A Book Review of
Freud's Blind Spot
Edited by Elisa Albert
(Free Press/Simon & Schuster)
23 Original Essays on Cherished, Estranged, Lost, Hurtful, Hopeful, Complicated Siblings
Edited by Elisa Albert; includes essays by Steve Almond, Daphne Beal, Nat Bennett, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, James CaÑÓn, T Cooper, Lauren Grodstein, Nellie Hermann, Joanna Hershon, Nalini Jones, Etgar Keret, Victor LaValle, Vestal McIntyre, Jay Baron Nicorvo, Mary Norris, Eric Orner, Peter Orner, Angela Pneuman, Margo Rabb, Edward Schwarzschild, Robert Anthony Siegel, Faith Soloway, Jill Soloway, and Rebecca Wolff
Free Press / Simon & Schuster
New York, November 2010
Trade Paper, 288 pages
The personal essayist who longs to mine his or her life for universal emotional truth must translate its value to any objective reader. It’s easier to write about the circumstances of our own lives once we’ve gained some distance, and a sibling relationship brings a particular challenge to this matter because it’s between two people not only tied and anchored by the past but woven, however involuntarily, into the present and future. No matter the distance or proximity, siblings harbor one another’s unprocessed pasts, along with possible answers to certain existing life difficulties. And, probably, to truly explore one’s relationship to a sibling, one must be willing to fully excavate—and expose—oneself.
The 23 essays in Freud’s Blind Spot, edited by Elisa Albert, explore the many dynamics and classifications of sibling relationships: the full, the half, the step-, the estranged, the one who you never knew existed, the lost, the dear friend, the twin-like, the estranged, the disadvantaged, the hostile—all possibly including siblings who have diverged in their religion, geographic locale, career, and even in desired closeness with one another.
In some instances the process of composing such an essay alters the course of the relationship. In his “Thirty-Eight Questions I’ve Always Wanted To Ask My Brother But Haven’t Until Now”, T Cooper takes the opportunity to forge some intimacy with his estranged brother, Steve, a cop. The questions illuminate the business of life as well as a deeper probe of the past and the strain of their current relationship. The author gets the answer to questions he would otherwise not have had the occasion, or perhaps the nerve, to ask, while Steve grows more tender and open in his responses as he settles into the pull of wanting to be better known by his writer-brother. Hearing Steve, as the non-writer who doesn’t make his living revealing his innermost feelings or observations, is especially poignant, as he confesses to his brother towards the end of the interview, “I avoid getting close with anyone these days because I am a scaredy-cat of losing them. That’s why I don’t have pets anymore and that’s probably why I don’t stay in relationships very long.”
Throughout her growing up, writer Margo Rabb fantasized about having an intimate sisterly connection like the one portrayed between the real-life twins in the 1985 sitcom “Double Trouble”. In her essay, “Jackie”, Rabb depicts the innate differences and resulting distance between herself and her sister without unfairly wielding her pen on her own behalf. The untimely loss of the girls’ parents—and the brutal process of cleaning out their parent’s home—finally helps them to value one another as individuals and as each other’s only remaining family. “I’m somehow still shocked, even though ten years have passed since we lost our father, and twenty years since our mother died, that they’re gone,” Rabb writes. “Whether we speak of it or not, my sister is the only one who understands this.”
For Jill and Faith Soloway, who lie on the other side of the sisterly spectrum, any childhood memory not relived is a moment yet to mine. The two rehash intimate childhood details in a way that both excludes and absorbs the reader. Jill: “Remember when we played prostitute and John, why was I always the John?” Faith: “No!!!! We Did!? Please tell me about that.”
Memory is notoriously relative, and between those with a shared childhood that discrepancy is colored by family roles. Childhood events whose objective events are untraceable have long ago cemented into divergent truths. Even divisions and alignments within the family, which might have seemed certain to one, prove relative. Jill remembers that Faith “belonged to her dad” while she “belonged to her mom.” But Faith experiences it differently. “I felt more like I had Dad’s talents and you had Mom’s. But not like we were paired off.” By giving retrospective credence to a sibling’s testimony we have the option to revise our own versions of reality, which may have been colored falsely by our child selves.
Nellie Hermann‘s essay, “Ben Hermann Forever,” begins as an explanation of the author’s position in her family as a girl with three older brothers, two of whom died before she finished high school. Its focus moves to her dearest brother, Ben, who Hermann adored with the intensity of a girl with a celebrity crush on a guy who happens to live down the hall. It’s a relationship that even in death is unfolding.
“What does a girl talk about with her older brother at that age? I don’t know,” Hermann writes. “I guess we didn’t talk much at all. We joked; we gestured; we laughed and rolled our eyes. Mostly I observed. I watched Ben; he was always who I watched. In the wake of his illness I felt all my language dry up and blow away.”
How will Hermann’s sense of her brother settle as she tries to fuse her adult perception of their relationship with the one held by her fifteen-year-old self—especially a self who wields a disproportionate claim on Ben and his short life? Had he lived into adulthood, the two would have eventually stood on more equal ground, but as a girl she was rapt by the separateness of her brother’s world, and her keenest desire was to permeate it. Ben’s death reinforces his inscrutability during his short life. Like the young girl standing outside his bedroom door, listening for clues and longing for entry, Hermann’s adult ear now presses against that even more impermeable barrier which separates the living from the dead.
Steve Almond says of “Happy Siblings”: “I run into them sometimes, at brunches, softball games and potlucks. They seem especially fond of potlucks.” With his identifiable brand of pointed wit Almond describes these roving, innocuous-seeming but potentially dangerous pairs of tweedle-dee-dee brothers whom he prefers to avoid. Almond details the cruel litany of revenge and torture that comprise his own memories of growing up with two brothers—admitting that although there must have been some sweeter times, as a writer who is “deeply invested in the narrative of my miserable childhood,” he is not especially motivated to unearth them.
Collectively, the 23 essays in Freud’s Blind Spot made me reflect on my own sibling relationship. As someone who’s attended more than one potluck with my sister, the primary downside of having a sibling, as I see it, is that you have just that much more to lose. As my sister Emily once said to me about a friend negotiating an uncomfortable situation between his divorced parents, “I don’t know how those only children can even get up in the morning!” This is now a refrain between us, which arises particularly when we get annoyed with our mostly-delightful parents. (A shared, private language is near the top on the list of privileges that happy siblings enjoy.) More sobering, though, we are probably subtly acknowledging the possibility that we will eventually have to care for our parents, and woe is either of us to have to bear that trial individually. For me, there is also a literal truth in her small statement: it is a bit easier to get up in the morning when I know that there is another person out there who imbibed the same worldview at the dinner table, grew up staring at those same watercolor tiles in the shower and squeezing the same grungy sponges in the kitchen sink—“Why did Mom and Dad act like sponges were a luxury item?” Emily asked me recently. This book of recollections and reflections so deftly assembled by Elisa Albert also reminded me that as my clearer-thinking, more-sidesplitting sister survives and thrives in this world, perhaps she’s quietly providing me with a little extra proof that I can too.
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