Thoughtful Commentary on the Meaning of Family

There was a piece on NPR yesterday about the author Cheryl Strayed.   She’s the author of Wild, a book I confess to having started but not really gotten into before it had to be returned to the library.  It’s an account of her time spent hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and her reflections on her life during that hike.

The book has been successful and many people have read it.   Many people write to her to report how connected to her they feel after reading the book.  One day, as you can see if you listen to or read the NPR story, a woman wrote to her to say that she thought she and Strayed had the same genetic father.   And indeed they did.  (Strayed hadn’t named the man in the book, but the woman had recognized him and could name him herself.)  That means, of course, that Strayed and this woman are genetic half-sisters.

It turns out that Strayed’s father, who had been  married to Strayed’s mother, had remarried after a divorce.   His new marriage produced the woman who wrote to Strayed.   But that marriage, too, dissolved and neither daughter has maintained any contact with the man in question.    They knew (at least vaguely) of each other’s existence but that was all.

Strayed asks questions that I think are important:

“It’s been really pretty interesting to think about: What is family? And what is a connection? You know, obviously this isn’t someone I grew up with. I’m meeting her as an adult. And like I said, our connection is through this man who neither one of us has a relationship with now. And so how are we sisters? And how do we proceed?”

For me this connects up the recent post about family forms.   The connection between Strayed and her correspondent has several facets.  There’s genetics, of course.  But there’s also the experience of having had and then lost touch with the genetic father–the same man in both cases.    There’s clearly commonality there.  Is that fairly encapsulated in “sister?”   Probably not.

I don’t mean to suggest that one needs a new term for every variation on relationships.   Perhaps my point has more to do with how language choices can sometimes oversimplify.   Whether Strayed and the correspondent call each other sisters or half-sisters, their relationship is not like many others that fall within those categories.   As Strayed says, they never knew each other growing up–and both sisters and half-sisters common do at least have some contact.

And then there’s Strayed’s last question:   How do we (from my perspective, they)  proceed?

I will not make any attempt to answer that, of course, as it is hardly my business.   But in the end, this is the most crucial question.   What does one make of it all?   There’s something special in that relationship, but the meaning any pair of people give to that is up to them.   Very likely it is contextual.  For medical purposes, for example, the genetic connection may be of paramount importance.  At other times, though, having the same man as absent father or the same man as once-present father may be more important.

I suspect if I’d read Wild I’d know more about Strayed’s own relationship with her father and maybe that would lead to more to think about.  Perhaps I’ll put it back on my “to read” list

16 responses to “Thoughtful Commentary on the Meaning of Family

  1. Julie – my mom had an older brother who left home when she was perhaps three and moved to a different country – there were no true shared years – but there were shared occasional letters (expensive back then) throughout their adult lives, and later when it became affordable several trips one way or the other….they proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were siblings – for about 60 odd years of adulthood. It boils down to what you believe.

    • Boils down to who you are in relation to other people factually. Fictive kin act like kin are suppose to act. Real kin don’t have to act like kin to be kin and by kin I mean people you probably should not french kiss.

      • So do adopted siblings, who have the same parents listed on their birth certificates but are not genetically related, “qualify” as siblings?

        • I don’t know if that is sarcastic or not so I’ll answer what I know in terms of legal rights and what not. From a medical standpoint your sibling is a person who has at least one parent in common with you. From a legal standpoint your sibling is a person who has at least one parent in common with you as demonstrated by your birth record if not adopted or your amended birth record if adopted. If your parent is not listed on your birth certificate or is replaced on your birth certificate, your parent’s other children are your siblings in reality but not legally. If you are not the offspring of the person named as a parent on your birth record, that person’s other legally recognized children and adopted children are treated as if you were their sibling. So legally your siblings even though in reality you are not. If you are raised up like siblings it is socially awkward to have a romantic relationship with them and it would be against the law to marry them. If you are not raised with your real siblings it is dangerous to reproduce with them but legal to marry them as they are not legally related to you.

          I’m not saying that people don’t act like they are siblings when they are raised like siblings, but that is all perception and behaving ‘as-if’ something not true were true. Following a model of behavior thought to be true of people who are related by both being the offspring of the same person or people.

          The difference is the truth does not care whether you believe it or not. Like justice is blind the facts are the facts. You don’t have to act like siblings are suppose to act in order for it to be true that you are siblings. But acting like siblings when you are not only means that you are acting like siblings. Legal recognition that you are when you are not only means that others are playing along with a lie.

          If adopted people kept their original identities and just had an adoption certificate they could prove to be adopted siblings of one group of people while still being able to prove they were the siblings of another group of people, even if they had a name change like in marriage you can prove to be the person on your birth record by showing that you changed your name upon getting married. It would be a more accurate system that respects both realities for what they are either an adoptive sibling or just a plain old sibling.

          • I think I understand your views and agree with them at least somewhat. Can they be summed up like this? Current reproductive practices are unjust — people can essentially buy children, either through adoption or gamete trade. You don’t agree with this and want to see reforms that reflect individuals’ genetic reality, so that these people can know the truth, be a part of their genetic family whenever reasonably possible, and receive financial support from genetic parents.

