Backstory…. by Deb Sarah

In The Opposite of Me, my main character, Lindsey Rose, is struggling to maintain her own identity – not an easy thing to do, when you have a twin sister like Lindsey’s. Their backstory – the years they spent growing up together, when Lindsey’s twin Alex constantly attracted attention for her looks – informs not only Lindsey’s actions as an adult, but also contributes heavily to her sense of self. Lindsey doesn’t believe she’s beautiful, because no one ever notices her when Alex is around. As The Washington Post wrote in its review, “Lindsey learned early to flex her brain as a foil to Alex’s beauty.”

There’s a flashback in my novel (actually, there are a few, but this one is particularly meaningful to Lindsey): The two sisters are about five years old and are getting a reward for enduring immunization shots at the doctor’s office. As they gobble down good, greasy, crinkle-cut fries, an old woman walks by their table. Lindsey is transfixed: The woman looks just like the witch in her Snow White book, and she’s even dressed all in black. The woman puts a blue-veined hand on Lindsey’s head, and says in a raspy voice, “Too bad this one doesn’t look like her sister.”

My book has been out for less than a month, but I’ve already gotten notes from a few readers who’ve said scenes like that one hit painfully home for them. One reader, who has a gorgeous sister, said her uncle made a similar comment that still resonates in her mind. It’s hard to stomach the thought of someone treating a child – or an adult for that matter – so cruelly. But what’s fascinating to me is how our individual backstories affect each one of us, stretching far into our futures and even shaping them. In every family, there seem to be labels, either spoken or quietly assumed: One kid might be the “smart one” (that’s my character Lindsey), and someone else might be the “drama queen.” There’s the responsible one, the baby of the family, the screw-up…. And how is it that as adults, we can go out and reinvent ourselves, yet when we’re around our families, we tend to get dragged back into those roles? The idea that we get assigned labels while we’re young, and those labels may not accurately reflect who we are inside is a central theme in my novel, and I’m glad to see it resonating for readers.

As a parent of three young boys, I’m trying to be careful to avoid comparing them. But I can see the temptation: They each have unique gifts, and focusing on those gifts is an easy way to sum them up to acquaintances. And yet, I know even if I mention a positive quality for each one of them, it might diminish those same qualities in their brothers. So I hope my kids know I think they’re all the smart one. And the funny one. And the athletic one.  Secretly, though, I think of them all as the just-about-perfect one.

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Sarah Pekkanen

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11 thoughts on “Backstory…. by Deb Sarah

  1. Great post! I think my parents did a good job of avoiding labels, but I have cousins that were dubbed “the smart one” and “the pretty one” by my aunt and uncle. We’ve talked about it as adults and they both felt like the labels were somewhat damaging to them.

  2. Great post, Sarah. I think the labels we get when we’re young sometimes become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you believe you’re “the baby,” you might remain the baby, even as an adult. If you believe you’re smart … and so on. THE OPPOSITE OF ME does a wonderful job of examining these sorts of sibling issues.

  3. Kathy, how awful! I’m glad you can talk to them about it. It must’ve set up some rivalry between your cousins… and I agree, Alicia – we really can mold ourselves into those labels… Thanks for the kind words, all.

  4. Whenever I’m talking to one of the cats, I always say, “You’re the best cat. Except for our other best cat.” We’re keeping it all even here. 🙂

  5. Sticks and stones may break bones but – don’t be fooled – words hurt and can leave scars forever. What’s even sadder is when children pick up this same habit of “labeling.”

  6. Would you believe I was labelled ‘the brat’ … I just don’t get it!

    Seriously, though, it’s heartbreaking to hear parents labelling their kids. Kids pick up on everything, and they really internalize this kind of stereotyping.

  7. As a parent this subject is so relevant! It’s amazing what our children remember.

    I’m really enjoying your book Sarah. Taking it slowly and enjoying the ride. I might sand a little off the bottom of my right flip-flop to see if it gives me a sexier walk.

    best,

    g.

  8. Love you post Sarah. I think its hard for any parents not subjecting their children to labels but it happens anyway. I come from a family with 7 kids and even with all the craziness of childhood we all knew where we stood as far as being labeled “the smart one” or “the spoiled one” and even “the favorite” – I don’t think parents plan of labeling their child, it just happens. I feel like maybe that’s one of the biggest reason for my moving to New York. It wasn’t only to follow my dreams, but also to escape the labels and the name calling, as well as living in the past. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy seeing my family, but I take pride in knowing that I’m doing more with myself and not stuck in the same family drama day after day, like my other siblings. I do love my family, but ever since I was teen, I knew I couldn’t live in Georgia forever. No family is perfect…that’s the truth of all truths.

    Thank for you sharing your feelings with your fans. Your book is definitely an inspiration. Thank you thank you thank you! 🙂

  9. Geena, sounds like you are following your own path and it’s making you happy… glad to hear it!

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