Invisible Sisters: A Memoir

Overview

When Jessica Handler was eight years old, her younger sister Susie was diagnosed with leukemia. To any family, the diagnosis would have been upending, but to the Handlers, whose youngest daughter, Sarah, had been born with a rare, fatal blood disorder, it was an unimaginable verdict. Struck by the unlikelihood of siblings sick with diametrically opposed illnesses, the medical community labeled the Handlers’ situation a bizarre coincidence. To their mother, the girls’ unlikely diagnoses constituted a reverse ...

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Overview

When Jessica Handler was eight years old, her younger sister Susie was diagnosed with leukemia. To any family, the diagnosis would have been upending, but to the Handlers, whose youngest daughter, Sarah, had been born with a rare, fatal blood disorder, it was an unimaginable verdict. Struck by the unlikelihood of siblings sick with diametrically opposed illnesses, the medical community labeled the Handlers’ situation a bizarre coincidence. To their mother, the girls’ unlikely diagnoses constituted a reverse miracle—the sort no one wishes for. By the time she was nine years old, Jessica had begun to introduce herself as the “well sibling.”

Deeply moving and exquisitely written, Invisible Sisters is an extraordinary story of coming of age as the odd one out—as the daughter of progressive Jewish parents who moved to the South to participate in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, as the healthy sister among sick, and eventually, as the only sister left standing. In a book that is as hard to forget as it is to put down, Handler captures the devastating effects of illness and death on a family and the triumphant account of one woman’s enduring journey to step out of the shadow of loss to find herself anew.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This clear-eyed, candid work portrays the immense emotional toll that two daughters' illnesses take on a family."—Publishers Weekly

"With a sure grasp of revelatory detail, the author recalls homely verities from a vanished life. Her memory piece is an elegy for her dead sisters, who are not quite lost as long as they live in her thoughts. A heartfelt, painful family saga, skillfully told by a survivor."—Kirkus Reviews

"Some memoirs are affecting because they are universal, some because they are unique. Jessica Handler’s Invisible Sisters derives its gut-punch power from being both. . . . Handler tells this story with the lyrical elegance and cool remove of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking—the highest praise possible for any memoir of loss. . . . There is an undeniable burden in being ‘the only one left,’ but there is true grace in the act—and art—of first remembering, then surviving."—Terese Weaver, Atlanta Magazine

"Invisible Sisters is both heartbreaking and hopeful. Even as Jessica Handler tells us of her family's losses, she reminds us to celebrate life. Handler shows us how to move forward without being afraid to look back. This book is a gift."—Ann Hood, author of Comfort

"Invisible Sisters is an unsentimental but deeply moving look at the ways in which loss––loss past and the loss that is still to come––can shape lives. Jessica Handler’s book is a quiet, near-hypnotic tour de force."—Michael Wex, author of Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods

"Invisible Sisters chronicles the ambush of a happy family and its devastation in the face of every hope and effort. What Jessica Handler has rescued from grief, bravely and without self-pity, is the story of her own hard-won survival. The book in which she discovers a self separate from the anguished role she seemed destined to play haunted me from its very first page and has not let me go."—Rosellen Brown, author of Before and After

Publishers Weekly

Based on a Pushcart Prize-nominated essay, this clear-eyed, candid work portrays the immense emotional toll that two daughters' illnesses take on a family living in Atlanta. Of the Handlers' three daughters, two developed fatal, rare bone-marrow disorders: Susie was diagnosed with leukemia when she was six and died two years later; Sarah, the youngest, suffered from Kostmann's syndrome, and died at age 27, in 1992. Haunted by these deaths, the author, the so-called "well sibling," revisits her conflicted childhood, when her father, a crusading civil rights lawyer from Harrisburg, Pa., and her kind, smart mother from Boston, were happy and still looking toward the future. The family's move to Atlanta in 1965 allowed the father to support labor unions, and Handler, as the oldest, was alerted to the importance of demonstrations and even taken to the funeral of Martin Luther King. However, with Susie's diagnosis (compounding the worry over Sarah's chronic sickliness), the parents "began the slow and terrible turning away from one another that erodes families facing the death of a child." In the last part of this affecting memoir, Handler struggles in her young adulthood to find her own way. (Apr.)

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Kirkus Reviews
Essayist Handler debuts with a memoir of loving sibling bonds cruelly interrupted. The author's eight-year-old sister Susie died of leukemia in 1969, when Handler was ten. Their sister Sarah had been ill since infancy with Kostmann's Syndrome, a bone-marrow disorder like leukemia, but much more rare; she died at age 27 in 1992. Yet Susie and Sarah were at her 1998 wedding, the author avers. They remain vividly present in memory, appearing in the waking reveries and sleeping dreams of their healthy sibling. The girls' parents were liberal Yankee Jews transplanted to suburban Atlanta in the '60s. They lived with their children on "a lush street where professors and doctors grew big gardens and tied bandannas around the necks of their Irish setters." Dad, a crusading labor lawyer, was terrified by his daughters' illnesses. He went a bit mad, was hospitalized, fled to the Far East and then returned for a divorce. (Perhaps, Handler muses, Dad was angry with her for having a future.) Mom pretended all was well, but the entire family was plunged into darkness by the deaths of two daughters. The author's stark, lucid prose probes what those losses did to her parents and to her. Handler moved from Atlanta's Coca-Cola society to the coke culture of Los Angeles. She maintained a journal and kept pertinent ephemera. In 2004-05, she obtained and pored over copious medical files on her sisters' symptoms, medications and clinical trials. With a sure grasp of revelatory detail, the author recalls homely verities from a vanished life. Her memory piece is an elegy for her dead sisters, who are not quite lost as long as they live in her thoughts. A heartfelt, painful family saga, skillfully told by asurvivor. Agent: Sorche Fairbank/Fairbank Literary Representation
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780820348926
  • Publisher: University of Georgia Press
  • Publication date: 9/15/2015
  • Pages: 272

Meet the Author


Jessica Handler teaches creative writing in Atlanta, Georgia. She is the author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing about Grief and Loss. Her nonfiction has appeared in Brevity.com, More Magazine, Chattahoochee Review, Tin House, and Ars Medica.
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