Family is a Lie

I moved back in with my mother. Shara, my sister, stayed with Dad, of course. Somehow, though, despite our different opinions about Mom, we stayed close. I suppose that can be explained by the fact that we simply didn’t discuss her on our alternating weekend visits. Even when she came over to visit Mom, Shara was kind and polite to her. She simply preferred to live with Dad. His money helped her come to that decision, as well, I suppose.

Soon after the divorce, Dad started dating. He dated a short, mouthy schoolteacher for awhile, but dumped her when he met tall and tight-lipped Estelle. Estelle, the weenie. She acquiesced to my father in all matters. She was everything that my mother and I were not. She was milquetoast. And to make it worse, she had a daughter my age.

After she and my father married, Estelle enrolled Janelle in my high school. Janelle ended up in my senior English class. Janelle was an embarrassment. Nobody cared for her. She was aloof and withdrawn. She did not attempt to befriend anybody, spurning the advances of the most kindhearted and ardent of my friends. Eventually, we all forgot about her. Even at Dad’s house, she maintained a high level of invisibility.

One day, between classes, I ran into Janelle in the girls’ restroom. Her eyes were red and swollen. Her cheeks were still wet with tears. But more importantly, she was holding a bloody fingernail file.

“Janelle? What did you do?”

Janelle dropped the nail file in the trash can before she answered.

“Pretty is as pretty does.”

I laughed. Keep in mind, the amount of blood on the nail file was miniscule. She had obviously not killed anybody or mortally wounded herself. But someone had been hurt on some level and now she was talking nonsense. I was at a loss as to what to think about the situation. I laughed again. A short and unfelt haha.

Janelle turned to the mirror and smoothed her hair with her hands.

“Janelle, what the hell does that mean?”

She didn’t answer, she just left. Later, in our English class, she read her essay on family aloud.

“Family implies cohesion. Family implies love. Family is a lie. Couples divorce and split up their offspring. New relationships are formed. New couples emerge. New step-siblings meet. New step-siblings endure life with each other. Someone has to make sacrifices. Someone has to change schools. Someone has to make themselves get up everyday in a house without their cat because the new step-dad is allergic. Someone hates family. Someone ponders ways out.”

The class was silent, but for a few soft chuckles. By the end of the school day, the incident had been discussed and exaggerated amongst every clique and social forum.

Mrs. Reynolds, our English teacher, had Janelle’s counselor call her in. As a result of that meeting, Janelle ended up at County Hospital in the psychiatric ward for a month. It was only supposed to be for one week, but she made a suicide attempt. When she finally came home, Shara told me that Estelle and Dad screamed at Janelle. Apparently, Dad was furious about the hospital bill. It was bad enough that she had to go there in the first place, he said, but did she have to add more time on? Next time she wanted to kill herself, he said, she should make sure that she succeeded.

If nothing else, this scenario was valuable in that it caused Shara to grow up and see Dad for the beast that he was. Even more importantly, though, it taught us both that we were not alone in this mess called family. And we certainly were not the ones who had suffered.

Susan Sonnen, BA Psychology. I am a freelance writer with a focus on literacy and preschool education.  View profile

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