For some people their trip to Outback Steakhouse comes with a side of delightful honey wheat bread, but for me and my brother Noah, it came with a large serving of embarrassment. We stood near the host stand and listened to our father berate the young girl for not having a table available in the smoking section. He demanded to speak to the manager, and insinuated that the restaurant discriminated against smokers. After finally being sat near the bar dad continued his bitching, and Noah and I found a way to distract ourselves by rolling up straw wrappers and discretely tossing them into our father’s small puff of chest hair he allowed to poke through the top of his 1970s polo shirt. We played these sorts of tricks, poking fun at our abusive father, so often that we learned to control our laughter as to not get caught, using eye contact to communicate our amusement.
I consider the beginning of my academic career to have started, as an undergrad, with an evocative story about my brother, Noah, with my stories in juxtaposition to his, but separate. In those narratives I drew on my own lived experience with sexual bullying, while also attempting to give voice to Noah’s similar experiences. And while the act of writing those stories brought me peace in many ways, it also unearthed memories I had forgotten, resulting in considerable guilt believing I was not the sister I should have been, and unanswered questions about who Noah is, who I am as a sister, and who we are as siblings.
Three years of writing what I was at the time referring to as “our sibling story”, and without his knowledge, I began to fear that perhaps I was exploiting him. Using him and his story to get ahead academically. The guilt from that possibility prompted me to vow that I would never story Noah again, at any time, for any reason. However, with recent knowledge that my interpretation of his story would not be read by as many people as originally thought, I didn’t feel the closure I once did and decided to open the coffin one last time. As is expected, I began to look back at the ways I have already storied him. I have used his story to unearth a larger cultural issue surrounding adolescent bullying, and as a way to explain the power writing others stories has on our memory. While picking apart past arguments, I interrogated my words, my intentions, and questioned whether continuing to put these words together would do good in the world. This questioning ultimately helped me to notice gaps in my depictions of us, there was something missing.
I wrote because I wanted you to know my brother. More importantly, I wanted to know my brother. I wanted to hold his hand and walk the school halls with him. I wanted to learn from him in the desk next to him as he sat wide eyed, and excited for his future, before they took that enthusiasm from him. And most of all, I wanted back in the car I would pick him up in, and have the talks I should have had with him and look at him the way I should have, with love and curiosity, to know him as much as I wish I do now. I did my best to depict my brother as the wise, compassionate, and beautifully complex creature that he is. To show his resilience as he walked through a disturbing and dark world, as well as his tremendous capacity to forgive. I did my best. But still, there was something haunting me, every time I read these stories I would cry, almost uncontrollably at times.
For this paper I originally set out to analyze two pieces I wrote about me and Noah in the recent past to find and understand our “sibling identity”. Of course, I thought I already knew. I believed our identity revolved around the abuse we endured together. I believed that firmly, until I read a fragment detailing Noah’s determination to protect me:
“I got a glimpse of the morning me and my mother awoke to find a 5 year old Noah, frantically digging through his toy boxes, throwing every toy car and action figure over his back. Upon asking him what he was doing he replied in a panic ‘I had a dream one of my dinosaurs came to life and ate Amber. I need to get rid of them all!’”
I immediately went from crying uncontrollably to laughing hysterically. And then I remembered a texting moment I had with Noah around Mother’s day this year. I texted to inform him that mom wanted a gift card to a dog groomer, and his response:
“Lol thanks fam. You da real mvp.”
What that means, I have no idea in the world, but I do know that I laughed, out loud, in the middle of the quiet area of a public tea lounge. I got some strange looks from people.
It was in that once lonely moment in my office, I understood what was missing. Noah and I were missing. Not only were he and I rarely together in our written narratives but when we were, we were cloaked in victimhood, trauma, and hopelessness. I was framing and defining our sibling identity around abuse and our abusers. I allowed my desire to write his lived experience in enough detail to help others, cause me to forget the frame we had built together to help ourselves: Humor.
We didn’t know it at the time but I believe he and I used comedy not just as a coping strategy but as a weapon. A way to satirically attack people who were attacking us. Lucky for us however, not many of those attackers were smart enough to catch on to our hilarity. We had developed a comedy together that all it took was a look in the others direction, at just the right moment, and all was understood, and rectified.
“I don’t understand what you two think is so funny here,” our mom says after several minutes (I am being generous saying only “minutes” here), of detailing specific instances of abuse she endured at the hands of her husband, our father. “The way he treated us was not funny!” And she’s right, much of his behavior was definitely not amusing. But it WAS amusing when after they divorced he bought a tiny Chihuahua, called her baby, and carried her around under his arm all day, a la Paris Hilton. It WAS amusing watching him, a staunch republican, view shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report laughing obnoxiously, fully believing their satire as truth, and feeling as though they wrote those shows just for him. “These guys are geniuses” he would say. And it WAS also amusing when we found out he had cancer. Noah and I were able to find the humor in a diagnosis of oral cancer in a man who used his words as an attempt to kill the spirit if his children every day. We had to find the humor in it. For us, we had no choice. We were able to get our mom to grab on to that one.
For us when our childhood is brought up, we tell jokes. Essentially, we make fun of people. Our dad in particular but really no one is exempt, even ourselves.
Young Amber and Noah knew to live their narratives, and to not let their narratives live them. They turned their present situation into what they needed it to be to survive. I have a lot to learn from them. In the process of discovering our sibling identity I began what I believed to be a treacherous process of what Kiesinger tells us is narrative reframing, to look at our stories from a new perspective. Though, I realized sooner than later, that it was not about reframing, as much as it was about remembering the sturdy frame we’ve always had. I learned that sometimes the written word can shadow the embodied relational performances we take for granted. I learned that unlike the weeks of organizing, outlining, and writing an evocative story of an already lived moment, relational utterances as they are lived are not planned, but created instinctually, moment by moment as a means of survival. My past sibling stories are haunted by the absence of that survival.
I am embarrassed to have depicted us in ways that were disjointed and disconnected for so many years. I am embarrassed to have fallen into the trap that privileges the archived over the embodied. I write this now to close the door to those past written stories in a positive way. To close the door in a way that is generative. To close the door in order to build our relationship toward some sort of emancipation. To close the door, that is attached to the rickety framing of our childhood home, walking out together, the way we walked our dark worlds together as children, with the humor he still brings into my life.