Friday, January 1, 2010

Book Review: You Were Always Mom's Favorite by Deborah Tannen

The holidays are always rough. As Sally says in "When Harry Met Sally": “A lot of suicides.” And while family is supposed to make things better, they can often make things worse. I have two younger sisters, and we’ve had difficult relationships at times. (We get along currently and I’d like things to stay that way.) So in preparation for Christmas, I downloaded Deborah Tannen’s You Were Always Mom’s Favorite! (do I even need to give you the subtitle? That title is so perfect, you’ve got to already know it’s about sisters. But if you insist, it is: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives.) I listened to it on the way to my sister’s house, and on the way home (I will be seeing them again this weekend). Deborah Tannen is an academic so this is backed with real research, but she’s great at writing for a general audience and giving concrete examples. And she’s also a youngest sister. She’s done hundreds of interviews with sisters (why no brothers? Because they don’t talk to each other or to their sisters, and it’s hard to have communication issues when there’s no communication. You don’t have to like it, but that’s how things are.)

It’s been absolutely fascinating. For instance, it never occurred to me when I went away to college that younger sisters can see that as a “decision” that I had control over (it was absolutely assumed I was going to college and I really didn’t think I had a choice. And as for going away, my father was angry I went to a college “only” 400 miles away as he wanted me to experience life in another part of the country.) And I also didn’t realize that this “decision” impacted them. The family dynamics were different when I was gone. And even more so on the youngest sister when the middle sister left too. So sometimes the youngest child can be resentful of the oldest ones going away, but the older kids don’t necessarily have any idea why the younger is mad. (Would this explain why my youngest sister went as far away as geographically possible in the continental US?) Ms. Tannen herself felt abandoned by her older sisters when they went off to college and got married.

She also talks about the confluence of “competition” and “comparison” (what is more often the latter often sometimes gets confused with the former.) For instance, one thing that marginalizes the younger children is when people meet two sisters for the first time they’ll usually ask “who’s older?” Never “who’s younger?” By default that implies that “older” is what you want to be and therefore is better. Makes perfect sense although again, had never occurred to me before.

Another potential issue she brings up is that frequently when there are more than 2 sisters, the last sister is always assumed to have been conceived in hopes of having a boy. Many youngest sisters report that is normally the first question they are asked when their family is explained: “Did your parents wish you were a boy?” No one means to be hurtful in saying that but we should all watch what we say. (For the record, no, my parents actually didn’t want a boy when my youngest sister was born.)

While I lived in New York I was in therapy for a bit (everyone was. It’s THE thing to do in New York) and I learned that often just understanding where other people are coming from helps a relationship immensely. It affects the dynamic and when you change how you relate to people, suddenly you stop having the same disagreements. Now I’m not claiming this book fixed everything and my sisters and I will never exchange a cross word again, but it was enlightening. And I particularly feel vindicated when Ms. Tannen says after all her research, she is now very sympathetic and understanding to the plight of oldest sisters.

Ms. Tannen is an adequate narrator, but she runs things together at times so it’s hard to know when there’s a new chapter or a section break or if what she just read is a section header. I do like listening to books read by the author, but occasionally it can be obvious this person isn’t a professional reader.

I have been talking about this book for days to anyone who will listen. It is truly fascinating, particularly for anyone who has a sister.

No comments: