From Journal to Memoir: Our First Fling with Intimacy – Siblings

Editor's Note: In this multipart series, Signature and Rita Jacobs, PhD, will walk you through finding the inspiration and motivation to start – and keep – a journal, and will later offer some approaches to transforming journal entries into memoir. In part fourteen of this series, Dr. Jacobs focuses her -- and our -- attention on stories rooted in sibling relationships. See earlier posts in the From Journal to Memoir series here.

Whether or not you have a sibling, you have feelings and stories about siblings.  If you grew up as a so-called only child, you may remember the times you longed for a little brother or sister and perhaps even invented one. On the other hand, those of us who did share our homes with siblings might remember wishing for “only child” status.

Whichever category you fall into, many of your childhood stories may revolve around your brothers and sisters or even cousins. Some of us are lucky enough to have extended families in which sibling-like bonds are formed with others in case we didn’t have or didn’t get along with a sibling. Even a child can definitely feel the energy and fierce emotion that arises from blood ties. After all, it is said that family is the place they always have to take you in. You might ask yourself if this applies to siblings as well.

If you are an older sibling, those protective feelings you had for a younger sibling may still color your life and the ways in which you interact with others. In fact, there have been so many studies done on birth order that you may be tempted to find solace or excuses as a result of seeing yourself as an oldest, a middle, or a baby. Indeed, the interactions you had with your siblings often foreshadow who you will be as an adult or may even have taught you not to be that person. Having dumped a glass of orange juice on my brother’s head at the breakfast table at age seven, I rejected acting out in such obvious ways ever after. Thus my skill at exacting revenge in more devious ways was born. No matter how far you may drift apart, the early days with a sibling remain resonant.

As Erica E. Goode wrote in 1994, “Sibling relationships – and eighty percent of Americans have at least one – outlast marriages, survive the death of parents, resurface after quarrels that would sink any friendship. They flourish in a thousand incarnations of closeness and distance, warmth, loyalty and distrust.”

Some of the bitterest battles occur between siblings in childhood. Seeing red and lashing out at a sibling is one of the things most of my students remember clearly. And even as young men and women, they remember quarrels as freshly as if they had happened yesterday. Who of us doesn’t remember the pain of thinking and saying “Mom loves you more!” Or the joy of making your brother laugh just as he takes a sip of milk that is guaranteed to explode through his nose.

Writing Exercise: Try to focus on a memory of a specific interaction with your brother or sister or, if you don’t have one, of the times you might have pleaded for one. This doesn’t have to be a Cain and Abel interaction, though that would make for interesting writing and reading; the incident you choose could  be antagonistic, funny, or loving – but try to bring up something that stands out in your mind as indicative of your relationship. Once you have the moment in your mind, use your descriptive skills to get it down on paper in detail. Re-create the setting, the dialogue, the action, and your feelings. Embellish if you want. This might serve as a starting place for a memoir chapter about your relationship with your sibling or about your status as an only child. It could also lead to your writing an unsent (or sent) letter to a sibling. Either result will get an important part of you on the page.