In the Media

My Sister, My Self

Sisterhood: even more powerful than we knew What gums up the loving/hating machinery of the sister bond, and how women can, perhaps, unstick themselves

The Globe and Mail book review
Saturday, February 10, 2007

My Sister, My Self: Understanding the Sibling Relationship That Shapes Our Lives, Our Loves and Ourselves
By Vikki Stark
McGraw Hill, 262 pages, $19.95

The Sister Knot: Why We Fight, Why We're Jealous, and Why We'll Love Each Other No Matter What
By Terri Apter
Norton, 308 pages, $32.50

According to Hallmark Inc., Sister's Day (yes, there is one) is the first Sunday in August. This means that in certain years it falls on Aug. 6, the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. I was pondering this periodic, and perhaps for some appropriate coincidence while reading two new books about the complicated bond between female siblings: My Sister, My Self, by Vikki Stark, and The Sister Knot, by Terri Apter.

Both books tackle what's beneath that often deeply contentious and/or deeply loving relationship. Both are well-researched and (mostly) clearly written. Both are stocked with shocking, funny and psychologically astute anecdotes. Both provide analysis on what gums up the loving machinery of the sister bond and how we can perhaps unstick ourselves. And both are written by women who not only have rocky relationships with their own sisters, but are both younger ones as well. (The fact that both authors end their first names with an "i" is just an adorable coincidence.)

Now, if these books were sisters, I must admit I'd have a favourite. That's the problem with some sister dynamics, and nowhere is the human propensity to pick favourites so exploited as in Hollywood: Ava or Zsa Zsa? Mary-Kate or Ashley? Jackie or Joan? Paris or Nikki? Venus or Serena? Jessica or Ashlee?

Then there is the epic estrangement of actresses and sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine. Depending on which biographies you've read, de Havilland has allegedly carried a grudge against Fontaine for winning the Oscar the same year both were nominated. Years later, Fontaine was said to have insulted de Havilland's then-husband, causing the rift to widen. The two women reportedly stopped speaking altogether in 1975, after Fontaine accused de Havilland of excluding her from their mother's memorial service. And though both women are still alive and ninetyish, neither has spoken publicly about their fiery relationship.

Because I'm so well-versed in the Hollywood history of sistering, you'd think these books would completely captivate me. But it was in reading these books that I inadvertently discovered the reason for this ambivalence, a reason that dovetails nicely with what my younger sister, Sue, has been saying for ages.

"You're probably not interested," she said, "because you're self-absorbed."

"What? Me?"

"Yes, you. As the older sister I think you see your life in relation to what happens to you. Even my birth. It's like it happened to you. My birth changed your life. It gave you a sister -- and made you the sister of a sister. As for me, you were always just there, telling me what to do, where to go, what to wear, how to live my life, how to raise my ki . . ."

"Oops, look at the time. Gotta go. Deadlines."

"Yes. Right. Busy, busy."

But according to The Sister Knot, this alleged self-centeredness might not be my fault. Apter, who researches family dynamics in Britain, says oldest sisters are often bossy perfectionists because too much is asked of them too early in life. Worse, premature care-giving can also erode our sense of humour. (Luckily, I was able to avoid all that silly care-giving business.)

Apter witnessed how older-sister characteristics emerged in her own daughter, who became "grave and self-important" when visitors came to see her baby sister. Later she turned into a tiny tyrant whose "bossiness and superiority were conditions for [her younger sister] joining the fun."

Apter's book is studded with other casual profundities, including her take on why it's important to understand the sister connection at all. "The passionate bonds between girls and women are either idealized or demonized." Therefore, leaving out our sister relationships is to ignore a major component of feminine developmental psychology. "What we feel as sisters and how we manage these feelings allow us to see simultaneously the love and envy inherent in female connection." Apter says it's our conflicting "sister stories" about family history that are often at the root of most long-standing rifts. When sisters stop speaking to each other, "The break in the sister conversation leaves a gap in her own story. Unable to explain herself to her sister, she feels anxious and incomplete."

This was certainly true for my own mother and her sister. They could go months without speaking. So up until her death, my mother made it her life's work to ensure that Sue and I were close. As children, she dressed us as twins, enrolling us in the same activities in order to perhaps quell some of that natural sisterly competitiveness. "You better be good to your sister," she'd say, "or I'll kill you." When my sister got married, my mother told her if she didn't make me her maid of honour, she'd never speak to her again.

Still, by high school, Sue and I began to quietly hate each other with the same palpable viciousness one senses in a marriage on the brink of implosion. At school, we barely acknowledged each other in the hallways, utterly uninterested in what the other was up to. In fact, it wasn't until we were in our twenties that we discovered we had both kept diaries as teens. According to Apter, that's not unusual. "The closeness of sisters tends to take a hit in early adolescence," she writes. "The different rates of growth, the upheavals in personality, the turmoil . . . all contribute to this dip."

See? Not my fault either.

Vikki Stark's My Sister, My Self is less academic, more intimate than The Sister Knot. She conducted 400 interviews for her so-called Sister Project, and the voices of the girls and women who participated are as varied as they are forthcoming. Each chapter begins with a compelling photo of sisters and their emotional stories, and it includes questionnaires to help you decipher your own sister conundrum.

Stark's focus is primarily on birth order and how being the eldest, middle or youngest sister affects us. And admittedly, it's my favourite of the two because it's peppered with these kinds of cogent observations. "Older sisters," Stark writes, "are often so busy taking care of everyone else that they forget to pamper themselves."

So true.

Margaret Mead once wrote, "Sisters is probably the most competitive relationship within the family, but once the sisters are grown, it becomes the strongest." I couldn't help but think of Jane Austen, who not only wrote about sisters, but at the age of 41 died in her own beloved sister Cassandra's lap.

Hear that, Sue? If you want us to have that kind of closeness, why don't you drop me one of those cards? It would certainly make mum proud.

Lisa Gabriele is the author of Tempting Faith DiNapoli. Her second novel, a love/hate story about sisters, will be published next spring.

Copyright 2006 Montreal Gazette

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