            Most of that seems totally reasonable. But socially, adopted siblings who are not genetically related are hardly playing along with a lie. They feel like siblings, are raised like siblings, and basically ARE siblings. They may also have biological siblings they don’t have contact with or even know about, but that does not mean they don’t have real sibling relationships with adopted siblings.

          • Actually many state incest laws specify that they apply to both biological and adoptive relatives, not just legal relatives.

            • I”I think I understand your views and agree with them at least somewhat. Can they be summed up like this? Current reproductive practices are unjust”
              No. I don’t think that reproductive practices are unjust. I think abandoning our offspring at birth is unjust. What people do before they have offspring is their business alone, what they do after they have offspring is society’s business as well. If a person really wants offspring so badly that they are willing to create them with a total stranger matched through a third party, that is their business, just as long as they take responsibility for their own offspring when born and don’t let someone else claim to be the father or mother of the child. It’s a lie from a medical and public health standpoint. I don’t deny that people live life as if they were related and in the case of adoptive siblings they are legally related when the biological sibling of the adopted person is not legally related to them. I’m just trying to get equal air time for people’s biological relatives so they never loose legal recognition within their own genetic families – I have no desire to take away legal recognition as members of their adoptive families or social families. Just be fair

              • “What people do before they have offspring is their business alone, what they do after they have offspring is society’s business as well. ”

                But since it becomes society’s business at birth, it is society’s business before too. Plus, it is the child’s business whether their parents are committed to each other. I think intentional unmarried conception is therefore unjust and should not be allowed, even if both parents are identified and pay support.

                Plus, even if no kids result, allowing intentional unmarried reproduction messes up everyone’s marriage prospects and threatens the right to use our own genes, by suggesting that better children would come from the sperm bank. And it makes husbands optional which disrespects all men. Husbands shouldn’t be optional for a woman to have children.

                • Wow. Just wow. And how, pray tell, will you enforce this “no sex outside of marriage” rule? Did humankind try that for the first 30,000 years of our existence? Doesn’t that rule just put us right back into the 1940s?

                  • So right

                  • Dan, it is not a “no sex without marriage rule” it is a “no intentional conception outside of marriage” rule. So it would only shut down sperm banks and brazen internet sales. Unintentional conception would still happen, and be handled the same way it is handled now.

                  • And to answer your question, the “no intentional unmarried conception rule” would make it illegal to run sperm banks and make it illegal to sell gametes, where it is now a legal business. And if it goes underground it could be enforced by the FBI using sting operations, where agents go to doctors or monitor craigslist for ads. And big big fines and prison time would deter people. As for unmarried couples that intentionally conceive, they would have to lie that it was unintentional, but they should have to pay the $30 fornication fine that Massachusetts still has on the books and is still good.

                • By causing the existence of a hungry mouth to feed we have an obligation to feed that mouth. We don’t have an obligation to be in love with or married to the other parent of our children. That is absurd to say children have a right to have married parents. I mean what ever their parents happen to be married or not is none of their business.

                  • Yes, we do have an obligation to be in love with someone we are considering creating a child together with. And a child is much more than just a mouth to feed, they don’t just need a check every month from their father (not that my objection is based on what the child needs, but on what is best long term for society and adults and equality and rights)

  2. I don’t bring it up here much because you all know, but I reunite separated families and many are just like these two sisters; not every separated family is caused by adoption or abandonment clauses in gamete donation agreements – most don’t have an umbrella group to advocate on their behalf. One thing is for sure where there is a separated family there is at least one parent who did not take care of his or her children otherwise the family would still be in touch. Maybe they did not care for their children because they were a deadbeat or maybe they died in a car crash.

    Julie you reject and voraciously attack reasoning that is founded on emotion, psychology, concepts of morality, normalcy and nature, yet the basis for your own beliefs is founded on little more than personal perception, grand assumptions and hypothetical situations no different than those you skillfully fillet in debate. Individual views about who is or is not like family to us is distinctly different than the legal concrete truth of who we are and are not related to either by blood or marriage or court appointment etc. You want the law to sanctify each individuals personal opinion of who is and is not family, not just without being related in the public health sense, but not connected through any court approval process to ensure that people willingly joined in marriage for instance or connected via a willing marriage like step relatives are.

    Being raised as siblings is not the same as actually being siblings. I know, I have a brother like that but he is not really my brother we just act like siblings feel like siblings refer to one another as siblings. Come down to it however its technically a lie. We are not even adopted siblings its social, chosen, elected and lived. My kid could marry his kid though – we are not related and he is not actually related to me. His kids are both girls and so’s mine I could be progressive like that though.

    My mom’s sister died 6 months before I found her and the rest of her Dad’s family, my cousins, her nieces and nephews. They had no idea the other existed. That does not change the fact that they are siblings. Paternal siblings. Each equally related to him and his parents. They are sisters and it is a true statement tied to concrete fact whether they grew up together or even knew the other existed. It is the kind of kinship that every human being has so it is the kind of kinship law that treats all equally should be based on.

    The rest is up to the individual.

  3. My mother could have helped her sister become an American citizen, that is their right because they ARE sisters whether they grew up as sisters or not is irrelevant to the fact that they are and circumstances prevented them from being raised together. Being raised in the same house as your cousin does not make them a sibling. Sibling like but not sibs

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