‘Something vertical when it should
have been sideways.’
– Bhanu Kapil, Schizophrene
I don’t have a brother; I’m an only child. But a few years ago I started writing poems in which a brother appears.
When I tried to explain what they were, I described them as ‘memory exercises’. I had invented a brother to help retrieve memories I thought were lost, or didn’t know I had. But the writing took the form of direct addresses (‘Brother you . . .’). I was talking to this brother, and talking to him gave shape to events that had grown fuzzy over time. I remembered a cricket jumping into our car on the motorway, a funeral in Portsmouth, eating instant noodles in front of the TV. It was what I imagined having a sibling would be like. We constructed a world together, and sharing this space – whispering secrets at night – made the outside world less frightening.
But I felt guilty. What had begun as an ‘exercise’ – with all the distance that implies – took on a life of its own. My brother was there and not. Though I spoke to him as if he was real, I refused to give him a name or describe his appearance (if I pictured him at all he looked like me). I felt squeamish thinking about him in any detail. Just as it feels wrong to imagine the death of a living family member – for fear of tempting fate – it felt wrong to describe the life of a non-living family member. So I left him in limbo.
This way of thinking about my brother – keeping him present and absent – shaded into elegy. He was the listener, the correspondent voice I’d always wanted. But he was silent. I played a Candyman-style game in which I stood in front of the mirror at midnight saying ‘brother’ to myself. Though nothing happened, speaking as if he was there changed the quality of the silence; it filled it.
In Siblings: Sex and Violence, the psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell writes that ‘we all have or expect to have a sister or brother and this is psychically and socially crucial’. It was this expectation that hovered over my early childhood, when my parents considered having another child. The decision was eventually made for them. They worked a lot and didn’t know when they’d find the time, then ten years passed and it was too late.
My mum says I used to ask her for a brother. I’d ask her in the way I asked for new toys: ‘Can I have a brother, please?’ There were siblings all around me – in the playground and on TV – and I must have felt a sense of something missing. But my desire for a brother wasn’t as clear-cut as I made out. Like Mitchell suggests, the expectation of a sibling precedes any conscious desire for one. And I think, in asking my mum for a brother, I was picking up on what was already there, testing her, trying to gauge whether or not she wanted another child and what that would mean for me. Would a new child change my role at home? Though I had an urge for kinship, I also felt what Mitchell calls ‘the fear of annihilation’, a fear directly evoked by the prospect of siblings who might replace me.
Mitchell uses ‘replace’ and ‘annihilate’ interchangeably. One sounds milder than the other. Replacing a person won’t necessarily destroy or annul their existence; most likely they’ll go on being, just with the knowledge of their own replaceability. But what replacement entails is a break in perspective. The only child develops a picture of themselves as a subject, irreplaceable in their ‘I’-ness, shaping the world around them. The arrival of a sibling turns them into a replaceable object (‘you’, ‘he’, ‘they’), one among potentially numerous others. In asking my mum for a brother, I was toggling perspectives, seeing myself as a subject and object, through my eyes and hers, imagining how replacement would feel.
Those perspectival shifts felt normal. Now they make me think of Jacques Lacan’s description of the ‘fragmented body-mind’ experienced by the child during the mirror stage. The mirror stage isn’t, as I once believed, when a child recognises themselves in the mirror for the first time; it’s when they realise the strangeness of their own reflection in the mirror. Jacqueline Rose writes that ‘the mirror image is central to Lacan’s account of subjectivity, because its apparent smoothness and totality is a myth.’ During the mirror stage, this myth is evident. The child sees that the mirror offers only a partial form of identification. How could that weird figure miming along with you be the same person you feel yourself to be?
I remember a period in my childhood when, after bath time, I would play in front of the mirror. My facial features were like different parts of a puzzle. I’d pinch my nose and suck in my cheeks, wet my hair and give myself a side parting like my dad’s. It was around then I started asking my mum about siblings. I could see her in me and me in her. There was something malleable about the face, about family. It was obvious that the person staring back at me wasn’t simply ‘I’: ‘he’ was an object in the world, over which I had a limited degree of control.
There was a racial aspect to this, manifest back then – I was always playing with my eyes – which became more marked with time. I entered my teens frozen by shame, unable to reconcile the growing dissonance between my subjective experience and the image others saw. My self-image had previously felt fluid and playful; now it was fixed by the assumptions of others. It wasn’t just when a barber lectured me about my ‘Asian hair’, it was in the eyes of strangers everywhere. I stopped looking in the mirror, because I didn’t need to: I could see myself in how others saw me.
