Featured Artwork: Elisa PetersonI don’t know what my sister’s painting looked like, or where it hung on the wall for the high school art show. Until she reminded me, decades later, I did not remember she’d written My brother Steve is in prison across it. But I do remember what Mom said about it, with a tight shake of her head.
“Of course she’d make disturbing things,” Mom said. I did not respond, not quite sure whether silence was safe or cowardly.
Mom was right; Katie’s art was disturbing that year. Even if I can’t picture the prison painting, I can’t forget two others. One was a close-up of an open mouth with jumbled teeth, the esophagus clearly filled with a scream. The other was a pencil drawing of curves that formed bulbous, bald heads as if amoebas were turning human.
Years later, Katie would tell me that what disturbed her most about our reaction to the “prison” painting was that there was no reaction.
I have an obsessive memory of our childhood, so me not remembering her piece is strange. Was it abstract, or representative? On paper, or canvas? Acrylic, watercolor, charcoal? Did they hang it up in the center of a wall? Did people stare?
Mom, Dad, and I made small talk, she said. Then we went home.
Like all children, I memorized the unspoken rules of my family. I was the golden child: literally golden-haired, the baby of the family who was also blessed with good grades, a talent for singing and dancing, and a larger share of our mother’s love.
This last truth was the biggest and most open secret of our family, one that my mother, it seemed, did not know herself. Driving across the desert to my university one year, I told Mom that it was as if she and Dad, and I were on one team, and Steve and Katie on the other.
She shook her head, confused. “But we love them just the same,” she said. “We’re not on two teams at all.”
I did not respond, but I knew she was mistaken, just as I knew that my special status came at my siblings’ expense.
I might have been the golden child, but Katie, three years older than me, and four years younger than Steve, was the artist. When we were little, I envied her facility with a pencil and crayon. She could draw anything in bright, cheerful colors.
We were a family of makers. Dad was cheerfully competent with a saw or wrench; once we were grown, he’d make model ships by scaling down vintage plans. Mom strode through the bolts of bold colors in fabric stores like a farmer evaluating a field of wheat.
Competence, we understood.
But senior year, Katie’s talent moved from talent to sorcery. She drew what was real and unimaginable. Where did she get these ideas? How did she dare to put them on paper?
That was when I realized: art could put a knife to your throat and demand a response.
Me: golden, Katie: artist, Steve: ghost. He was the oldest, taller than our father, but took up almost no space, asked for nothing, was remote as a memory you’d repressed. When he was in high school, I’d watch him as he watched TV in his room—Jackie Chan, WWF—reassuring myself that he was there. He’d smile at me, a hesitant smile, but say nothing. I did not know if I were welcome to come in, so I did not. Then I would feel embarrassed to stare, and leave him to himself.
Prison happened like this: he’d graduated from high school in Tucson, where we lived at the time, with no plans for his next step. Our parents had told him he needed to support himself, and he’d gotten an apartment, a job. He lived ten minutes away, but did not come home for dinner or weekends or laundry. But when our father started a floor-covering supply and installation business in San Diego with our uncle, he invited Steve to join him. We would follow six months later.
After a while, Steve began to show up late for work, or not at all. He stayed out late partying with our cousin. Then he disappeared for a few months. When he next called, he was in jail back in Tucson, awaiting trial for stealing cars with some friends.
Mom told me the news as she reversed out of our driveway on the way to my ballet lesson. “And what are we going to tell people?” she asked. Her nose had turned red, like it always did when she was about to cry.
When Mom and I returned from dance, Dad was home. I asked him if we would visit Steve. He sighed. “I can’t say I want to go see him there,” he said. “I can’t say I want you to see him there either.”
We could not say. We did not go.
Steve was in prison for three years. Very rarely, Mom would relay news to me. He had been in solitary confinement to protect him after a race riot. He might qualify for an early-release boot camp. It was like hearing plot points of a movie I was not old enough to watch.
That year, I began stealing Katie’s ideas. Bored one night, I took a piece of graph paper and drew an amoebic blob. I tilted it, one way, then another, and all of a sudden, like those Magic Eye drawings that would soon be popular, I could see the faces.
Hesitantly at first, I shaded the curves, erased lines and added new ones, drew eyes, fleshy lips, broken noses, until grotesque faces stared back at me.
I hid the paper in a notebook, so Katie would not see.
I began practicing making heads obsessively. I had a technique: close my eyes, draw a swirling line, then wait for inspiration. Was this what Katie did, too? I did not dare to ask.
