Invisibility (The Normal One – Part 1)

The Normal One by Dr. Jeanne Safer

I just finished a book by Dr. Jeanne Safer called The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling. The book explores the effects of “problem siblings” on “normal ones” and is based on interviews with over 60 “intact” siblings. I found myself on almost every page.

Apparently those who grew up as I did with a troubled, difficult or disabled sibling share a common set of personality traits which include premature maturity, compulsion to achieve, survivor guilt, and fear of contagion. Who knew?

My kindle edition has so many highlights, its more yellow than white so I decided to dedicate the next couple of posts to unpacking some of the quotes that resonated most. Here’s the first one:

Invisible is the word normal children most often use to describe their place in the family

Because the everyday problems we faced as kids were nothing compared to those of our siblings, our parents always put our siblings first. We were chronically overlooked. Our parents didn’t do this on purpose. They were overwhelmed by situations they never bargained for. Understanding this, however, does not minimize the actual consequences to us. We continue, even in adulthood, to have a hunger for our parent’s attention that will never be satisfied. We feel like we don’t matter to them. Our needs were so consistently ignored, we don’t even acknowledge them to ourselves.  

Months ago I wrote an essay called “Super Powers.” It starts out:

There are some days I feel so invisible, I’m convinced not even God can see me. If I were a Super Hero, I’d be Invisi-Girl.

Perhaps at some point, I’ll share the full essay. For now, I hold it up as confirmation of Dr. Safer’s point.

What did my parent’s do exactly that made me feel invisible?

  • They did not assign me a curfew. That’s right. As a teenager, I could stay out all night as long as I let them know where I was. When I’d call at 1 am to say “I’m at Michael’s house playing cards”, I’d wake up my parents. No one sat up waiting for me to come home. No one worried about my safety. They only had the emotional capacity to worry about one child and that child was Jerri.  “We trust you,” they’d say. I was 15 for Pete’s sake!
  • They did not attend events important to me. My senior year, I was nominated to Homecoming Court. I was surprised and incredibly honored. My parents skipped Homecoming. Mom said, “Too many people know I’m Jerri’s mom. I just can’t face them. They are all judging me behind my back.” I was in the Marching band; they never came to a game. I played soccer; they never came to a game. I suppose they came to my high school graduation but frankly, I don’t remember.
  • They did not protect me from predators. When I was 16, a 28 year old man pursued me. Looking back, I think he was a pedophile. My mother knew about him. The only thing she had to say was “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to see him.” My senior year of high school, I kept stats for the boy’s soccer team. At the end of the year, the two coaches held a party including alcohol for the team of about 20 underage boys. The stat girls (4 of us) were invited. Hmmmm. 20 boys, 2 men (one of whom had hit on me in the photography dark room at school), beer, 4 girls. What is wrong with this picture? As I was walking out the door, Mom said, “I don’t think this party is a good idea but you do what you think best. It’s up to you.” On the other hand, they were constantly monitoring who Jerri was with. They banned some of her friends from our house. When she didn’t come home, they would drive through the town looking for her. When found, they would drag her butt home.

As an adult, my mom only called when she wanted to complain about Jerri. She rarely asked about my life or what was going on with me. In my 30’s, I wrote her a letter and said I no longer wanted to discuss Jerri. “If she is all you want to talk about, please don’t call again.” Mom apologized and things got better for a while.

About 4 years ago, I invited my parents and Jerri’s kids to the beach for Christmas. Stan and I rented a small mansion and invested a substantial amount of money in the vacation. My family left early. Mom said, “The kids are bored and this isn’t what we expected. We thought there would be more sights to see and things to do.”  I was so furious, I stopped talking to them. My mom never sought reconciliation. Neither did I. Two months later, my parents wrote me out of their will. To this day, we are estranged. It still dumbfounds me how incredibly easy it was for them to erase me from their life. I guess it shouldn’t. They’d been doing it for decades.

So, invisibility, check – I identify with that one.


6 Comments on “Invisibility (The Normal One – Part 1)”

  1. pajarigirls says:

    Thank you. I had to send this one to my sister. 😦

  2. Cathy Alford says:

    Terri, I’m reading and caring. 🙂 Your transparency is amazing and surely must be cathartic in some way. It’s also making me thing a lot about my relationship with my family. I have one brother and there weren’t addition problems in our family although clearly there was emotional baggage and to this day I end up being the one in the middle trying desparately to help my brother and mother reconcile a relationship that has never been. I’m sure your blog will continue to provoke insight and thought for me.

    Love you, girl!


  3. Anonymous says:

    Didn’t know about the book. Thanks for talking about it. Look forward to reading more from you and the author.

    • Hi Melanie,

      The book is definitely worth reading. It’s a little stiff in places and Dr. Safer draws an analogy to characters in Shakespeare’s The Tempest to which i admit I don’t really relate, but if you can get past that, there’s a lot of thought-provoking stuff. Please chime in if any of this strikes a chord. Best wishes!

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