In the Media

My Sister, My Self

The Stories Sisters Tell
The Gazette - Montreal

Monday, February 16, 2004

"We say the same things at the same time ... we are
soul mates, completely."

When the younger of Vikki Stark's twentysomething daughters, Lauren, made a casual remark about how she always feels like a little sister, Stark realized that she, also the younger of two sisters, felt precisely the same way.

And there, right there, was the genesis of the Sisters Project - a study that will be the basis of a book by Stark about how being the younger, middle or older sister affects someone, about the impact of the relationship between sisters on their self-images.

It matters little if she is with her sister - or with anyone else. "I have always felt younger than everyone - even when I am not," Stark, who will be 54 on Wednesday, mused the other day.

This even though she is accomplished in her own right as therapist and teacher, mother and wife. This even though she never had a particularly good relationship with her own sister, Nikki, 51/2 years her senior, never had, as she puts it, "a sisterly feeling," about her. Even though she feels bad when she hears of women "who say they can depend unconditionally on their sisters."

Her point is that her role in the family was shaped by her sister, who teased her and put her down when the two were growing up, who got into trouble at school and tussled with the law, gave their parents no end of grief and altogether dominated the household.

"My sister was always a trouble to my family. And because I could see their pain, I had to be perfect. I couldn't give them more grief. I had to be the honour student who always did well."

Not only was her role in the family shaped by her sister, Stark recalls, but she came to realize, more and more, that her relationship with her sister had shaped her life. She mentioned this to a friend who also has a sister. The friend said "Me, too."

So Stark set about finding out what other sisters thought. She started with a list of names from a friend - and they told their friends. She submitted notices to Montreal newspapers about the project and, in no time, had responses from people prepared to talk about how being sisters had affected them. She started to meet them in September and so far, has done more than 60 face-to-face interviews. She hopes to do 100.

She also drew up an e-mail questionnaire, e-mailed alternative newspapers in the United States that offer free listings, and sent notices about the project to women's studies departments as far afield as Australia and South Africa. To date, she has received more than 50 completed questionnaires. The oldest person she has interviewed is 86, the youngest 10. So far, Stark has detected certain consistencies. She has found, over and over, for instance, that older sisters feel protective of younger sisters, although the effect tends to flatten somewhat in adulthood.

As Karen, now 27, told her: "From a very early age, I took the mother role over my sister. It has threaded itself through my life. Even today, I find myself taking the maternal role with absolutely everybody - not trying to dominate or take away anybody's integrity but really wanting to take care of everybody."

Stark believes the response to the project has been so keen because people are eager to talk about being sisters, to feel they are part of the community of sisters, "that idealized sister, the one who will mirror you and shadow you" that many iStark believes the response to the project has been so keen because people are eager to talk about being sisters, to feel they are part of the community of sisters, "that idealized sister, the one who will mirror you and shadow you" that many identify with - even those who don't feel a particularly powerful connection to their sisters.

No surprise, then, that some of the most interesting stories in the project have come from people so bonded with their sisters that they say she is like a mirror self. "My sister is the closest person in the world to me," one woman told her. Another: "She's the person I love the most in this world and it's very, very hard to describe the relationship I have with her because she completes me totally."

Corina, now 28, spent the first 19 years of her life thinking she was the oldest sister. She is close with her younger sister, Selina, yet "I kind of wished my whole life that I had an older sister. I always privately thought I had one." When Corina was 19, her mother told her she, indeed, did have an older sister, given up for adoption and only now found. "And I accepted it like something I had always known," Corina said.

Getting to know her sister, Corina has learned that although Dale grew up in an environment different in many ways from hers and Selina's, "we say the same things at the same time. There is no competition, no jealousy. There is such a purity between us ... we are all completely equal ... we are soul mates, completely."

There has been a certain self-selection, of course. Those interested in talking about a sister relationship often have a good one to begin with. But not all. Stark has heard, also, from many who have troubled relationships with sisters. And she is a skilled and compassionate listener, although she is careful to say she has undertaken this project, not as a therapist, but as a researcher writing a book.

It did not start out as a personal quest for her, Stark says, but "when I told my sister about the project, she said, 'You have to include me: I'm the lame sister.'

Stark plans to weave the Nikki/Vikki story through the book. And it is a bonus that the project will have been a kind of discovery for them, that through it, they could find a path to connection.

Copyright 2004 Montreal Gazette

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