Lacan says that the mirror stage comes to an end when ‘the specular I turns into a social I’. He gives no sense of how racialisation might distort this process. For him, the ‘fragmented body-mind’ is transformed into a smoothly socialised self. But in a long footnote in Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon comments on the relationship between the mirror stage and race. The white subject, believing in their reflection, forgets about it. The Other, by contrast, looms into greater view, coming to be perceived, in Fanon’s words, ‘absolutely as the not-self – that is, the unidentifiable, the unassimilable’. The racialised subject can’t help but internalise this perspective. You see your own body as ‘unidentifiable’ or ‘unassimilable’. Stalled at the specular stage, you take the mirror’s reflective membrane with you wherever you go. It becomes impossible to move beyond your own reflection.
Maybe my brother came into being in that moment of self-splitting in front of the mirror. He looked like me, but wasn’t. He was the reflection I couldn’t move beyond, the Other in me I was fascinated by as a child, and then spent my teenage years avoiding. He was unassimilable matter left over.
Recently I discovered I was wrong: I’d written about a brother years before. Visiting my parents, I found a blue exercise book filled with stories from primary school. I flicked through the pages, pausing at one story written when I was eight, called ‘Murder or Murderer?’, which begins with the protagonist, a young boy, going out to play in the garden. His mum calls after him, telling him to be nice to his brother. Outside, he sees a knife shining in the grass and a change comes over him:
I thought, I thought for a long time then I remembered brother, I’ll kill him, really, the knife erged [sic] me to kill him kill him now I walked slowly back to the house in determination.
Walking past his mum, he goes up to his brother’s room and charges in. But before he can do anything he sees his brother lying there, already dead. The story ends by revealing it was all just a trick played by the brother who’d seen him in the garden and – presumably guessing what he was going to do – decided to fake his own murder.
The mania of the story’s violence is unsettling, though not unusual. Carl Jung apparently asked his two-year-old daughter Agathli what she would do if a baby brother were to be born that night and she responded, ‘I would kill him.’ But there are strange things about ‘Murder or Murderer?’ beyond the fact – forgotten or suppressed – I’d created a fictional brother long ago.
Underneath its banal dreaminess, several details diverge from reality. My family never had a garden, and the interplay with the worried-but-absentminded mum (who manages to leave a sharp knife lying on the grass) feels false. My mum was tidy around the house and she worked near Holborn, so my dad – who worked from home – took me to school and picked me up. Both adjustments, like the addition of the brother, sketch out the sort of conventional family I must have subconsciously craved. But if I had any desire for that family I also, clearly, wanted to destroy it.
Perhaps, since I was eight when I wrote the story, I was embarrassed to still feel any yearning for a brother. It’s notable that the knife is what ‘erge[s]’ the protagonist to kill; he’s unable to admit the murderous rage as his own. Reading it now, the thing I find moving is the story’s atmosphere of failure, captured in that moment of surprise – which is deeply unsurprising – when the brother’s dead body is revealed. The speaker realises what he was about to do and the violence of his conviction drops away, replaced by a familiar sadness. It’s impossible to kill what was never alive.
In late winter, 2021, I went for a walk with a friend in Downhills Park. The schools were open again. Trees made closed shapes at each other in the rain. We talked about siblings. My friend was a middle child and hated being alone. Part of him wished he’d grown up as an only child. I told him my theory that only children don’t like being alone, they like being alone around others.
He asked what the difference was. I said that only children evolve with an experience of loneliness that makes them think, why wait for company that might never arrive when you can reject the need for company altogether. They develop a kind of self-sufficiency they can carry around with them and lay out like a blanket, however loud the world gets. But they still want to be with people. That feeling never leaves.
Our conversation turned to writing. I said I hadn’t been doing much. The only thing I’d been able to work on were these weird, small poems addressed to a fictional brother. I was unsure if they were writing. ‘Where did they come from?’ he asked. We drifted to either side of the path as a white dog ran ahead of us.
That conversation, though short, forced me to speak him aloud – my brother. At home, I put everything I’d written into a single document for the first time. The poems felt more substantial, but shameful. I felt the guilt I had in the past, about conjuring this being into life and then leaving him in limbo. He stared back at me: I and not-I. My confusion about the poems – where did they come from? – seemed to betray a deeper fraudulence; if I couldn’t even explain them to myself, then maybe I was faking the emotion attached to the work.
There was something else about them, too. Those jagged fragments of text – hiding more than they showed, fixated on the language with which they addressed the Other – emanated loss. I worried, as a result, they’d strayed into morally dubious territory. What about the real family and friends who’d disappeared over the years? Why had I turned away from them to mourn someone who never existed?
One day, talking about this to another friend, she stopped me and asked, ‘But why can’t you mourn family that never existed?’
