“That’s not despair you’re feeling, it’s the petulant reaction of a wounded child
And that’s not the door I’m looking at, it’s an escape hatch to the zeppelin we’re inside…
This ain’t an insult, it’s the clearest truth I’ve ever had the misery to speak
These aren’t words, these are the terms of my surrender and defeat
But I’m not sorry, beyond the sorry nature of existing with no plans
Please don’t touch me, just wave goodbye with that claw that’s not a hand.” –El-P
I didn’t see the woman who raised me for three years. “Alicia” became a word that could incapacitate me for want of an emotional outlet. I didn’t know what triggers were, but the mention of her name was a trigger, and is still something I have mixed feelings about.
My aunt Becky visited my sister sometimes during those years, and she once showed me a picture of my baby nephew. I saw his picture, and felt no loss for myself in having never met a family member. My mother had already killed that idea: he was a symbol of my sister’s rebellion, proof that she was as “promiscuous” as mom said she was.
In 2006, we filmed for The Learning Channel and the film crew didn’t press the issue. My parents said my sister lived far away, and was, unfortunately, unavailable to participate in the show. Becky told me recently that when she met the on-site producer, he dropped this information offhand: “It’s too bad their oldest daughter couldn’t make it.”
“Alicia? But she lives twenty minutes away. I’m staying with her.”
“What? That’s not what I was told.”
That’s when they pressed the issue with my dad in an interview. This was the juicy story Reality TV was looking for, so they planned to film extra footage of a meet-up. My mom had met my nephew that summer, and the TV cameras filmed her getting a meal with Alicia and her son. Dad filmed his first meeting with his grandson, and the Learning Channel used his footage in the final show’s cut. I knew nothing of this at the time.
I saw my sister for the first time in three years the night before I’d be watching her on TV.
At the beginning of 2007, there was a short reunion. My dad called it the return of the prodigal, and we actually ate elk calf from a recent hunting trip. He said we’d “killed the fatted calf.” It looked great and we were all smiles, and it helped my parents sell a lot of books under the “Love in the House” brand. Seeing those pictures now makes me shudder. In the last two photos, I’m smiling unnaturally brightly, saying to my dad’s camera what I couldn’t say aloud – that I was desperate to let the world know how glad I was to have my sister back that night.
The next seven years were rocky. We tried to make it work, but mom and dad insisted on condescending to Alicia. They refused to treat her relationship as a marriage, saying she and her boyfriend, Josh, were “shacking up,” even though they were in a steady, stable relationship and we live in a common law state. They wanted to print in the Christmas Letter that she’d had another child out of wedlock, with no mention of her committed husband. Alicia gave my mom a family picture including Josh and their two sons, but my parents refused to use it. In turn, Alicia and Josh refused to let them put pictures of their kids in the Christmas Letter.
I believed my parents were right to treat my sister the way they did. After all, she wasn’t really married. She had done some pretty bad things by the standards with which I was raised. I fought with her and cut off communication because she wanted to keep talking to me, even though there was conflict with my parents.
I only started to doubt the way my parents had treated Alicia when my parents kicked Lydia and me out. This was all familiar, something I hadn’t heard in over a decade: “You can’t be here. Get out or do as I say.” It was what my dad had said to my older sister, Alicia, in their fights before she moved out.
When my dad used the same phrases on me, I doubted for the first time: maybe Alicia didn’t do anything wrong. I fought to keep my voice steady against his onslaught: “This sounds familiar, dad. Like what I heard you say to Alicia.”
Dad’s reply was, “Oh, so now it’s personal, huh?”
For some time, Lydia and I had been discussing dad’s lack of understanding for other people. He just wasn’t aware of others’ feelings or perspectives. Earlier that year, when I’d told him I couldn’t read through an entire book and copy-edit it on top of work and school, he’d gotten me up two hours before sunrise and forced me to edit it before I had to leave for class. That summer, when I’d spent a few days working on my own writing, he told me that I was letting my summer get away from me because I wasn’t working for him all the time.
When I interact with people, I recognize that they have a whole life, and we’re interacting briefly. Dad didn’t seem to have that kind of capacity. When I worked for him, his wishes came first, and I couldn’t ever say “no,” even if I was overwhelmed. If I wasn’t working for him, I wasn’t doing anything important.
My theory of dad’s inability to understand others flashed through me when I mentioned Alicia. I later learned the word I was looking for: empathy.
He didn’t see that I’d mentioned it because I was hurt. He thought I was attacking him. That’s how my interactions with my dad have always been if I try to stand up for myself.
I’ve told this story to countless people, painting my sister as the villain in the situation. My parents first sent me to Christian counseling because I felt so betrayed by Alicia. Many people have heard a very different story.
For the sister I lost and regained after ten years, I need to tell my version of the story. This is how I see it now.