I have a sister whom I have not spoken to in the last eight years.
I miss her. A lot.
The day I found out “Fannie” was a racist, I was in my office, feet up on my desk, Fannie was telling me how she and her husband, “Walter” were going to have to move out of California because the value of their home was tanking.
It was the “The Hispanic Problem,” she said.
The first time she said it, I didn’t say anything because I was sure I had misheard. She’d never made slightest whisper of racism to me. Fanny is chatty. Our conversations were often pretty one-sided, but I had no problem with that generally. My sister is funny. really funny. Her dry and cutting sense of humor, made it a pleasure to let her go on about her life.
But a few minutes later, “The Hispanic Problem” reared its head again, and I realized that I had heard her correctly when she had spoken before. A few sentences later I interrupted her flow and asked her, “What do you mean ‘The Hispanic Problem?'” I asked, afraid of what she would say.
In a sad voice she explained to me that her house had lost about 20% of its value in the last two years because all of the “Hispanic immigrants” who had moved into the neighborhood. She told me that they had all but “ruined” the school system, and that she and her husband had pulled their son out of soccer because because the rude “Hispanics” made them feel uncomfortable.
She complained to me that she and her husband had decided to move because they couldn’t afford to live someplace where their property values were imperiled. She felt perfectly justified in saying that “Hispanics” and the unprotected border had ruined her community.
Trying to respond logically, I asked her if she realized that she was descended from immigrant families, and that in some respects her mother was “first generation.” I told her that her father–who among other things had been a Kennedy Democrat and progressive liberal–would have been appalled at the things she was saying. I told her that her comments were racist, and similar in flavor to the racism that underlaid the Holocaust.
None of it meant anything to her. She told me to leave our dead father out of it, and that the first refuge of liberals was to label someone racist. She was furious with me. She couldn’t understand why I could not sympathize with the financial hit her family had taken, and the ones they would take moving elsewhere. She was mourning a series of losses: a community, friends, and lifestyle that she loved and had lived in for fourteen years or so. She told me that it hurt her feelings, deeply, that I acted as if I didn’t care.
Truth be told, I didn’t care much. To me, the fact that my sister had become a bigot was more important. I could not get past it to be sympathetic. In my mind it was her racism that was the problem, not the community. To me she had abandoned the values at the core of the family we shared. As I saw it, and still see it, these values were not important because they had defined our family, they were important because they were morally right. I didn’t care that her house was worth less on paper.
For the first time in my life, my personal values had come right up against how I valued the family that I grew up in. The two had always been one and the same. Now they were utterly at odds. I did everything I could to avoid choosing.
Week after week over the next six months I tried to engage her. I asked her what the basis of her racist conclusions were. She told me. She responded in great detail. I’d studied Philosophy, and Holocaust Studies, and I had a fair grasp of how racist arguments work and how they relate to fascism, and as I began to see the inner workings of her head, I realized that this Fannie was not the sister I had grown up with at all. She was much angrier, much farther down the rabbit hole than I had suspected. She wasn’t Anakin Skywalker, but I would not admit that she had become Darth Vader. She had become someone who hates groups of people, people she doesn’t know, pretty much full time. She told me that she had arrived at the conclusion that everything she had been taught in school and in university about race and about the morality related to it was part of a vast international conspiracy to:
“Destroy the White Race.”
Her role now was to fight the oppressive status quo, which was actively trying to destroy her, and people like her, people who shared her old-fashioned values and white skin.
The fact that her late father was a Jew, and a believer, didn’t seem to fit into her equation. She just wouldn’t touch it. But Fannie, long married to “Walter Plumber” blonde hair and blue-eyed, could pass so well as a non-Jew, that she had actively forgotten that she was at least half Jewish by birth. Later I found out that Walter and his father had walked her down the rabbit hole.
Feeling like the ship was going down, I asked her for references for many of the outrageous things she said. Where she could find them, she provided some. All were from websites, of the Brietbart ilk. Websites that write racist and ultra conservative fiction sold as historical truth–what had in the past had been called “propaganda.”
In one of our last conversations, in all seriousness, she said to me, “The White Race is in PERIL.” I laughed, but a second later I understood that she had become a permanent victim.
It’s an aspect of Hitler’s rise to power that he used this technique on the German people to convert them into Nazis. The German people were poor, defeated, and struggling after The Great War, and in that soil of misery came a man who told them that it was not their fault at all. That they were victims. They had been cheated. The Jews, and the fags and the mentally and physically impaired had done this to them.
