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When Siblings Remember Childhood Differently

I had never considered the many different ways that my sister and I viewed our early years

By TJ Butler

Last fall my husband and I drove by the house I lived in at thirteen. I don't know why I expected it to still be there; in my memories, it was barely standing, part red and white aluminum siding and the rest a mishmash of wood and brick. The roof sagged in places. The screen door slammed. A house like that wouldn't have survived the decades. 

A yonng person standing in front of an old car. Next Avenue, siblings remember childhood differently
TJ Butler visiting her mother's house the summer after high school graduation.   |  Credit: Courtesy of TJ Butler

It didn't. In its place stood a picture-perfect two-story brick house with a manicured lawn. I wanted to stare into the windows, desperately curious about who lived there and what their lives were like. Instead, I looked away. Part of my childhood had been erased. It wasn't a good part. There were so few of those. 

I considered my younger sister's and my own childhood when we lived in the house on Grafton Street. I've thought and written a lot about my childhood; the domestic violence, the rage and the alcoholism. The house in Virginia was the last place I lived with my family before my mother put me into foster care. I assumed the house on Grafton Street's demise would be a shared experience between my sister and me. However, I realized I'd never spent much time thinking about how her childhood differed from mine. 

I've thought and written a lot about my childhood; the domestic violence, the rage and the alcoholism.

My Memories Are 'Flashbulbs of Violence'

I was the black sheep, always at the center of the family's dysfunction. I explosively butted heads with my mother. There was a constant undercurrent of drinking, hitting, and yelling. My memories are like flashbulbs of violence with my mother's boyfriend as the aggressor. My sister was four years younger and quiet. She rarely if ever bore the brunt of his anger. I did, and frequently; I was the one who fought back while she shrank into the safety of her bedroom.

It's taken me decades to realize that rather than sharing similar memories, my sister likely remembers me as the problem. 

Siblings Often Have Different Memories

A friend recently got together with her many siblings. They retold old childhood stories, and she remembered everyone ganging up on her; in one, she said they rolled her down a backyard hill, trapped in their father's old Army sleeping bag. A brother corrected her, saying that had happened to him, not her. She disagreed. Yet another sibling chimed in with the same memory. Each believed the others had turned against them and they'd been the only one bumping down the hill in a musty old sleeping bag. The conversation led to other memories, with each sibling having a different retelling of the events. 

In a family with three different memoirs that tell conflicting stories the authors each insist are the truth, who can we believe?

The memoir, and later, the movie "Mommy Dearest," are examples of how siblings remember childhood differently. Christina Crawford, one of the actress Joan Crawford's adopted daughters, wrote a memoir about her traumatic childhood. Christina portrays her mother as an abusive, neglectful narcissist. The memoir was released after Joan's death. It was hotly disputed by Christina's sisters, also adopted. They stated they never witnessed anything even close to what was described in the memoir. 

Augustin Burroughs' memoir "Running With Scissors," is another portrayal of how siblings remember childhood differently. Burroughs' memoir details a childhood rife with dysfunction at the hands of an eccentric psychiatrist his mother sent him to live with. His mother and brother disagreed and disputed many of the memoir's details. Both later penned their own memoirs to set the record straight. In a family with three different memoirs that tell conflicting stories the authors each insist are the truth, who can we believe? 


My Sister Remembered Things Differently

Thinking back to the house on Grafton Street with more clarity, it is easy to imagine what my little sister remembers. I wonder why it took me so long to put these pieces together. To a bystander, I may have appeared out of control if they weren't aware of how prevalent physical and verbal abuse were in our home. I had an older boyfriend. I snuck out of the house at night. There were probably far too many dinners that ended in screaming matches.

The worse things got with me, the quieter she became. I can speculate about her terror at the outbursts and the violence and how she must have turned to my mother for comfort. In turn, my mother must have been glad to have a "good daughter." Years of this behavior cemented the roles we played. 

She was furious about how I'd described our mother and the exchange became heated and ugly...I haven't heard from her since.

The last conversation my sister and I had was by text seasons ago. She'd read something I wrote that described details about my abuse and subsequent years in foster care. It didn't reflect her experience. She was furious about how I'd described our mother and the exchange became heated and ugly. She said I was lying and gave examples from her own memories to illustrate that things had been fine back then. I haven't heard from her since. 

Things weren't discussed in my family growing up, and we followed suit as adults. We never spoke much about those years. I'd never stopped considering us as individual children, seeing the world in distinctive ways, and using different coping skills to manage our emotions. I always knew her outward experience was different.

However, I assumed the baseline for trauma and abuse was the same. I'd always incorrectly assumed she and I bonded over the shared experience of our childhoods without stopping to consider how different they were. I read a quote once that said something about how no two siblings have the same parents. The two of us are living proof of that. 

She never responded to my text about the house on Grafton Street. The new brick house in its place is somewhat of a metaphor. I remembered an old house that was cobbled together and filled with many darknesses of the human soul. Her memories more closely resemble the new house. I envy her for the version of those years that she's chosen to remember. 

Her birthday is coming up. I'll send a 'happy birthday' text I know she won't respond to, and I'll let it be. Although our memories are different and seem impossible to the other, they are, in fact, our own truths.

TJ Butler lives on a sailboat on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay where she writes and photographs landscapes. She is the author of a new short story collection for women, “Dating Silky Maxwell.” To connect with TJ and learn more about her collection, please visit Read More
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