Case Study: Sister

Illustration: Confusion by


This is a tale of two brothers and a sister. One brother was white and one was black; one was healthy and one was dying; one could cut to the heart with words, and one could heal.

We weren’t a happy family, really, though from a distance we looked great: Handsome parents, solid career for the father, three children that people cooed over, and the parents were just so nice. Now that Mom and Dad are gone folks speak sincerely of how kind they were, and the contributions they made to the community. But day to day living was harder, and disappointment bit deep. Our father worked long hours to build his career, and even more hours to keep our grandfather’s business afloat. Our mother was left pretty much alone to deal with the house, Dad’s secretarial work, and the children, while communication with Dad often floundered. When my older brother and I were little, all too often she would greet Dad when he came home in the evening with tales of how “bad” we were. Then he would beat my brother. Though my older brother has grown up to be a gruff but tender hearted man who cares deeply for his family, it’s no surprise that as a child he was a bully. I wasn’t beaten as I was Dad’s favorite—but this didn’t endear me to my mother or my brother.

My baby brother Julian arrived when I was six. I think that at this point Mom’s enthusiasm for being a parent was gone—or maybe she was just tired and sad. I can’t remember that she ever held Julian tenderly, and soon I was changing his diapers, bathing him, reading to him, and putting him to bed. As we got older, I played with him, and continued to be responsible for much of his care. And I discovered that when I gave Julian the love I myself so desperately wanted, he responded and we became very close. Years later he told me that when he was little I was the only one who smiled at him.

Our father sent Julian away to school when he was in 4th grade. He meant well, and Julian later told me that he was glad to get out of the house. But the schools he went to were wrong for him. He never said much, but over the years he became silent and angry, and immersed himself in the martial arts. When home he would explain to me the various disgusting ways he could kill me with his bare hands, and he stopped calling me Emily. Instead he called me SSSISTerrrr—with such an edge to his voice that the word dripped venom. Sometimes things were all right, and we would laugh and joke and talk as we used to. But he wouldn’t call me Emily, and if I forgot caution and shared from the heart a joy or sorrow, he would respond with a subtle verbal jab that would sharpen distress or turn joy to darkness and confusion. And there was a gradual shift in our roles: Julian became the “adult,” and I the “child” who needed advice and correction. In some obscure sense I was always in the wrong, and when I listened to my brother I became increasingly off-balance and tentative in my work, feelings and desires. At last I sensed that something had become twisted. So I gently withdrew, and regained my confidence.

Years went by, I was in graduate school, had my own apartment in Brooklyn, and sometimes I would leave the noise and grit of the City behind, and take the train to spend a quiet weekend at the Monastery. This is how I came to know Brother Benedict. Poughkeepsie station is a handsome old one with stairs rising from the platform to an overpass above the tracks—just like you’ll find in stations in the far reaches of Brooklyn and Queens, where the subway rumbles out into the sunlight. And in the summer the stationmaster keeps the windows of the overpass open to catch the breeze. One warm Friday afternoon as I got off the train I looked up at the overpass, and there—hanging out the window and looking eagerly at the crowd of passengers below—was a powerfully built young Black man in white monastic robes—leaning out so far that the large black wooden cross he wore around his neck dangled in the air. But when the Monastery guests climbed the long stairway to the overpass, he greeted us with a quiet presence that gained power from his careful listening. He didn’t seem to mind that passers-by stared, or that some of us guests were a little shy when we realized that he was from Africa.

Brother Benedict drove us to the Monastery, got us settled in our rooms, and I soon found that he was a comfortable person to talk to, with a keen sense of humor. One of my favorite memories is watching him charge happily up and down the front lawn, skillfully fielding a football with a couple boys—his cross sliding and bouncing on his chest. And peeping out from under his robes as he ran were slacks in a black and white hound’s-tooth pattern so bold that they looked like they were left over from the psychedelic Sixties.

Another few years went by, my father died; I got a job and settled down in a small apartment near the Monastery, where I went regularly for Sunday Mass.

Then things fell apart with Julian. I was having trouble with my computer, and Julian offered to fix it during a visit. We talked, but there was no laughter this time. Though he’d never mentioned it before, he felt that I hadn’t pulled my weight in caring for Dad in his last illness. He wouldn’t listen as I explained that I’d done as Dad had asked me to in not quitting my demanding job as I had offered to do... Julian had made no arrangements or explanation when he left his graduate school work to care for Dad, and he was kicked out of his PhD program and not allowed to return. His behavior to me that day suggests why his university may have been glad of an excuse to be rid of him, for Julian used such violent words that for the first time in our lives I forgot tact and stood up to him.

