PEELING OFF THE LABELS

By Ilana Rose

My parents insist that I was "bad" from the beginning. By this they mean that I cried a lot in infancy. Here's what Dad once told my husband: "We never knew what to do with Ilana. Her sister, Joyce--now, she was easy. If she cried at night, I'd say, 'Hey, kid! Quit crying!' And she would. But no matter how much I yelled at Ilana, she'd keep carrying on."

Joyce is two years older than I. When we were kids, I suppose she was the good girl, seeing as how I was bad. But by her preteen years she had clearly become the family "pill," and she played this role throughout adolescence. "Oh, she's such a pill today," Mom would say as Joyce stomped off to her room. My sister was just irritable enough that we all left her alone. If Mom requested her help with housework, Joyce would feign a headache or make some snippy remark, so Mom stopped asking. In summers Joyce would lie in bed for hours, sometimes reading three Harlequins before the sun set. When she tired of that, she'd park herself in front of the T.V.. After dinner she'd have marathon phone sessions with friends and lovers.

While Joyce blocked us out as best she could, I served as the easy companion for whomever needed one. With Dad I played tennis and golf on weekends and sailed on Wednesday nights. I acted as the buddy that Mom hadn't turned out to be. As he and I strolled around the block on warm evenings, he would express his disappointment in the marriage. He no longer respected Mom or wanted to be near her. He enjoyed wielding financial power over her as revenge for an old grievance. He claimed he could marry any of his female coworkers and would do so if they were as educated or as cultured as Mom. Lots of times he felt lonely. Of course, he did have me, his "best friend."

Fresh from hearing this treason I'd go to Mom's side and act as her little helper. We'd spend hours doing errands and chores, and she'd talk all the while. She would tell me how much she resented Dad--and then just as suddenly would wax nostalgic about their marriage. "Your father's my best friend," she announced only days after he'd bestowed this title on me. I forced myself not to contradict her; my role was to aid and abet Mom's denial, to listen quietly as she lied to us both. "You're such a good girl," she would say, smiling. "Come help me make dinner."

Oh, how I wanted to stay the good girl. But out of nowhere the seesaw would start tilting in the other direction. I'd feel myself slide out of favor, watching as Joyce took my spot. Her disposition would become somewhat sunnier, and she'd spend less time behind her closed bedroom door. My parents stopped griping about her and started in on me. Suddenly I couldn't do anything right. My hair, my complexion, my clothes--all were subject to criticism. Occasionally I would fling back a smart remark, thus falling further from grace.

It seemed such a very long way up again. How could I succeed if my sainted sister held top honors? I couldn't, and this made me even more ill-tempered. I realized, though, that my fortunes would eventually change, because the elevated one was sure to fall down again. I learned to wait, much as a sailor sits tight when the wind dies. The rhythms in our house seemed just as predictable (and uncontrollable) as the natural forces at sea.

There was a final, enormous vicissitude in 1990 when I was a college senior and chose the "wrong" lover. He was Muslim, foreign, and dark--not white and Jewish as my parents would have liked. Around that time Joyce selected a white and thoroughly American partner. Although he was Christian he came from a famous family, and this more than made up for the religious deficiency. Both Joyce and I had weddings in 1992, which underscored the differences in our situations.

At Joyce's wedding reception my father made a telling comment to a family friend. (I was standing right behind Dad, so he didn't see me.) "Joyce is the daughter who's never caused us any problems," he said. "She's always done everything we asked." The woman glanced into my stricken eyes and gave me a sympathetic hug while Dad remained impassive.

Later I thought about his historical revisionism. What happened to Joyce as a pill? What about all the years in which I served as the good and faithful companion? My parents' version of the truth would prevail, no matter what. Why ruin a pleasing story with messy facts?

Nowadays their fiction has practically become reality; Joyce has kept up a good-girl streak for nine years and counting. She has stayed close to my parents geographically and emotionally and speaks to Mom daily. Joyce has produced two golden children. She's been trying for the doctorate Mom and Dad want her to have, and she teaches high school students. An active Jew, she organizes charitable events at her temple's behest. She's got the good-girl shtick sewn up.

I, too, have locked in my role. With my unacceptable partner I moved to the opposite coast. We're defiantly child-free and atheist, and we prefer to be self-employed. I've gone the artistic route, writing angry essays about my family (among other things). My parents and I speak every two months (although we exchange tepid email more frequently), and we get together one miserable time a year.

For years I've enjoyed playing the rebel. I've seen myself as liberated, original, and rational. Marrying a man of color in the face of my parents' stinging comments made me feel superior and enlightened. I'd grow particularly smug whenever I thought about Joyce. She seemed like such a June Cleaver, reveling in the chance to take her husband's name and have kids. I wanted to be the opposite of her, the anti-Joyce.

Recently, though, I've begun to back away from this stance. It's tiring to be anti-everything, to define myself as being whatever they are not. Besides, am I really so rebellious? I married the man I happened to fall in love with; there's nothing radical about that. I'm not a political pamphlet. I'm just a human being who keeps learning and growing. And so is Joyce, much as I might hate to acknowledge that. We probably have a lot in common, coming from the same screwed-up family and all.

This similarity is hard for me to admit. It's tidier to picture us as eternal opposites. But I'm starting to peel off the labels and consider other interpretations. Maybe Joyce wasn't a pill so much as depressed and angry about our home life. Perhaps she's not unthinkingly conformist, just reeling from the pain of earlier rejection. And me--there are loads of ways to re-envision the person they've labeled so harshly. Have I ever been "bad"? Oh, what a limiting word.

There must have been some truth in the labels, much as every stereotype has an anchor in reality. And I realize that all parents play the name game to some extent, trying to determine what kind of kids they have. I'm sure it helps children to hear themselves described now and then.

But what good can come from constant, reductive labeling? The words confine a child, caging the spirit. If a kid is stamped with labels before she can speak, how can she freely decide who she is--and who she wants to be?

All I can hope is that things are different for Joyce's kids. With any luck they'll have the room they need to fashion their own identities. Ideally they'll see themselves and everyone else for what they are--richly complex, ambiguous, and ever-changing human beings.



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