At first, I was pleased by the randomness of the technique, but soon discovered that randomness did not always end well. Sometimes, the heads refused to appear.
I was used to being good at things. I was used to knowing how to be good. With art, the rules disappeared. Try as I might, my cloned heads did not speak fiercely. The longer I copied, the more I practiced, the less interesting they looked.
One day, Katie found one of my drawings. She gave me a look of disgust. I understood her wordless accusation: I was trying to imitate her even though I did not take her side.
But I’m not creative like you, I thought.
I never drew them again.
I thought my sister’s talent was a winning lottery ticket. I did not realize she had clawed her way to art as one clings to planks in a shipwreck. I did not know creativity requires bitter courage.
Copying my sister’s work wasn’t the first time art troubled me. That happened in sixth grade.
My teacher, Mrs. Kimmerling, required a daily journal entry. At first, I found it easy. I wrote serial short stories about parents who ranged from absent to abusive. The kids were angry, wounded, afraid. Words spilled out without effort. They felt powerful.
But one day, I thought: What if Mrs. Kimmerling thinks my parents are abusive?
The blue college-ruled lines wavered. You did not tell anyone. My parents were not abusive, of course they weren’t, I thought, but Mrs. Kimmerling might not understand.
It was as if someone reached down and turned off a spigot in my brain.
Quickly, my writing grade fell. After the quarterly parent-teacher conferences, my mother asked me why I wasn’t journaling. What was so hard about writing one page?
Mom’s awareness of my failure worried me as much as the naked emotion of my stories. I gritted my teeth and began to comply with the assignment, writing flat sentences about my hobbies, school assignments, or the playground. My grade improved, but writing gave me a stomachache. If you gave creativity an ounce of power, it told the truth.
Maybe it isn’t an accident that I was living away from home the next time I tried to write. My junior year of college, I signed up for a personal essay class, and for my final project, I decided to be honest about our family. I wrote about the hole in the kitchen wall—just the size and shape of Steve’s twelve-year-old head—that our parents had covered with an etching of carrots. I wrote about catching a glimpse of Mom standing over Katie in the bathroom, screaming.
That semester, writing felt impossible and inevitable.
At home for winter break, I gave my parents each a copy of the essay and asked them to read it. A few minutes later, Dad met me in the hallway, his face creased and pinched like he’d not slept. He patted my shoulder. “It was a hard time,” he said. “It’s beautifully written.”
In the kitchen, I found Mom washing dishes, the essay lying on the table, just where I’d left it.
“Have you read it?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, not turning around.
I looked at the papers, then at her back, desperate for her to say something without me having to ask. Finally, I took a breath. “What did you think?”
She stopped for a moment, still. “It was hard to read,” she said, flatly. Then she started washing again.
I paused, waiting—for what? For tears? For apologies? For an explanation? My desperation almost choked me, and I said something I had not meant to say out loud. “I want to keep writing about our family,” I said, willing her to turn around. “I want to tell the whole story.”
She stiffened. All the air went out of the room.
Then: “I’d rather you didn’t.”
I stared at her back, a deep resignation settling in my heart. There was no way to write about our family and keep loving her like she needed to be loved.
“Okay,” I said, though I was not. I gathered the papers and left the kitchen.
I had hoped the essay would be a bridge to land I could barely hope existed. Instead, it was as I’d feared: creativity was a loaded gun. How could I possibly pull the trigger?
The truth was I had been trying to build that bridge for years out of words, only to fail every time. In elementary school, Katie would sometimes grow restless and ask me why our parents made the choices they did.
“What did I do that was so bad?” she asked.
Her question made me wince, but also made me feel smart, special. Youngest sisters are so rarely experts; I relished the role-reversal.
But when I would explain our family dynamics using our parents’ words—how Mom said Katie was manipulative, going to Dad when Mom said no to something; or how our parents had been on the verge of a divorce because of her—Katie would grow angry.
“You aren’t answering my question,” she would say.
Faced with her anger, I discovered I did not know why we were all so afraid, much less why I was safer than my siblings, or why that filled me with shame.
Not understanding was the most terrifying possibility of all: it meant there was no good explanation.
After my mother asked me to stop writing about our family, I could not bear to give up writing altogether, so I chose fiction instead, writing my memories under the merest pseudonym of I made it up. The only problem was that writing make-believe felt like tying my dominant hand behind my back.
So I moved to essays, but carefully. I stayed away from anything controversial, such as the first twenty-one years of my life. I wrote about homeschooling and setting creative goals. I never talked about the terror that had shaped my childhood. That would be disloyal that would be dangerous that would open doors I could not shut.