“No one speaks to me like that,” I said.

“But they’re only words. It’s actions that count. I fixed your computer.”

“Julian,” I said, “To speak is to act. No one speaks to me like that.”

He left without admitting that I had any right to object to his attack. I cried and threw up for a couple of days and missed a crucial deadline at work. For years afterward I spoke to him only when necessary, and then only in brief sentences. I did, however, speak with the Prior of the Monastery, who told me that it would have been easier if Julian had been hit by a bus, and wisely suggested that I strengthen ties with other members of my extended family.

Not long after, the Prior told me that Brother Benedict, who had been away for a while at another house in the Order, was in the hospital with bone cancer. And he asked me a favor, which he’d also asked of a few others. All of the monks soon would be leaving for the annual meeting of the Order. Would I visit Brother Benedict in the hospital while they were away?

I was glad to do this, and went often—although I feared that my visits weren’t a success. I would come with cheerful things to share, but Benedict would greet me with almost no expression in his voice, we’d speak for a minute or so, then he would close his eyes—often rolling over so his back was to me—and I would end up sitting with him for a while then quietly saying goodbye. But I kept coming back because I’d promised.

When the monks returned, Benedict came home from the hospital. I was glad because I thought he was better. I didn’t know he’d been sent home to die.

About a week later, on a beautiful summer day, the Prior phoned to say that Benedict wanted to see me, and since there was urgency in his voice I came right away. The Prior led me through the monks’ private rose garden to the simple room where Benedict lay. He looked much worse than when I’d last seen him, and he spoke with effort, skipping his usual greeting. “I didn’t speak because my body was hurting. But my heart was joyful because my Sister was with me.” He closed his eyes. Before I could begin to respond the Prior touched my arm, signaled that it was time to leave, brought me back through the garden and said a quick good-bye at the gate.


Benedict died soon after and his funeral filled the church, for he was well loved. And I wept for him—and I think for Julian as well. My two brothers: Julian who when he called me “Sister” made it a curse. And Benedict who had every excuse of race and culture to reject me, but in his dying words blessed me with the name: “Sister.”


Vocabulary: Hound’s-tooth pattern

Discussion Questions

  1. How is it possible for the same word, “sister,” to be both a curse and a blessing?
  2. Are there other words that might be a blessing or a curse?
  3. What are some possible reasons that Julian became hostile to Emily, and began to treat her as if he were the adult and she the child? Are there other circumstances where a role reversal might occur? Why?
  4. Did Emily do something that earned this treatment from her brother? Did you think it was mean? What might precipitate meanness? Who has the problem here? Is there any insight to the problem? Why or why not?
  5. Emily confronted Julian with the statement that “To speak is to act.” What does this mean? Do you agree?
  6. There’s an old saying: “Actions speak louder than words.” What would be a good example of the truth of this saying? Is it possible that Julian was thinking (and acting) on this principle? Do you agree with the principle of actions speaking louder than words? Why or why not? Can you think of some examples in your own life?
  7. Why did Emily speak of both Julian and Benedict as her brothers? Since Benedict was a monk, wasn’t “Brother” his title? Are there other connotations of “brother” or “sister?” What are they?
  8. When “brother” or “sister” is used, are emotions attached? Always or sometimes? Why do you think that’s true?
  9. Is there a lesson in this story? What is it?
  10. Are misunderstandings or misinterpretations common in families? Why do you think that is true? How can misunderstandings or misinterpretations be handled or resolved?
  11. Has anything similar happened to you? Tell how you resolved it and what the outcome was. Were emotions involved? How? Why?
  12. There are cases where one incident can split a family and where families are estranged for years. What do you think happens when one of the estranged family members dies and the rift is never repaired?
  13. Are there unforgivable behaviors? Unforgiveable mistakes? Why or why not and how did you come to that conclusion?
  14. If you were called in to mediate in this situation, what would you do? How would you go about it? Please explain.

Case Study written by Emily Koenig:

Emily Koenig is a pseudonym. The author grew up in New York City and is a faculty member of a university in the Northeastern part of the United States.