Sisters in Lifelong Conversation
“I love her to death. I can’t imagine life without her,” a woman says of her sister. Another says of hers, “I want to be around her all the time. She’s the only one who knows all kinds of stuff from the past. All we have to do is say one word, and we know when the other one will start laughing.” I heard many comments like these from women who told me that their relationships with their sisters are among the most precious aspects of their lives.
I also heard comments like this one: “I don’t want anyone to kill my sister because I want to have the privilege of doing that myself.”
Though they sound so different, these remarks have something in common: the intensity of feelings behind them. Sister relationships are among the most passionate of our lives. One woman explained, “My relationship with my sister is more deeply emotional than any other.” Yet another, after telling me ways her sister had hurt her— tales of betrayal that made me wonder why she still talks to the perpetrator at all— said, “No matter how difficult my sister is, she is still part of me, part of my past, my present, and my future.” Then she added, echoing the comment I quoted at the start: “Love her or hate her, I can’t imagine life without her.” Conversations with sisters can spark extremes of anger or extremes of love. Everything said between sisters carries meaning not only from what was just said but from all the conversations that came before— and “before” can span a lifetime. The layers of meaning combine profound connection with equally profound competition. Both the competition and the connection are complicated by inevitable comparison with someone whose life has been so similar to yours and yet so different— and always in your view.
What’s Ideal, What’s Real?
I was chatting with four women at a party. As we talked, we gradually sat down, then drew our chairs into a circle. The other party guests looked on with curiosity or envy as our tight little group erupted in laughter or rippled with a wave of knowing nods. I had brought up the topic of sisters.
Laxmi, a woman visiting from India, was extolling hers. “When we meet we can’t get enough of each other,” she said. “When we ride in a car together, my husband threatens, ‘I’m taking another car! You two never stop talking and laughing!’ She’s my lifeline. I’m her lifeline. If I say one word, she knows what I’m going to say. We’ve made a pact that we’ll take a vacation together at least once a year.” Another woman in our group remarked sadly, “That’s why I always wished I had a sister.” I wanted to learn more about this wonderful sister relationship, so before the party ended I arranged to interview Laxmi one on one.
The following week, Laxmi and I sat down in private. The first thing she told me was that she had recently gone through a year during which she refused to speak to her sister. When their parents died, she explained, she and her sister had together inherited a building composed of two apartments; each sister owned one. Laxmi wanted to sell her apartment, but she realized that the value of her sister’s would go down if she sold hers separately; they would both get a better price if they put the entire building on the market. But her sister wasn’t ready to sell, so Laxmi tabled the idea and went away for an extended visit to her daughter, who lived abroad. When she returned, she discovered that her sister had changed her mind about selling her apartment— and had gone ahead and sold it. Now it was Laxmi whose apartment had plummeted in value. As difficult as this financial loss was for her, what Laxmi couldn’t forgive was that her sister had robbed Laxmi’s children of part of their inheritance, since the profit from selling Laxmi’s apartment would eventually go to them. Her anger and hurt were so great, she could not bear to speak to her sister. But after a year she decided to let it go. She had only one sister and did not want to lose her.
Hearing this story, I wished I could go back to the party and tell the woman who longed for a sister that the ideal she’d heard Laxmi describe— someone to talk to and laugh with, who knows exactly what you mean and what you are going to say, a lifeline— was real, but it wasn’t the whole story. A sister is someone who owns part of what you own: a house, perhaps, or a less tangible legacy, like memories of your childhood and the experience of your family. The way she manages that shared inheritance can either raise or lower its value for you— or call its value into question.
The word “sister” evokes an ideal of connection and support, like the friendships that made Rebecca Wells’s Divine Secrets of the Ya- Ya Sisterhood and Ann Brashares’s The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants into best - selling novels and successful films. The friendships referred to in these titles are called “sisterhood” because the friends stuck together through thick and thin, understood each other when no one else did, and supported one another while marching arm in arm to the same music. Part of the reason these books and movies were so popular is that we all yearn to belong to a group with a bond like that. As one woman put it, “Friends are the sisters we were meant to have.” Many women told me they have friends who are “sister surrogates” or “sister equivalents.” They used the word “sister” to characterize what they prize in those friends.
Even the sound of the word “sister” is comforting, with its soothing s’s. (The b of “brother” sounds more abrupt.) We have sister cities, sister universities, and, in biology, sister cells. Sister cities and universities establish mutually enriching associations based on shared characteristics like similar size. Sister cells are identical because they have split from the same “mother” cell. Sister cities are not at each other’s throats; sister universities are not so named because they know exactly how to get the other’s goat; sister cells don’t fight over who gets the slice of cake with the buttercream rose. But these less- appealing traits can also be aspects of real- life sisterhood.
At a group gathered to talk with me, a woman said she and her sister use the term “sisterspeak” for the kind of talk they treasure and trust from each other: talk that sets the other straight. Another woman who was pres ent chimed in: “Yeah yeah! Your sister will tell you in a way a friend can’t and even a mother can’t.” The first continued: A sister can ask, “What were you thinking?” and force you to answer, to yourself as well as to her, “I wasn’t!” But in another setting I heard a different view: A woman commented that sisters should be called “the liars’ club” because they tell each other only a version of the truth. She explained why she can’t tell her sister the whole truth: “I have to be cautious about sharing my feelings, hopes, and dreams because they invariably get translated into something that will come back to hurt me. When I have met people who know about me through my sister, they are often surprised and tell me that I’m nothing like the person she described.”