And then one day, trying to put together my very first book proposal, reality hit. I could not write an honest book without talking about the thermonuclear forces that had shaped me.
I could make art that might disturb someone, or I could stop pretending to make art. There was no middle ground.
I lived fifteen minutes from my parents. I could not hide from the blast radius, or pretend it would not change everything.
I called a therapist. In her office, I told her my dilemma, a blanket wrapped around my knees, shivering even though it was not cold. “It will kill my parents,” I said.
Lola smiled the maddeningly calm smile of someone who does not have a stake in outcomes. “Would you agree that an honest relationship is a better relationship, Heather?” she said. “What if you trusted that your parents want to know who you really are?”
My shivering stilled for a moment. Lola was telling me that disturbing people was not the worst thing that could happen. That in fact, love was about willing to be disturbed in the name of intimacy. My entire childhood had taught me to stay small and quiet, but was that love, or prison?
What if loving my parents actually meant believing things could get better? What if telling the truth was the only way to love them well?
A few months later, I sat in my parents’ sunroom and told them, again, my plan to write about our family.
Mom’s face twisted. “So you’re going to throw us under the bus? If you do that, we will move away. Do you want that?”
Her anger hurt, but also rang a familiar note. This was the same melody I had been following since childhood: speaking up meant causing harm, period, end of sentence. This tune never acknowledged that silence caused its own damage, or that there was any other possibility than shame.
But I was tired of having no imagination.
“I don’t intend to write unkindly,” I said.
It was not that I wanted distance from my parents. It was that I was finally willing to admit distance already existed—and risk anything in order to replace it with something more real.
My father sighed. “You’ve always written respectfully,” he said. He turned towards Mom. “Lee, we should trust Heather to write about it.”
Mom shrugged, her shoulders stiff. “I don’t know.”
It was as good of an answer as I’d get: in other words, not the deep reconciliation, curiosity, and sharing that I wanted.
Still, my parents honored me more than I expected. Every so often, I would send them an essay about the past and say I was open to hearing their side. Sometimes, my mother would respectfully correct something, or offer an alternative explanation for what I’d described. Sometimes, she would not answer at all.
The next time we saw each other, she would hug me without flinching, and give my daughters her widest smile.
It was not the healing I had imagined. But bridges come in all shapes and sizes. Even if the pathway shakes under our feet, we can be grateful for passing over deep water without drowning.
A few years later, Steve visited Katie in her home near Detroit. He helped her set up a basement studio; she showed him how to pour acrylic paints over canvases to make swirling, abstract pieces.
They texted me pictures of them camping, walking, kayaking. Their faces were full of light.
A year or so later, Steve left a troubling message on my phone.
“Hey, Heather, this is your brother. I just had something really tragic happen, and I need someone to talk to.”
There was a pause, and then he groaned. It made my hair stand on end.
Another silence. “Please call me,” he said, his voice cracking.
I dialed his number, my hands shaking, but he didn’t pick up.
I pulled up Facebook, the only other place we communicated, and found his last post.
My heart aches for Nadia rip. I wish the police did their job and stopped the ex that said he wanted to kill her. Now it’s too late. I love you Nadia and you will be missed. My girlfriend was brutally murdered.
Nadia was the woman he’d been dating for a few months.
I froze. I did not know how to support him. What would a good sister do? I asked myself.
I didn’t know. “Good sister” felt like a character in a foreign film.
The next morning, I called him again. To my relief, he answered, sounding more like himself. He explained he’d been with his sons when I’d called.
I asked how they were, how his night had been.
“It was actually really nice,” he said. “I showed them how to do the pours Katie taught me.”
My eyes filled with tears. I might not know how to be a good sister, but that didn’t matter. Instead, he was inspiring me.
I have known my brother and sister were resilient for decades. Even so, Steve’s choice that day filled me with deep awe.
I could imagine his hands covered in bright colors, his grown sons beside him, making something beautiful. He judged shades of red and white, watched the paint pool on canvas. The loss of control was exactly what gave the pour power.
I had once tried to imitate my sister’s work without drawing near to her. I had tried to copy her without understanding. Steve did the opposite: asked her to teach him, then used those skills to make beauty and connection in the darkness.
Art affirms that we can face our fear and wrestle it into giving us a blessing. Art reminds us, however far apart we are, that all of us are family.
Making things declares here I am. It declares What I see matters.
It declares, over and over again: Let us seek something beautiful and true on purpose.