My Sister, My Witness by Heather and Julie Birrell

We here at Plenty loved the essay collection The M Word, edited by Kerry Clare.  When I read Heather Birrell’s piece at Pickle Me This in which she revisits her essay for The M Word, I knew that I had to hear more from her and from the sister who spoke for her during her post-partum depression.   In “Talking to Her (M)Other Self,” Heather writes to and comforts herself as she was at the depths of her depression:

Let your mother fold your washing and sort out the kids’ hand-me-down shoes and don’t imagine she is thinking, ‘This sort of couch-loafing behaviour is typical of the selfish, ‘sensitive’ daughter.’ Also: So what if she does think this? Your clothes will be folded and the kids’ shoes sorted.

You are sick. The hard part about this sickness is that they don’t always know which is the right medicine or how long it might take to work. Take the medicine anyway. But don’t shut up if it’s making you sicker. If you can’t speak to the doctors—because this sickness can steal your voice—ask your sister, her voice is strong.

Here are Heather and her sister, Julie, with two strong voices and two points of view on shared family history.




We ask each other: Is this really how it happened? Is it? Is it? Tell me.

When I gave birth for the first time: My husband squeezed my hand too hard, became an extension of me and the way the baby rocked and wracked my body. You remained apart but so close. It is difficult to remember what I was like, what it was like, giving birth, my self given over to this enormous bringing forth. You made a lot of noise, you said later. But it was useful noise. (It was a long labour and fraught; the midwife was determined to avoid a C-section. Together we managed to get the baby down far enough that an OB-GYN could do a vacuum extraction. But they had to perform an episiotomy, and it was too late for pain-relieving drugs.) But when they cut you? That was a different noise. Later, I made you examine my wounds, provide a report from the front I was too devastated to revisit – sewn up perineum, swollen parts that still stung, scarred landscape. I knew you would tell me the truth about what you saw, and save me from seeing it myself. It’s pretty bad, you said. Then you made a face that made me laugh and cry.

After our father died: We would sit together, reminiscing about the aftermath of the news (the gathering, the rallying, the funeral, the loneliness). A cop had pounded on the door of our childhood home in Toronto, woken you. You went with him to tell our mother at the school where she taught, phoned me in Montreal. It was a heart attack, sudden, happened at work. We told and re-told the story to make it stick, to make the abrupt stopping of him real, to make ourselves believe what had happened, but also because there was a kind of satisfaction in piecing the bits together – a comfort and intimacy in the constant re-iteration of events. We corroborated. Is this what happened? Yes, that is what happened.

After the birth of my second child: I had a nervous breakdown; pure OCD, postpartum depression. Before I checked myself into the hospital, when things were at their worst, I went through a period where I could not face my husband and children. After they had gone to their beds, I would put on my shoes and walk to your house. Pure OCD can cause a person to have horrible intrusive thoughts; mine were images of hurting my kids. The more I tried to tamp them down, the more they re-surfaced, uninvited, amplified, terrifying. I began to hate myself; I believed I had become something monstrous. I needed a new story. One night, when I showed up on your doorstep, you pulled me inside. I’m afraid of myself, I said. I’m not afraid of you, you said, and you pulled me up and on to your lap.

When we were children: We played a game called Cloak. The rules were simple. I would drape my arms around your neck and form a lock with my hands. Then I would force you to drag the weight of me around. Let go of me, you’d say. I can’t, I’d reply. I’m your cloak, your magic cloak, with a secret magic lock.


There are psychologists who study false memories. Experiments show that when we witness something, we are more likely to incorporate it into our memories as our own experience. My sister’s life is my own, in my memory. How many times have we exclaimed, at the climax of a story, the dinner guests waiting with baited breath for the punchline, the resolution, the satisfying end: That wasn’t you! That was me! This is how the story goes:

We are standing on the early September street. It is after the birth of your second child, and you have fallen off the edge of the day to day, your head filled with violence, your heart too open to turn it away. You have become convinced that you are bad, deviant, capable of the unthinkable, just because you thought it.

But I remember you.

I remember when I called Chris Koinis a bitch because I was sick of him controlling the street game. And you: Boys, can’t be bitches, Jules. How did you know so much? Big sister, so impossibly wise.

I remember you at sixteen, gleaming, gap-toothed, sitting on the park bench with your redheaded football player, the sweet near summer air around you like anticipation, like the beginning of so many things.

And you at university, winning prizes, writing love stories; living them.

And you, so sensitive in the every day, so steady at our father’s funeral. You picked what we would say. We practiced in the living room beforehand and you held my hand behind the lectern. Your eyes were as blue as your shirt.

And both of us, giving birth: four girls, sisters. Your babies in my arms, my babies in your arms, the hospital room, the bedroom, the living room at Christmas. Your furrowed brow, all of a sudden in my daughter’s face.

You are all of these things, remember? I do. These memories are mine. Happy, heavy, magical cloak.


Heather Birrell’s most recent story collection, Mad Hope, was one of the Globe and Mail’s top 23 Canadian fiction titles in 2012. The Toronto Review of Books called the collection “completely enthralling and profoundly grounded in empathy for the traumas and moments of relief of simply being human.” Winner of the Journey Prize for short fiction and the Edna Staebler Award for creative non-fiction, her work has appeared in many North American journals and anthologies. She currently lives on the Isle of Lewis with her family. (She misses her sister.) More at:

Julie Birrell teaches secondary school English to long-term patients at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. She has been working slowly on her first novel for years. She is inspired, of course, by her big sister. She lives in Toronto with her two daughters, two dogs, and partner.


One thought

  1. This is so very beautiful – all the more so because I have a sister, all the more so because I have had the pleasure of learning from Heather how to write.

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