher: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all. I was a quiet child.
I was already living with my very first half sister, my mother’s new daughter, in the house I was sitting in, but this felt different. This was a child who would get to be with my father, I imagined, all of her time. That was the quick burn and the long longing I could retrospectively name jealousy. His relation with another woman had made a couple; the addition of a child made a family. Another family, which, despite the given possessive pronouns — your new sister, my new sister — did not feel like mine.
The tarot healer and social worker Jessica Dore writes online that jealousy contains two main elements: scarcity and entitlement. In The Drama of the Gifted Child, the psychologist Alice Miller writes that envy has to do with disturbances to the self, that it can be “the result of the defense mechanism of displacement.” Displacement of feelings from one object to another — here, rage at the father turned into envy of the sister. But also, I would say, displacement in terms of a shift in one’s place, as the family is rearranged.
V’s name next appears in the cards he sends; he is excited for me to meet her, and hopes that I am too. Via the cards, she begins to crawl, to babble, to talk. She is very sweet. He hopes I am being a “good girl” for my mum. At the end of every card, a fiat of goodness. (The parental nightmare being that the broken family results in misbehavior and bad grades for the child splayed in the parting, so increasing their guilt.)
I don’t recall meeting V for the first time during one of my school-holiday visits, but I do remember more generally coming to experience, yes, her sweetness, toothless smile and frizz of hair tied with a ribbon. I remember being asked to watch her as she practiced crawling up the stairs, tossing building blocks as she went, me anxious and attentive in case my guard did not hold. By then I had caught up with the schema: If I wanted a place here, it would be as kind big sister, “good enough” to idealize. So I became better than enough, barricaded my difficult feelings, and felt out my given role. From there, the fondness could become real.
Being put together and told that you are sisters, a status more and other than friends. Here is a person, an almost-peer, whom you are called to act a certain way toward, to look after or spend time with. The child may more easily extend her hand, glad of a partner for a game, whereas the teen has guards up and moods to circle in, does not need further intrusions as she stumbles to find her identity. If at the time of acquaintance the half- or stepsisters are growing up into older children or teenagers, there is a mutual measuring of qualities, vices, appearances. During the process of getting-to-know, like with a new girl at school, each regards the other with suspicion. An argument holds everything at stake, because making up is not a given. Like biological or same-parents sisterhood, this kind comes with a dose of obligation, but like social or political sisterhood — like friendship — it is more at risk of fading or failing without maintenance.
While the requirements of love and loyalty expected from this quasi-artificial family relation may feel like an imposition out of nowhere, gaining a half- or stepsibling also rings with the chance of fate. Like the migratory stork swooping down with a baby, the sudden presence of sorority is a soft bump of life, a question mark of relation. “What are we to one another?” Judith Butler asks. “Who am I to you? Perhaps kinship happens precisely when we are least sure . . . vacillating, suspended in a state of protracted incredulity.”
Tiana Reid writes of the wonder of meeting her baby sister, in the subsequent household of her father, also far from her main home — the distance between New York and Jamaica. She wakes up in the night to find her having climbed into the king-size bed, a tiny foot resting on her collarbone, “her toes like my necklace.” I recognize the surprise of intimacy, which glints within a wider pool of unknowability. I remember sharing a mattress with these half-sisters too, them toddlers, me the elder, wanting to not sleep alone, to share in their proximity. I recognize how new sisters swiftly find themselves entwined. Half- or stepsisters may be less unconditional than sisters sisters, but it is tying.
Somewhat strangely, the uncertainty of the condition is at the root of why such sisterhood has the potential to be so special. A threshold of effort is necessary to either make or break the relation. Theorist Sophie Lewis reminds us that kinship, unlike Family, “is always made, not given,” and that often “where kinship is assumed as a given, it fails to be made.” Being un-given, this sisterhood, if it is to live up to its name, must be made. Being un-given, it gets to be a gift. And if that sounds too sugarcoated, gifts can be unwanted or longed for, surplus or lack. More than this metaphor of objects (children) passed around, the exchanges of this sisterhood belong to sociality, and so surpass the small family. In their most hopeful realization, they open into a form of solidarity. After the split of the parental couples, each of us daughters was still there — relating.
When I was a teenager visiting their home, I said to J & V, still girls: “When I am grown, you can come to stay with me.”
It is a decade later and I am “grown up” and they are coming — somewhat “grown up” too. When they arrive in Berlin, immediately after we ascend from the U-Bahn, a market seller calls out at J “Kaneecheewaa.” I smart for the setting she is in, which I have brought her to, and apologize on behalf of it, but she is used to the call more than I am used to hearing it. Such interruptions occur for her in multiple places.
It should be summer, but of course it is raining, and puddles are making the bottoms of J’s tie-dyed pants soggy. She has only packed flip-flops. I apologize on behalf of northern Europe, and wonder if we share a shoe size as well as a father.
At the indoor market we sit down at a cramped table opposite a Greek man and a white American woman, whom I take to be a couple before it emerges they are on an early date. The man asks how we know each other three times over. “We are sisters,” one of us says. The man smiles: “Yes, but how do you know each other?” “We are sisters,” a different one of us says, as the woman starts to look embarrassed and the man affects disbelief. “Ha, yes, we’re all brothers and sisters here . . . How do you know each other?”
“We have the same father,” J says, which makes the man pause. “Wow, who is this man?!” he asks, incredulous. (What is implied: Who is this man with, apparently, three different attractive wives? What’s his trick?)
V catches my already rolling eyes. Half a raised eyebrow, an awkward grin; she is standing up and so are we. After we have turned our backs, J says to me, though she doesn’t need to, “It wasn’t worth going into more detail.”
We understand in a silent pact at the table what about our sisterly status is worth revealing and what is impossible to sum up. At least, not briefly, to a man who demands that our sisterhood be legible, who seems to sit on the side of the Father. Now, I wonder if I am breaking that silent pact — for the sake of writing relation across difference. At the table, the unspoken, shared defense of our sisterhood affirmed itself.