The Significance and Insignificance of Family
by Megan Liu (August 5, 2016)
You’re raised to think family is everything, that family is the most important thing in life, that family is the foundation for everything that you are. They’re your blood — doesn’t that have to mean something?
Recently, I read an AskReddit thread titled, “Survivors of attempted murder: what’s your story?”
I’ve talked about the abuse I suffered at the hands of my brother to a handful of therapists, psychiatrists, and they always made it seem like it was an anomaly that he tried to drown me when I was thirteen years old. In the back of my head, I always knew, in that moment, he wanted to kill me, but I — and my parents — always made excuses for him. I disregarded it then, lumping it in with all the other beatings, yet reading that thread put the whole situation into perspective.
There is a helplessness that has never left me, beaten in with open-handed slaps and closed fists. My parents did their duty, soothing bruises and whispering meaningless nothings to try to placate me, to end the sobbing and the anger. Except, to them, it wasn’t my brother’s fault for hitting me countless times; it wasn’t my brother’s fault for going ballistic because I simply wanted to swim with him. The attempted drowning, the abuse — none of it was ever his fault. I shouldn’t have provoked him because l should’ve known better, because I knew that he was depressed and psychotic. But I did know. He wasn’t the only one trapped in the throes of mental illness, but I was the only one who realized that, even if it wasn’t healthy, internalizing it was a better option than lashing out.
Five years later, I still talk about it in weekly sessions with my latest counselor. Obviously, my brother has changed. He hasn’t hit me since I was sixteen; the aggressiveness, the sociopathy is tamped down, contained beneath a facade of humanity, but there are days when I can see it roiling beneath his skin, his movements robotic and controlled as he tries to keep himself from lashing out at me. He’s as well-adjusted as he can be while I’ve come to realize that perhaps I’m really not that different from the cowering thirteen-year-old crying out and choking on chlorinated water.
There are innumerable moments where I hate him, but I have come to the understanding that we are all creatures of circumstance. Nature versus nurture, right? I find it depressing that I’m not surprised my brother turned out the way he did, being my parent’s first “crash course” child whom they turned a blind eye on, discounting what was going on inside his head and what he was doing to me.
The traditional concept of family has no meaning to me anymore. Family means safety, love, and warmth. I shouldn’t be scared of my own brother. I’m tired of people telling me that love should be an obligation, that I should love him simply because we’re related. That’s meaningless to me. I don’t have time to deal with people who glorify family and believe that no one close to you would intentionally hurt you. Why should I love someone who hurt me, who, on some days, still finds non-physical ways to hurt me? Why should I love someone that I’m afraid of? Love — familial, platonic, romantic — is a two-way street. You give and you take. In some twisted sense, I guess it fits: he doled out the abuse, and I took it, while in return, I gave nothing but quiet acceptance. I learned early on that going to my parents about it was meaningless.
I still have this inherent desire to love him because he’s my brother, because my parents tell me to, because you’re supposed to love your siblings, because love is supposed to be unconditional. Something that I learned in therapy is that you don’t have to like someone to love them. I can’t really explain it, but knowing that has made it easier to navigate my relationship with my brother. It’s a tenuous one, one that I’ve given up on trying to fix completely because I know I will never be able to completely let go of all the bad and he will never stop being a sociopath. I have to love him at a distance.
Often, I consider not loving him at all, giving into all this bitterness and hate and just cutting him out of my life, but I don’t want to regret anything. I don’t want us to be estranged, and, suddenly, I get a call one day telling me that he’s died, and I’m stuck wondering what if I had given my brother another chance. I want to have options in my life. In retrospect, I loved him through all the beatings, through the attempted murder. Now, I have to love him less. I can’t make accommodations for the physical and emotional belittling like I used to. I don’t think he’s capable of changing more than he already has. It’s up to me.
I’m not forgiving my brother because he deserves to be forgiven. I’m forgiving him because it’s toxic to hold onto what he did to me. I deserve the chance to move on.