These two views— someone who sets you straight or someone who twists your words so they boomerang back and hurt you— represent the potential best and worst of sister conversations. And it’s not always clear which type of sisterspeak your sister is speaking.
Talking Straight— or Bent?
Natalie was thrilled; she had joined Weight Watchers and stuck with it. The extra pounds she’d put on were finally falling away. Each week when she weighed in, her spirits soared as the numbers on the scale went down. Everyone told her how great she looked— except her sister Alex. “You’re losing too much weight,” Alex said. “You don’t look healthy. Look at how your collarbones stick out.” Alex’s observation was accurate. When Natalie looked in the mirror, she did see her collarbones clearly defined. It was one of the changes that had given her pleasure. But now she wasn’t sure if she should be pleased or not. Was Alex giving her the gift of sisterspeak: telling her the truth when no one else would? Or was it sisterspeak of another sort: tinged with envy, eager to slow her down when she got too far ahead? A sister is the one person you can brag to— or the one you’ll never tell about your triumphs because she’d be jealous. She’s the one you can call in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep, or the one who doesn’t want to hear about your problems unless you’re ready to do something about them. She’s the one who’s there when you need her, or the one whose absence in a crisis hurts most. A sister is the person who knows exactly what it was like to grow up in the home you grew up in, with the parents you knew as your own. But she can also be the one who tells you that what you recall is all in your head; she was there and she doesn’t remember it that way.
In telling me how her sister frustrates her, Doris remarked, “She accuses me of having said things I never said.” Later Doris commented, “She denies having said things that I know she said.” Her sister, I surmise, would have the same two complaints about Doris, with the examples reversed. Reality denied for one is false accusation for the other. When memories differ about minor events, small details, it’s no big deal. You may shrug your shoulders or even laugh. But if the differing recollections are facts of your life that cut to the core of who you think you are, a sister’s insistence that you’ve got it wrong can make you feel as if the ground on which you stand is shaking. And when you make a good- natured joke and your sister takes offense, or accuses you of bad intentions when you know you meant well, it hurts more than when a stranger or even a friend misinterprets your meaning. It’s a violation of the very definition of sister; it’s not the way the world— and your family— is supposed to be.
We’ll Be There
Every day we face challenges, some large, some tiny. It helps to have someone we can turn to for advice or reassurance— or just to say she understands and cares. Talking to women about their sisters, and reading about sisters, was inspiring, as I heard innumerable accounts of sisters supporting each other in words, in deeds, or just by being there. I read accounts of dire circumstances where sisters literally kept each other alive by their mutual presence. A Dutch woman who was with Anne Frank and her sister Margot in a concentration camp provides two examples, her own and Anne Frank’s, with starkly different endings. Janny Brandes- Brilleslijper became gravely ill with typhus, but she survived because she kept herself going in order to keep her sister, who was even sicker, alive. “Anne was sick, too,” she recalls, “but she stayed on her feet until Margot died; only then did she give in to her illness.”
Few of us confront circumstances this desperate, but I heard many moving accounts of sisters coming through in times of crisis. Joy, for example, drew courage from her sisters’ presence when she underwent emergency surgery to save her life. It had happened suddenly: One moment Joy was walking down the street, the next thing she knew she was regaining consciousness in a hospital bed. “When I woke up,” Joy recalls, “my three sisters were standing there, side by side, like linebackers.” Joy knew instantly that something serious had happened to her, because none of her sisters lived in the same city she did; one had come from Boston, one from Kansas City, one all the way from Africa. And they stayed with Joy until she was out of danger. Having them there gave her courage to endure grueling medical procedures. “My temperature went up and they couldn’t get it down,” Joy said, “so they put me in an ice cube. It was the most miserable I’ve ever been, a plastic tube that has ice in it; they pump cold water into it. I thought, I can’t go through this. They said, ‘We’ll spend the night with you. If you wake up, we’ll be there.’ And that made me feel, Hey, I can get through this.”
Joy also described ways that she and her sisters help each other out that are not emergencies. Joy’s field is education. She encouraged her youngest sister, to whom academic work didn’t come naturally, not only to go to college but eventually to get a master’s degree. Joy found the right program and invited her sister to stay with her while pursuing it. For her part, Joy was able to do the research required for her own academic career because her sisters helped care for her children during summers while she did her own work. And here’s a final image I love: Joy has neither time nor talent to shop for clothes, so once each year she travels to Boston and stays with the sister who has an eye for fashion and knows all the outlet stores. Together they spend two days outfitting Joy for the year, while a third sister watches their children.
When women told me they’d always wished they had a sister, they were thinking of this ideal of mutual encouragement and support. Many of those who have sisters also yearn for this ideal, because their relationships with their sisters don’t always live up to it. Idealized images make it harder to accept— and find ways to address— the frustrations that are as common among sisters as in any close relationship. The ideal is the connection that links Joy and her sisters. But there is another dynamic between sisters that is equally fundamental: competition.