Reconnecting to the Other by the Telling of Their Story
I could feel the sun beating on me all the while warm droplets of rain were starting to fall as I walked passed a bush full of chirping birds, into my local Starbucks. I set up my laptop by the window, ordered my usual iced venti coffee with room for cream, and was ready for an afternoon of writing. I was about to transcribe the events of my baby brother’s horrific experience with bullying. The tears that first fell while writing were caused by the reliving of the anger I felt toward others who had hurt him at the time of those experiences. That anger soon turned on to me as I realized through the act of writing my brother’s story, and remembering other experiences I had with him, that I was not the sister I should have been.
In an autoethnography, I once explored the cultural issue of sexual assault and bullying. I drew on lived experience from early adolescence to examine what I argued was the rapid progression of everyday bullying from physical to sexual violence. My story focused on the bullying survived by my, 12 year old brother, West, who was incessantly and disturbingly abused, on the school bus. The primary characters in that story were my younger brother and me. However, this story primarily focused on West.
Writing is a privilege. I’ve been told, and fully agree, that privilege carries with it the ethical imperative to write the stories of others. And sometimes those narratives are of those we love. I will explore this idea further, as a way to explain the bringing up of past experiences with loved ones through the telling of their narrative, as it relates to the storyteller; and how this process can emphasize and elevate connection, as well as reveal relational regrets. These can culminate to an opportunity for reconciliation between the storyteller and the other.
Richardson describes narrative writing as intentional, as well as our moral responsibility. This can be for the sake of personal healing (Louise DeSalvo talks about this in How Writing Can Help Us Heal), the helping of readers through a shared traumatic experience, and for what I am arguing is a vehicle for reconnection with estranged loved ones, or even those right next to us. Buddy Goodall while writing his book A Need to Know: The Clandestine History of a CIA Family, claimed to have developed a closer relationship with his mother and father after writing their family secrets. He decided that the rewards were worth the costs of sharing. He was able to reframe his family narrative by the telling of the old one. Regardless of the gifts that can come with storytelling, the act of writing is an act of what J. Zylinska calls “permanent vigilance” to maintain that we as writers are practicing what Ellis refers to as “relational ethics.” This requires that we as researchers “act from our hearts and minds, acknowledge our interpersonal bonds to others, and take responsibility for actions and their consequences.”
I had done all I thought I could do to hide my brother’s identity. Such as giving him a different pseudonym in each piece, and I even at one point considered referring to him as my cousin, rather than my brother. Finally, after a couple years of being my brother’s scribe, 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 West again, at any time, for any reason. I then asked myself why I chose to tell his story in the first place. Because what happened to my brother, as well as others like him, is forcibly kept silent. West had no voice at the time of his assault, he was not listened to and most poignant, I did not listen to him. 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 did now.
If ethics can be violence to a story, I will not allow it to bully ours. The way I choose to present my relationship with my brother is just as important as the way I choose to disguise it. 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. But withholding the fact that he is my brother, or keeping the events in the shadows, will only keep hidden the relational possibilities between me and him. I would not have been able to come to terms with my relational regrets as a character in our sibling story, and I would not be making the steps to bettering our relationship now.
“I picked him up from that bus stop every afternoon often times in the rain. I believe he may have been crying inside as he got into my car and we listened to loud Incubus and old school Boyz II Men as we talked about topics I no longer remember. But I was admittedly not curious enough to pry or investigate about his life.”
Upon writing about the intimate moments I had with my brother as I picked him up from the bus stop when he was in middle school, I was reminded of what an exceptional person he really is. I was able to look to my right, 10 years later, and see a 13 year old boy who deserved the happiness he was not given, not even by me.
I was able to see many of the sweet and selfless things he did for me. I got a glimpse of the morning me and my mother awoke to find a 5 year old West 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 also remembered all of those nights he would allow me to climb into his toy story sheet covered bed, after I would have a nightmare. I was 4 years older, and he was doing all he could to keep me safe.
In fact, I could not for a moment think of a time he had done me wrong. He made our life of abuse by the hands of our alcoholic father more bearable. However, I also could not help but be bombarded with memories of the ways I facilitated in the grief and misery of his life.
While depicting how the light of the bathroom hit West’s eyes just right to display his obviously uneven eye lashes he had cut due to excessive bullying. I couldn’t help but wonder why he wouldn’t have told me about what he was going through. I then got a glimpse of his then ear length, sandy blonde hair and I was transported to a childhood game I used to play with him that he didn’t think was fun. Every time West would get a haircut, I terrorized him by telling him I was going to “take his haircut.” One day, sitting in our parents white 1970s Chevy Impala, while bullying him in this way, grabbing at his hair, just shy of pulling it, I caused him to dive down to the car floor and hit his head hard on the glove compartment as he screamed, tears flowing “No Amber, stop!” I didn’t stop.
The sun beaming into the car of that memory brought me to a stunt I once pulled on him. I told him that if he sat in the front seat his head would get ripped off by the air bag; and describing the blood dripping and the skin dangling I added that it would fly out the window, get hit by a semi-truck and roll down the highway. He believed that story for weeks. I did this just so I could sit in the front seat. These remembrances helped me to understand why West chose not to divulge his pain to me.
