August 13, 2007

An Unlikely Photo

This photograph is incredibly unlikely and has a lot of history behind it. It doesn't look like anything unusual, I know, but it is. I just received it by email from my sister .

This is a photograph of my sister and I taken when I visited her for her 36th birthday about a week ago. The unlikely part is not that the woman in this photo is 36 years old and doesn't look like it, although she certainly doesn't. My sister got the family anti-aging genes and seems to have stopped aging at age 21. Lucky her. But there's much more to this.

My sister and I are both survivors of extreme physical abuse as children. Well, that's not entirely true. I was abused from a very young age, perhaps from close to birth. I can say with certainty that I recall being physically abused with beatings as far back as I have any memories at all. I'm not talking about spankings and the like. I have scars from it. I had sprains and, on at least one occasion and possibly more, broken bones that went untreated. When I was 15 years old, the state of New York attempted to remove me from my parents' home after a series of particularly bad incidents that I don't care to detail but that finally resulted in me landing in a hospital. The effort didn't succeed; my father, a fairly high-ranking police officer, knew people in protective services and, long story short, the case wound up being thrown out and the records sealed. I thus went back to the abuse which continued until I moved away to college. In 1988, I had to leave school, in part because I was unable to do mathematics of any kind due to an organic disorder (I can do math well now, thanks to that diagnosis and subsequent therapy) and at about the same time informed my parents that I didn't believe in their religion. As a result, they disowned me. We've had no contact for 20 years and I'm absolutely fine with that.

My parents told my sister at that time that the reason I had vanished was that I had been arrested on charges of dealing heroin and was in prison for a long stretch, an utter lie. Up until I had left for school, my sister was simply neglected while I was being abused. With me now entirely out of the picture, however, neglect turned into the same kind of physical abuse visited upon my sister that I had suffered until then. My sister is five years younger than I, and so she was mercifully only two years away from leaving for school herself, which she did. Unlike me, she did stay in touch with my parents. Then she met her husband-to-be, who is one of the nicest guys you could ever meet and who bears a striking resemblance to a young Robert DeNiro. He was ambitious and responsible and made my sister very happy.

That wasn't good enough, of course, because he's Catholic (or, should I say, was raised in a Catholic home. Neither he nor my sister are at all religious). My father now became abusive toward my sister's fiancee and his family — not physically, but verbally and emotionally. There were a couple of years of threats and insults. He and my mother made it clear that if they married, my sister would be disowned. Moreover, my mother told my sister that any children — her own grandchildren — would be evil (yes, evil) because they weren't Jewish. My mother believed, and this is as near a quote as I can get to one, that she would have to "defend herself" from such children, that they were a "threat to Jewish people."

All of this is utterly deranged, but perhaps this explains why my sister and I were both independently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Again, both of us received therapy for it and have learned to live with the symptoms.

In any case, my parents did cut off all contact with my sister when she and her fiancée set their wedding date. As luck would have it, I had been trying to find her by this time. Because she was the immediate relative of a police officer, all of her public records were held in confidence. I finally hired a private detective who tracked her down. Just a few weeks before her wedding, my sister and I made contact for the first time in over a decade. The first time I phoned her, she was living in New York and I in California. She didn't even believe it was me at first, and once I'd convinced her that it was, I had to also convince her that I hadn't been in prison and hadn't been a heroin dealer, and in fact had no criminal record of any kind. After a few conversations, she invited me to her wedding.

It was a good thing she did; I was the only person from my entire family who attended. In fact, I gave her away, the role normally performed by the bride's father.

Because of the distance between us and lack of money, my sister and I kept in touch by phone and email but only managed to get together in person once more after the wedding. She and her husband came to visit LL and I in San Francisco in 1999. Thus, the photo above documents the first time we'd seen each other in about 8 years and only the third time since the 1980's that she and I were in the same room together.

All of that is in this photograph. I don't suppose any of it is visible. It just looks like a typical family snapshot. It isn't.

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