The phone rang, and there it was, my sister’s question, the one that would change me: How do you cover a bruise? She had to see our parents, she explained, she didn’t want them to know. Her tone made it obvious that she wanted them to know, about this, and much more. This was the First Black Eye, though of course it was really the First Black Eye I Was Aware Of.
My thought, after hearing this news: She would have never let this happen to me.
I’d suspected something was wrong, from the beginning, and yet — I’d done nothing. Part of it was the fear of driving her away, yes, but I’d done nothing also because I’d wanted to see the good in him. That longing had overwhelmed my intuition.
This was not a new problem. I’d known violations at an early age; these events rearranged my instincts, and made the world into one ruled by villains. No one likes the girl who sees darkness everywhere. And I badly wanted to be liked. In pursuit of lovability, I demoted perpetrators to people who didn’t know better. I overcorrected my sense of danger till I saw none at all, and forfeited my right to preservation. And now I’d forfeited her safety too. She was 22. I was 30. How had I let seven years pass in such ignorance? I attempted to catalog all I should’ve known.
I’d seen her flinch at an unexpected touch, shrink at the footfall of someone approaching from behind. I’d seen her leap out of her seat at a sudden sound, flatten herself against walls. I knew these signs because they were mine too. I was always scurrying to hide them — if anyone had to know what was done to me, I swore, I wanted them to learn through my words, not my exaggerated startle response. Maybe I’d hidden my sister’s signs along with my own.
They met in high school at 15, and bonded the way any teenagers who think themselves thrust to the margins bond: swiftly, and with suspicion of outsiders. He was smart and friendly, but I was unnerved by how he sidled into our lives, full of stories that would later be revealed to be untrue. When she announced their marriage at 19, we told ourselves that we’d lose her if we protested too much. She was a headstrong rebel — she’d marry him with a grown-out buzz cut and “Where Is My Mind?” by the Pixies as her wedding processional. At evening’s end, she went up to my boyfriend, a person she’d only just met. “I’ll kill you if you hurt her,” she seethed, tipsy. That was a sign too, wasn’t it? Why else would she be so preoccupied with my safety on her wedding night?
Marriage altered her every opportunity. The San Francisco art school she’d planned for never happened; she worked fast-food jobs while he went to community college. Five years into a union marked by his joblessness and irresponsibility, she put a down payment on a house with money left to her by our grandparents. It was shambled, a structure incapable of holding a future. My mother wept, struck by foreboding. My sister redirected our attention to the land, the real reason for her purchase. She was putting in trees: citrus, almond, peach. She had other plans: goats, bees, a llama. She spoke of how proud our grandparents would be of her farm. In truth, they would’ve been horrified by her abandonment of education, her choice in a partner. But who was I to contradict her beliefs? I silenced myself, eager to make her feel happy.
That silence follows me still.
When your loved one lives with someone who could kill her, your mind finds strange refuge. As it became clear that she intended to stay, I began to live in the possibility of her childhood trauma, hoping that some past horror could begin to explain the present. What had happened to me had surely happened to her too — why else would she devalue herself so severely? I interrogated her, convinced of an incident. Where had this early perpetrator found her? I suggested the wooded area behind our grade school. The park where she’d played softball. If only I could pin the origins to a place, I thought, I would go and write her husband’s name on every tree, and then I’d cut down every last one. My fantasies of futile and symbolic revenge mounted. I was crazed with it. The interrogations continued.
Nothing ever happened to me, she insisted.
After I stopped questioning her, the questions for myself remained.
Why won’t she let us save her?
Doesn’t she know that saving her would save us too?
After the First Black Eye, there was intervention after intervention. But confrontation, rejection — it amounted to nothing. He was her best friend, she insisted. He was suicidal, mentally ill — she owed him. With this banner of reasons, she continued to return.
And as her stories leaked out, I began to view her farm, this intended site of creation, as a place where the world was ending. Her husband was building an anti-life, one in which it was not necessary to heat a home, insure a car, or hold a job. She never had her own phone; just getting past him to speak with her was a struggle. I selected presents for her with an interest in what he wouldn’t steal or pawn, but eventually, I abandoned even this effort, as there was nothing — not even a women’s bathrobe — that he wouldn’t repossess. And there were the calls. The Worst Call, the one in which no one spoke, but my parents heard a scraping sound that suggested a shovel. A metallic repetition, the rhythm of a hard edge striking the ground. We were sure he was burying her and making us listen, my mother said. Trapped, my sister entered her late twenties and began to speak of a longing for children. But you can’t have children like this, I protested. She agreed. It remained the one covenant between us.