It is easy, and quite common, to describe these moments of bullying as the typical relational behaviors of siblings. And that may be accurate on a larger scale, simply because it is accepted and in some ways encouraged. I do not reflect back on those moments I humiliated and deceived West as interpersonal rites of passage, and I certainly would never deem them to be acceptable. Though I appreciate the excuses made for my young self, I cannot help but view those instances as reasons for my brother to believe I do not care about his need for love and belonging. I aided in the beating down of his self-esteem.
I once had to put to narrative the horrific imagery of the surveillance tape depicting West being brutally beaten and repeatedly kicked in the side by a classmate, then being left there alone slowly dying from an enlarged and nearly ruptured spleen. I then began to remember that time well, remembering our grandmother had died, just months after this violent, and life threatening experience. And finally, I looked up over my laptop to see West, 11 years old, wearing a black suit and tie, holding out a tissue. He was being strong for me, as I cried uncontrollably at our grandmother’s funeral. Going back to that surveillance tape, seeing him again, lying on the concrete, I wished I had been at the hospital, being strong for him, but I wasn’t.
While writing about his hospital stay due to alcohol poisoning at the age of 14, imagining him vomiting alone on the pavement, I see myself 3 years later, cleaning up his 17 year old vomit off the wood floor after a night of partying that I initiated. I gave my underage brother alcohol, and allowed him to drink until he was sick; and without regard for his past issues with substance abuse. It is now hard to get the image of him crunched over on the floor out of my head. He was still wearing his winter coat because he could barely make it into the door.
West’s story, once finished, prompted questions from readers. The most significant for me being “Why do you feel so much guilt for what happened to your brother?” This was a question I had asked myself for years. Every time the memory would be somehow brought to the forefront I would begin to sob uncontrollably. So I chose to live in denial of the events for a decade. Finally, however, I had my answer once I started writing. My brother’s life as it relates to mine flashed before my eyes and I saw my guilt raw and inescapable.
My senior year of high school, the same year my brother was assaulted on the school bus, I selfishly decided I was going to run away from my life of abuse, redefining my personal narrative, not understanding what that choice did to West, and our sibling narrative. After days of helping me secretly pack my belongings into the trunk of my boyfriend’s car, West stood alone, in the middle of my empty room, looking me in the eye, promising not to tell anyone where I was. He never did. That day I left my brother alone with an abusive alcoholic. A man who at one time threw West across the kitchen, causing him to smash his teeth and scrape his face on the floor. A bully my brother had no defense against and could never get away from.
Our father did finally get arrested and charged with child abuse for beating and choking West to the ground in the middle of our neighborhood street. I was not there. I was safe across the county, with people who loved me and treated me well. When I found out what happened, no matter how much I begged, no one wanted me to be there.
Coming back home after 4 years of being away I encountered a West transformed into an angry, cynical, and seemingly emotionless shell. He was no longer exposing his heart to all he came in contact with as he had done all our childhood. I blamed our father. I blamed everything on our father. Until the act of writing forced a mirror into my face. I learned that I had a responsibility as a big sister to protect West, and to embody what it meant to love oneself, show compassion, and live a life of empathy, and above all forgiveness. I had to accept that I did not live up to this responsibility. West improved drastically after moving across the country, marrying, and starting a family. He is a tremendous father, and I could not be prouder of the man he has become.
As I write about my brother there is not just the remembering but the knowing. The knowing that I am not sure if I could ever love anyone more. The knowing that no matter what I do or how much I write I can never take back the relational mistakes, or release the relational regrets of my past behavior. But I live by the example of that 13 year old boy to my right, driving home from the bus stop, holding on to his dignity, believing in a just world, and embodying compassion, not just for others, but for himself. If he can forgive me, I can too.
This past mother’s day I walked into the house to see West’s face on my mom’s iPad. Face Time and texting is all we have. I preceded to tell him and his wife about my awful accident in which I tripped on the treacherous ground of a car mechanic parking lot, skinning my left knee resulting in a massive, and very painful scab. His wife then began to poke fun at me. “What adult falls?” she said. West stuck up for me, “She’s always been clumsy, so Amber is an adult that falls.” “Thanks, West!” I said. West then exclaimed, “Sibling Love!” Though I could not see him because the screen was at this time facing my mother, I hear him clearly say, “Sibling Love.” These are the moments where I feel a sort of reframing of our sibling narrative, and I could not be more delighted at the results and excited for the future.
He was 4 years old and laying on his back on the edge of my bed as I sat next to him on the hard wood floor. I could feel the cracks in the wood press and pinch against the back of my thighs as we sat there trying to decide what we wanted to play. As we went between our possibilities, Legos, tag, or my favorite, dressing him up as a ballerina, he lost his balance and slipped off the side of the bed and I promptly caught him. It meant nothing to me because I knew he wouldn’t have gotten hurt, it was just reflex, but he felt differently. His eyes filled with tears as he said, with all sincerity, “You saved my life.” I had no way of knowing then that he was in the process of defining mine.