A Sister's Sorrow

Life reexamined

Bringing Vernal to Visibility

A sister's undiagnosed borderline personality.

My sister Vernal did not think of herself as "like other people." More like a drifting alga, she floated where others floated but was caught by tendrils of vines. While her companions floated even against their will, she was separated from them in her own mind. How much she did not match them--in age groups, single women after divorce, social affairs of adult women--could not be put on a gradient.

She did not think of herself as "old" even in her late seventies. In no way could she identify with women who got their hair and nails done. She preferred a simple haircut, and once said to her attendant, "Just cut my hair short and leave a hole for my face." She admired jewelry but gave away pieces one of her sons made for her; she wanted to be "herself."

Looking back at her childhood: She was flung into a wholly foreign world of school at age ten and a half, she was put into kindergarten to "get used to things," as the administration tried to deal with this involuntarily delinquent child. In today's more enlightened systems she would have been gently taken aside and tested. She was finally put into fourth grade. She said she was teased. If it was because of her clothing, her shorn hair, her shyness, all three of those could have provoked teasing. Unready she was for school's social atmosphere.

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For all of her life she had her four younger sisters for friends. Their life on an eighty acre unproductive ranch was the only universe they knew. The "master" of this universe was their father, posthumously described as paranoid schizophrenic, who controlled every aspect of the family with severe proscriptions, punishment and cruelty. The main focus of this unemployed, alcoholic man was Vernal, emotionally stunted by the time she was put into school. One can only imagine the depths and kinds of fear with which Vernal slid onto a small kindergarten chair. What was she to do?

Phoebe Marrall is a writer currently working on a book about her sister, who suffered from borderline personality disorder.

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