Sibling Rivalry and Revelry

Two anthologies tell all

As I begin this review, my younger sister is exactly three weeks from the due date for her second child, who will be the younger sister of my two-year-old niece. A few weeks ago she overcame her superstitions sufficiently to start preparing her daughter for the new arrival. “What happens when the baby comes to Marlow’s house?” she asked her just last week. “Marlow open the door! Marlow says hi! Baby play with Marlow’s books and toys!” Indeed, if this second generation of girls is anything like the first, books, toys, and imagination will turn them, too, from siblings into sisters. Most likely, as with my own sister, the road will not always be a smooth one. Two recently published anthologies, Sisters: An Anthology edited by Jan Freeman, Emily Wojcik, and Deborah Bull (Paris Press, $20.95) and Freud’s Blind Spot, edited by Elisa Albert (Free Press, $15) collectively gave me more than 60 poems, essays, and short stories through which to channel my own efforts to understand retroactively my and my sister’s journeys.

Sisters, by design, is the more literary and wide-ranging of the two collections. Intended as a celebration of this magical familial bond, its multicultural stories and poems feature primarily positive portrayals. In contrast Freud’s Blind Spot is intensely raw and always personal. These challenging, autobiographical pieces demonstrate, often painfully, how we are shaped by our siblings as much as by our parents (hence the title). Perhaps it is the addition of male characters and male points of view that gives much of this book an unsettled, even angry edge in contrast to the reassurance of Sisters; perhaps it is the consolidation of viewpoints and settings into 30- and 40-something writers mostly living in the U.S. today, digging deeply into their own lives. In Sisters, external circumstances — parents, marriage, death — may divide the sisters, but their relationships remain intact, valued by both no matter how damaged. In Freud’s Blind Spot, the regrets outweigh the contentment.

To tell you what particularly shone from these thoughtfully assembled anthologies must reveal to you something about my relationship with my sister, because how else can one read them except personally? I was moved when centenarian Bessie Delany ended her recollections, “I just might get into Heaven. I may have to hang on to Sadie’s heels, but I’ll get there” (Sisters), or when Grace Paley remembers only at the end of her poem “I needed to talk to my sister” that she’s been dead two years (Sisters), or when Miranda Beverly- Whittemore’s sister climbed into the bathtub to help her through a very difficult labor (Blind Spot). Though neither of these books is a specifically Jewish anthology, more than one relationship was affected by one sibling’s changing Jewish identity. Etgar Keret wrote hilariously, though poignantly about the insurmountable divisions his sister’s turn to Ultra-Orthodoxy created (Blind Spot), and Faith Soloway questioned her sister Jill belatedly on why she found spiritual comfort in the Jewish identity that scarcely registered in their upbringing (Blind Spot). Whatever your own experiences, if you, like me, are looking for a framework to analyze your relationship with your sibling(s), then amongst this vast diversity of perspectives you will surely find your own favorite selections to locate your experiences within.

I finish writing this review in my sister’s house, where I just put Marlow to bed. I told her, “Marlow, in another few weeks, you will never be alone again. You’ll never have to go looking for a playmate. And like your tante you’ll never remember life any other way.”

By the time you read this, Marlow will be a big sister, with all of the responsibilities — joyous and burdensome — that implies. Will she beg her parents to “Shlug da kleine,” beat up the little one, as resentful older sister Tsipi Keller did (Sisters)? Or will she find that “a partner [is] absolutely essential” to her play, as Simone de Beauvoir did after the arrival of her little sister (Sisters)? “Sisterhood and brotherhood is a condition people have to work at,” concludes Maya Angelou in one story’s epigraph, which could serve for both anthologies. This captures the lesson I most hope I can teach Marlow: there’s nothing unnatural about expending effort to preserve this most natural of relationships. 

Tammy Hepps is a web technologist living in New York City.