How’s Your Sister? by Anne Goodwin
Cancer is a brutal beast, but this story isn’t about cancer. It’s about something stranger, something more dangerous to name than cancer. So cancer it is, as the family tries to explain what happened to their daughter, to their sister. Why Emily is now in a wheelchair.
Back when we had cable, I used to watch the National Geographic Channel almost compulsively (along with BBC America). In particular, there was one show that I enjoyed beyond all the rest, mostly because of how weird it was: Taboo. And there was quite a bit of backlash when, in 2012, they aired a segment on a fake paraplegic.
Don’t yell at me for spoiling Goodwin’s story. I did not. There are no fake paraplegics in the piece. Not one. I bring it up because How’s Your Sister? is an exploration of what it means to be comfortable with your body and how far you might go to be happy with it, taboos be damned. Many had a sense of outrage at the Taboo segment. With Goodwin’s story, it’s not necessarily outrage, but a certain, horrific sense of discomfort.
Beyond the wheelchairs and unusual body situations, they also share an unrelenting selfishness. The narrator in How’s Your Sister regularly identifies herself as a ‘selfish cow.’ Her sister, Emily, is unequivocally selfish. Their parents also read as often selfish. The subject of the Taboo segment is also selfish, in oh-so-many ways. Or is she? Are any of them?
I like to think fiction in general is about teaching things about ourselves that we didn’t know before, about speaking hard truths we don’t want to hear. And we really are selfish creatures, but to be open about our selfishness is crass, even if expected. In Goodwin’s story, we have two sisters, one of whom is selfish. But are we certain about which one it is?