Over the years, I tried to tell myself that she wasn’t staying with him, that she was hiding instead, that she’d been hiding for so long that it felt like all she could do. I focused on her attempts to leave. There were many. I dwelt on their number, not their conclusions.
On one particular attempt, marked by my inept handling of her grief, she moved into my parents’ house, and I flew up to offer comfort. But there could be no comfort, only distraction. So we tried to watch Kill Bill and enjoy a fantasy of vengeance. If she couldn’t be The Bride, I swore, I’d be The Bride for her. She laid her head in my lap and wept, and I thought of how we’d loved scaring ourselves with violent movies when we were little. It felt as if we’d fallen asleep to those movies as children, and when we woke as adults, we found that violence was real, and a predator had taken her captive. The Bride’s blade flickered onscreen, and I stupidly thought it was all we needed at that moment — the illusion of justice, a triumphant heroine.
Later that night, after the movie was over, she slipped out to see him. His car circled our block. And again, she was gone.
Her returns made me thankful for the seven-hour distance I was able to keep in LA. But the violence never left my thoughts. It was disruptive, and it made me useless. In an attempt to reverse this effect, I interviewed for volunteer work at a women’s shelter. I could teach workshops, I claimed. I could tutor, serve meals. But as we spoke of the shelter’s mission, I crumbled, and the too-fresh reason for my presence became clear. I imagine the interviewer had seen many of my type: siblings, parents, friends, reduced to such a state of helplessness in the face of their loved ones’ suffering that they could only steady themselves through service. Now might not be the time for you, she suggested gently. We agreed that I would check in with her in a few months. I knew I wouldn’t. Because my sister would not be free in a few months. She would remain my loss, a loss I often blamed for my own paralysis.
I’d known loss before, but the death of someone who is still alive was unbearable. Pieces of her had gone missing, bit by bit, and she’d divided herself into different versions in order to survive. There was the one who tried to please him and the one who tried to leave him. And when I was honest with myself I recognized a version whose appearances mystified me the most: the one who claimed that she still loved me.
There was a huge selfishness at play in my obsession with my sister’s abuse. While my fear of her death and obsession with justice were real, there was also a narcissistic bent that surfaced whenever I ruminated on the illusion that she’d chosen her abuser over our family. I wondered how much of this was the consequence of being forced to witness her pain. Beating after beating, her altered body, her changed affect, her defenses of him — in time, my selfish obsession with punishing the batterer overwhelmed my sister, her personhood. I tried to recognize this inclination while speaking to her, to cling to the borders of where she ended and I began, but the difficulty of this was so great that the worst would often happen: We’d stop speaking. In lieu of words, she’d send me images from the farm she was still trying to build. A litter of baby bunnies, newborn-pink. I’d look at it as if it were a code she wanted me to decipher, a sign that, someday, she could have a new life too.
Five days before the death, she called me, her voice strangely young and bright. It was over, she’d said. He’d agreed to leave by the end of the week; she would be free on their anniversary.
But when the day came, his will reigned: On that 11th anniversary, he marked time with his suicide, taking her — in her eyes — from survivor to widow. For years, I’d prepared myself for the death of them both, a murder-suicide. And where I’d expected simple and outrageous grief, I found complicated mourning.
He’d taken her victory away, my sister lamented. Ever so violently, he’d freed her, and he’d done so with a "shalom" banner hanging from the door, an old family artifact that he had curiously repossessed. I’d inquired after the location of this banner repeatedly. To discover it at the death site, in a place where my sister’s tormentor announced his unwillingness to answer for his crimes — it was more than I could bear. I looked away from this word that means perfection, completion, wholeness, and realized that while I’d hoped for her freedom, I’d not hoped for this. I thought I’d wanted him dead. But now, he was gone, and I realized that I’d allowed his violence to change me too. Under its influence, I’d lost sight of who I wanted to be — not her avenger, but a witness who saw her horrific present, and helped her imagine a true future.
My sister and I are relearning how to communicate, how to be family, friends, allies. She sees herself as inhuman, still. You are free, I remind her. She speaks of wanting to run a farm someday, a sanctuary for women and children to look after the animals she credits with saving her sanity. She is careful in disclosing her plans. She knows I want to lock her in a room and keep her safe, that my intuition, once more, has come under question. She asks me if it’ll ever be possible to be innocent again, and I say, We’ll never be innocent, but maybe we’ll be better? And she responds by sending me a new picture of the latest bunnies: furry little white clouds, huddled together, for comfort and protection. This is their instinct. We have ours.