When Jessica Handler was fifteen, she began filling the pages of countless spiral notebooks in an attempt to document her feelings and observations about her parents and sisters—especially her sisters—keeping the journals that would forge a lifeline between the past and the present.
Hers was no typical family: Handler’s younger sister Susie died of leukemia when Handler was ten. Sarah, the youngest, was diagnosed at two with Kostmann’s syndrome, and was not expected to live past childhood. In fact, Sarah would survive until Handler was in her early thirties. By then, their parents’ marriage had crashed and burned, her father had been institutionalized, and Handler herself had a hefty drug habit.
But at fifteen, “I don’t know this yet,” she wrote. “I am writing messages and sending them away in bottles that will wash up on future shore, where I will find them when I am an adult.”
Assigning herself the role of “memory keeper,” Handler saved letters, photographs, “yearbooks and elementary school report cards,” and medical records numbering thousands of pages. “I collected evidence, rescuing our past from oblivion. Each item was proof that our lost civilization had been real.”
What she couldn’t save was the warmth of her sisters’ hugs or how the three of them confided in each other. They were the “memory keepers” of each other’s selves. “My sisters were my history, and I was theirs,” she says. At 32, Jessica was the only one left, her history lost.
Handler’s sisters were a statistical abnormality. Susie developed acute lymphocytic leukemia when she was six years old. There are about 3000 cases a year, Handler notes, so it is not that unusual. But for Sarah, who inherited a rare genetic abnormality at birth, the odds were one in one-to-two million. For both to happen to one set of parents, says Handler—who has a 67% chance of passing the gene onto her own children—is “unthinkable.”
At first, her parents coped as well as they could with their daughters’ illnesses, but years of mounting medical costs, paperwork, and endless efforts to stave off the inevitable left them alienated and hopelessly divided. On the day Susie was diagnosed, they argued over the seriousness of it, one hearing the diagnosis as fatal, the other, holding out hope. “That night,” Handler wrote, “while I slept, my parents began the slow and terrible turning away from one another that erodes families facing the death of a child.”
Just as damaging was the way they ploughed forward after Susie’s death as if none of it had happened. “In 1969, wrenched by one death and dreading another, my parents believed that making life full for Sarah and me prohibited backward glances.” As Handler later points out, some of this was necessary: “Living with catastrophic illness deprives us of the freedom to be emotional,” she writes. “Otherwise … every loss and every gain paralyzes us.” Her family moved on. They had two daughters left, one of them gravely ill.
Neither parent discussed the looming fears they felt, nor did they talk about Susie or visit her grave. They expected Jessica to grieve in a socially acceptable way—in one particularly disturbing scene, Handler’s father grips her hand at the funeral and commands, “Cry, damn it”—but they did not try to draw her out about her own reactions. At ten years old, instead of grief, she felt panic.
“The well child,” who required little attention relative to her sisters, Jessica’s needs dwindled to a minimum. In high school, she drifted into drugs and alcohol, a bright kid whose mother struggled to lift her above the dangerous tides of her father’s rage. After Susie’s death, his relationship with Jessica—though he had once doted on her—grew increasingly hostile. They, too, blamed each other.
Her father, Handler writes, may have resented her for not being sick. “My wellness must have been a kind of accidental belligerence,” she writes, “making me seem to him a traitor, a child able to get along without him.” Nursing an unexpressed grief aggravated by drug abuse, the once idealistic lawyer’s moods and strange outbursts escalated. On Jessica’s 12th birthday, her father strolled out onto the roof in his underpants, singing “Oh, Freedom.” During subsequent housetop strolls, he threatened to jump.
What she really wanted to do, Handler recalls, “was scream, but our family code required silence about dire emotion.” Instead, she screamed soundlessly, banged her head, secretly pulled out hunks of hair, and faded into the background while her sister Sarah’s illness—and her father’s breakdown—took center stage.
After college, Handler escaped to Los Angeles, where she worked as a production coordinator in television, reinventing herself as a problem-solver in what she saw as “finally, a world that could not turn without me.” Cocaine helped her squash the longing she felt for family and home, but she was ultimately drawn to reconnect with what she had been so eager to forget. In 1989, she returned to Atlanta.
The opportunity to reclaim herself came when Sarah died in 1992. Still unable to mourn, Handler envies a friend who sobs at the funeral, and finally confronts her father, furious with him for leaving her sister’s shiva early—and for leaving her, as well. “You still have a daughter,” she tells him. “I’m still alive, and I don’t want you to leave.” It’s the first step toward breaking her family’s conspiracy of silence, and in refusing to stay invisible to him, or herself.
Earlier in the book, Handler remembers the exact moment her family’s world collapsed, buried in grief and rage and ill-advised attempts to move forward and put the sadness behind them. “I saw that we had been shaken so hard we had blown apart.” Handler moves through the debris, an archeologist labeling shards and the occasional whole pot, not necessarily in the order things happened. Consequently, Invisible Sisters (Public Affairs/Perseus, $24.95, 272 pp.) is not always easy to follow.
Rather than a seamless reconstruction of the past, Handler’s “lost civilization” is like a mosaic, pieced together memory by memory as she recaptures a sense of herself as a member of a family—as one of three sisters with parents who adored them and adored each other. Sisters who loved each other in happy times and bad, jumped up and down on beds, giggled and told secrets, talked about boys. “I could not save my sisters,” Handler writes, “but I worked to save myself.” In this arresting and heartbreaking story, she’s really rescued the entire family.