“The white race is in peril,” he told them.
And Germans believed because the belief relieved them from the stone tied around their necks: the responsibility of being who and where they were, i.e. poor and disgraced and defeated.
I thought to myself, “But we don’t have propaganda in the US! This is the U.S.!”
I was silly-naive then.
Fannie fed me all of her pat phrases “states rights” and “Secure Borders” and then “Sharia Law,” joined the “Hispanic Problem” and “White Peril.” I found out from another sibling that Walter runs and anti-Islam website someplace. They own guns, and moved to the South about the same time she came out to me as a bigot.
I surrendered, and this entry is my apology for surrendering.
If there is something after this life, and I get the chance to speak to my father again, I’m going to have to tell him why I didn’t keep fighting to save her. Here is what I will say to him: I would have kept fighting but for two things. One, the more I pushed, the more she pushed back, and she would and could be nasty when cornered. Over time, I could not tell whether my questions and our exchanges were doing anything at all because, I found, she was utterly convinced by her world. I realized, in fact, that she was something like “in love” with her world view. She had come to care more about being able to live in this world than anything else. And I was no competition to that bond, even though I know that she also often found our interaction very painful. But once it had gotten a hold on her, everything she saw or heard was then arranged to fit into this view.
The second reason I gave up was that I ran out of fight. I felt like she was dying and I couldn’t save her. Each interaction was horribly painful, as any offhand comment on either of our parts might burst some fresh boil of disagreement. I had two little children at the time and a struggling marriage. I couldn’t go on.
In the last message I got from her back then, she told me that she loved me and was fighting for me, even though I couldn’t see it.
That sentence gives me vertigo every time I recall it. Black is white; up is down; bad is good; and nothing makes sense. In my head it says, “I am so lost I cannot speak to you anymore.”
We didn’t talk for about five years. I had nothing to say to her, nor she to me. I lurked her FB page from time to time. Watched her kids grow. Wondered if she were doing the same to me. I’m sure she was.
My other sister watched our flame-out with anxiety, and tried to walk the line of compromise with Fannie for a long time, but this past year she finally gave up too. All the vitriol just got to her. One of my step brothers, who like I do, works in education, won’t have anything to do with her. When my aging and infirm mother and stepfather announced they were moving in across the street from Fannie, “To be near all of those ‘strong backs,'” that stepbrother told them that he would not be visiting while they were there. My other stepbrother is silent as far as I know, but after five years, he has not been to visit his father and stepmother either.
My stepfather has a spinal injury, and has put himself in the even more unenviable position of trying to keep all sides peaceful. He has tried, and truly believe that the status quo pains him deeply, but he know how deep these differences run and his efforts really come off as desultory. Even while I say that, I appreciate that he makes the effort. He is, I fear, the last man still bailing out the sinking ship.
Rapidly approaching her fourth score, my mother has become very frail of late; I’m planning on going down to visit this summer with the kids. Last year I told this whole sad story to a good friend, and she told me that Fannie had in effect died, and that I needed to mourn her. I thought it an odd statement at the time. Overdramatic. But the more I thought about it, the more truth I found in it. Sometimes mourning seems appropriate: I no longer have my sister Fannie to talk to at all. I miss her ironic wit, her ability to coin unique phrases that stuck with us for years. “Don’t get my goatex,” she’d say when someone was teasing her. Other times, when I think of who she is, it’s as if the woman I knew has been largely erased. Maybe she’s still funny; I don’t know. The two halves of who she is to me now seem like a monstrous kluge–an undead loved one summoned to life with duct tape from a pile of junk. It’s a lot easier to mourn when a person is actually dead–at least it’s seems quicker than this.
Although we had fought a great deal as kids, for the first half of our adult lives we had been close. It had took work on both our parts. Now, I no longer know who she is. The person I do know is someone I strongly dislike, but still, she talks like my sister, looks a lot like her, maybe makes jokes.
I really have nothing to say to her, and still I miss her often. Next summer, I will gird my loins and drive the family–which now includes my girlfriend and her boys–to meet my parents. My kids have not seen their grandmother for two years because of this situation. Across the street will be my sister and her family. I will have to see her in person, talk to her, make small talk, avoid the vast range of sensitive topics–and hope she does the same. It will suck. There will be no resolution of our differences, and lots of potential for things to be painful and for things to get worse.
All the while, I’m going to be missing the young woman I used to know and love. But she’s gone now. I have to accept that.