“I hate you! You scumbag! You stupidfatgaydumbuglyretardeddisgusting THING!” Bam. She's on top of me, the back of my head slamming into the floor. She punches, scratches, knees me in the side and pulls hair. Finally, I manage to scratch her hand and get her off me. She runs away howling, only to come right back. “You see this, you disgusting pig?” thrusting the scratch in my face. “I might die from that!”
Then I cry and hate myself and think of my sister dying because of me. I just wanted to lie on the area rag rug and watch reruns of ’60s Batman in peace, complete with all the onomatopeias of “Whack!” “Pow!” “Bam!” that seem to punctuate every single day living with my sibling.
What had been my transgression? What could I have done to provoke such ire in my sister? I couldn't answer you at the time. I was 4, and my sister was 9.
I have vague memories of early childhood: my father yelling at my mother while she buried her face in her hands and cried next to me in her bed; having a full jeans pocket of pennies I kept bopping with the side of my fist as late afternoon sunlight streamed down the hallway and lit up my hair, and sitting next to my sister, watching TV when she turned to me resentfully and said, “I wish I had a brother that could hit you.”
I know my sister didn't do what she did because she was simply born jealous and resentful. She didn't spring from a vacuum as an evil half-sister. When she comes up in conversation now with other people who know her as someone horrible and not to be trusted, I usually summarize everything with, “That little girl didn't stand a chance.”
She really didn't.
Our family was dysfunctional as hell, and while I don't think of my parents as good people, in some ways, they did the best they could. We got three meals a day. Our clothes were washed. We went to summer camp a couple of times. Not everyone got even that.
I found out just before I turned 14 that my sister had a different mother, that back when my father was in his early 20s and fresh out of Vietnam, he'd knocked up a 16-year-old alcoholic who had subsequently given birth to my sister, born blue with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. This teen mother of the year then left my sister in a roach-infested playpen while she went out partying. My father did fight very hard and won custody -- I do give him credit for that, even though he was a violent brute who cheated on our mother, hit us, and hurt our pets just to be a dick.
It's pretty much a given that having that kind of start in life isn't conducive to developing normally. My sister had dyslexia and behavior problems. I can remember her being in the 5th grade and still throwing herself on the floor, kicking and screaming if my mother wouldn't let her get her way. I found out later that she'd been prescribed Ritalin, but after only being on it for a few days, my mother said she was “like a zombie,” and stopped giving it to her.
Concerns about medications and their effects on children are valid. Deciding that instead of calling the doctor and asking about it or any possibly modifications or alternatives, you are going to just beat the everliving crap out of your kid at least four times a week is not.
When my sister screamed or yelled, my mother could have sent her to her room, not lunged across the table to slap her in the face and pull her hair. When my sister threw herself on the floor, my mother could have walked away and refused to feed into the tantrum, not jumped on top of her and gone nuts like it was a sloppy street fight right out of her days growing up in Newark.
My mother would lose it on me often enough too, but a combination of factors led to my sister bearing the brunt of it. That caused her to hate me and take it out on me. From the time I was old enough to remember, she would watch me like a hawk and look for reasons to mess with me.
By the time I was three or four, she had the kids in the neighborhood throwing rocks at me and taunting me. I couldn't get anything to eat or drink out of the kitchen without her coming up behind me to scream at me that I was a pig and send whatever it was I'd had the nerve to attempt to ingest flying and splattering.
Not a single day went by growing up without an altercation. Every. Single. Day. Without fail, I heard how stupid I was, how fat, how ugly and worthless, how everyone hated me. If I walked across the room, she attacked me with sounds of “boom!boom!boom!” If I sat on the couch, she would have a problem with how I was positioned on the cushions and start yelling and punching. She would count the presents under the tree and freak out if she didn't have more than me. She allied herself with my emotionally stunted aunt (16 years older than me), and the two of them would taunt me while my father said I was an asshole when I couldn't take it anymore and just crawled under the Thanksgiving table when I was 10.
I can remember being nine and lying on the floor after dinner one night, trying to watch "Wheel of Fortune" when my sister just walked up to me with a big grin and started kicking me in the face. (The bathroom, the kitchen, and the TV were her biggest target areas for starting with me.) When I finally managed to get away from her and she chased me, I slipped and my knee put a small hole in the hallway sheetrock. The fallout, my mother's banshee screaming condemning us both, went on for hours. I was too terrified to leave my room, so I ended up pissing my bed and lying in it all night.
Then there was the time she decided she just had to use the bathroom for grooming purposes right then and there and kicked open the door and pulled me out of the shower.
I can remember lying on my stomach, silently weeping as my sister begged my mother to stop hitting her, she'd just gotten up to get a drink of water in the middle of the night. But my sister would sit and laugh to watch my father smack me in the face for some relatively mild transgression she'd gotten me in trouble for. Sometimes, my mother would beat my sister for the way she was tormenting me, and that just led to her hating me even more. A lot of times when we were fighting, my mother would condemn us both, then just take her things and leave. We never knew if she was going to come back. My mother had pretty much left us alone to kill each other.
When we got older, I ended up outgrowing her, and then the humiliation about my body took on a sexual tone. She and the above-mentioned aunt would corner me and ask me if I used tampons, smirking at my discomfort while throwing out other possibilities for absorbing my menstrual flow.
The size of my breasts was a popular topic she liked to bring up around family members, as well as asking me in front of her boyfriend if I'd gotten my period yet.
How does this affect a person? I grew up with a victim mentality the size of North America, for one. I didn't know how to carry myself or assert myself in any way as a kid, so of course, the bullies smelled blood. I knew fighting back always led to me getting into trouble, so I didn't learn to do that until I was much older.
Until very recently, I blamed myself any time anyone was mad at me. Making a mistake or being criticized would send me into these obsessive tailspins I couldn't let go of. I've been hard to take, needing to vent my PTSD panic attacks to anyone who would listen, which of course is going to alienate even the most patient of people. I pick my skin and have suffered through eating disorders and abusive relationships. I've been in therapy for almost half of my life to deal with everything.
When I spoke about it with another aunt a few years ago, she told me her kids had come to her more than once to tell her that my sister was beating me up, to please help, right then, come and stop it. But she figured all kids fight. At 45, my macho, blue-collar cousin was still disturbed enough by it to remember it in detail and to state something “was wrong with” my sister. My sister and I are still not close, even though we tried a couple of times. I think she still resents me too much for that.
I’ve had friends whose siblings beat them badly, too. More than one was molested by an older brother, considerably older to the point that it wasn’t experimenting, but a power imbalance and exploitation. Sibling abuse is a real thing, even though it's not often talked about.
But it doesn’t matter who is hitting you and calling you a stupid, ugly scumbag. After a while, it’s in your very cells and colors the lens through which you view the world. I’m OK enough now, at the crossroads of middle age. I’m as reasonably sane as one can be in this crazy world. I’ve pieced together my own family, forged a career and an authentic life in which I strive to make meaning. I just know it could have run a lot smoother if I hadn’t felt so worthless for so long.