I hadn’t put it to myself like that, but it made sense. Things started to move inside my head. I thought about the perversity of mourning, its asynchrony. I’d always remembered the death of my grandma with spotlit clarity. I was thirteen, and my mum told me as soon as I came through the front door with a bag of McDonald’s. I cried immediately. A glut of feeling. It was a moment of fully intuitive grief. Other times since then, it’s been murkier; I’ve questioned whether I was mourning someone without realising it or still waiting for the mourning to begin.
But another feature of mourning is that it doesn’t require an object, let alone one that exists. You can mourn what never happened, or what you thought would happen. Mourning can take as many forms as absence itself.
I grew up with a particular absence, living in London but aware of a parallel world – Indonesia, the country of my mum’s birth – where I had a huge, interconnected family. At one stage, my mum thought about raising me in Jakarta alongside my aunts and cousins. We travelled over there a lot. But in the late nineties riots spread through the country and Chinese Indonesians were attacked on the streets. She decided it was too dangerous, so we stayed in the UK where the circle of my family was mostly confined to me and my parents. My Indonesian family was still there, geographically distant but bound up in my experience of the world. I mourned them like a brother. I could almost touch the space in my life they didn’t occupy.
One of the main arguments of Mitchell’s Siblings is that psychoanalysis has historically privileged the vertical over the lateral axis. The vertical axis focuses on descent – relationships between parents and children – whereas the lateral axis is more concerned with alliance, with sibling relations and other forms of kinship. Mitchell’s long-standing critique of psychoanalysis has centred on its patriarchal bias, how it’s drawn continually to the figure of the father. Part of this can be seen in the obsession with descent. How can you understand the way a ‘specular I’ becomes – or fails to become – a ‘social I’ without looking at lateral relationships?
Vertical narratives can be crushing over time. I think of the trail of dead fathers on my mum’s side, the trauma descending from grandmother to mother and mother to child with inevitable, accruing force – personal agency, by the same movement, fading away. My mum grew up in Pekanbaru, a city in Sumatra. Her grandfather died while delivering cargo during the Second World War, mistakenly poisoned by the Japanese Army. Her father died from colon cancer when she was eighteen. She left school early and joined a brother in London where she enrolled in a secretarial course and learnt to speak English. The death of her father became linked with migration, a rupture in the language.
I spent years shirking the weight of descent and then, in my early twenties, began to experience a range of new symptoms: a fear of flying and motorways, of leaving London, of crossing bridges. If I wanted to get from Embankment to the Southbank I now had to walk slowly, palms sweating, down the centre of the pedestrian bridge, ignoring the sludge of brown water either side of me.
When I told friends about this, there was something hilariously neat and metaphorical about the whole situation. It felt like I was describing a character from a novel – scared of bridges, of the gap between cultures, who’d taken on his mum’s unspoken shame around leaving home. I couldn’t bring myself to cross any border, however small, without being overcome by the fear I would be shut out forever, unable to return. But that was how it felt, and no amount of interpretation or ridicule could make it disappear.
The brother poems began in this place, hemmed in by fear, which must explain why I didn’t want to name my brother or describe his appearance. What use did I have for a fleshed-out person? I wanted to address the gap. It was the gap my mum had crossed in coming to London; it was the same gap I now felt between here and anywhere else. But in writing poems to my brother, a change occurred. I could let myself feel – beyond embarrassment – the vertical pressure of descent and trauma, the grief that had been absent and present throughout my childhood.
Mourning, according to Freud, is the process by which the lost object becomes an internal image. Mitchell refers to the hysteria or ‘haunting’ that can ensue if this doesn’t happen, when the object ‘persists as though it has not been lost, but is everlastingly present’. What happens when a migrant loses their home without fully mourning it? My mum didn’t put many pictures up around the house, maybe because Indonesia was still, if anything, too present. I grew up haunted by elsewhere. And as a lonely teenager I turned to poetry, one of the characteristic features of which, like song, is its way of talking to someone (‘you’, ‘he’, ‘they’) as if they were right there. No response is necessary; language makes them present.
‘It is only when you are stranded in a hostile country that you need a romance of origins,’ writes Saidiya Hartman. But perhaps that romance doesn’t have to involve looking upwards and to the past. There’s also the romance of what’s next to you. When I write to my brother I feel the vertical pressure ease. We’re carrying the burden of grief together. And that sideways gesture of calling out, of talking into the unknown, changes my relationship to myself. I’m no longer stranded. That act of talking – saying ‘you’ – brings us nearer. It draws my family, real and imagined, onto the same plane as me. I speak into the silence and something fills the gap.
New Year’s card made by the author, Beijing, c. 1995, courtesy of the author
Extract from Schizophrene by Bhanu Kapil reproduced by permission of Nightboat Books and the author