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