“What is the right time to announce you’re named after your dead sister?” asks Kristin Czarnecki, professor of English at Georgetown College, in her hybrid memoir/literary excavation into sibling loss, The First Kristin: The Story of a Naming. The author has known all her life that she is named for her sister, born eight and a half years before her but who died as a toddler. Though the fact that she’s named for her dead sibling doesn’t particularly bother her, friends and acquaintances seem creeped out by it. Their responses make her wonder about her sister, and question her feelings about this naming. “Have I been haunted?” she asks herself.
To answer this query, she launches two intertwined explorations: one into her sister’s story and how her death affected the family; and the other into literary figures like Virginia Woolf, Louise Erdrich, Anne Carson, Emily Brontë, Jean Rhys, Joy Harjo, and other writers who wrote about or were shaped by sibling loss.
The familial exploration, which takes up the bulk of the narrative, begins with Czarnecki knowing only the broadest outlines of her sister’s life. Her parents, true to their times, have spoken little of their tragic loss, leaving Czarnecki and her older siblings, Cynthia and Ted (who were born after the passing of the “first” Kristin), wondering about the missing piece in their family history:
“In our family, she’s always been called the first Kristin...I find myself needing now to explore this act of naming, this legacy, this spectral sister...I want it known that she existed, that her time on earth mattered. I want to reflect on what having her name means for me and my family.”
Though her understanding of the details of the first Kristin’s brief life is scanty at the start, the narrator considers her sister a beneficent force in her life and sees her dead sibling “as a kind of guardian angel.” Her understanding, though, stops there. Slowly, in talking with her parents, emailing her siblings, combing through photo albums and finding an old film reel, she pieces together her sister’s young life. Apparently, the first Kristin had developed a severe form of scoliosis. Her parents, rather than subject their child to years in plaster body casts, arranged for surgery to correct the spinal malformation. “My parents opted for surgery,” Czarnecki writes, “presumably with the greatest of assurances from the doctors. They watched their perfect, healthy child enter the operating room. They waited. She never came out. It was March 8, 1961.”
Because her parents talk so sparingly about what happened to the first Kristin, Czarnecki must lean on her siblings to gain clarity. Her brother Ted is privy to a piece of the puzzle and explains that their sister had underdeveloped adrenal glands: “Apparently, as you’re taken off general anesthesia, the adrenaline in your system is what gets hearts, lungs, etc. to kick back in and function on their own...(T)he mechanics of the surgery itself went as planned, but as they took her off the anesthesia her heart and lungs didn’t restart due to a lack of adrenaline.”
The fact that Czarnecki must get this information from her brother and not her parents points to how this loss has shaped her family, and how the silence and secrecy surrounding the loss conceals great pain. At the author’s prompting, her brother and sister start emailing each other, revealing tender undersides of their own feelings about their roles in the family. Cynthia, the first child born after Kristin’s death, tells of imagining her as “an affection stealing ghostly presence. I never elicited such deeply felt love from Dad. I was not worthy and could never replace or even match her in Dad’s affections.” The narrator always admired Cynthia’s drive and thought her immune from such feelings. By raising these questions and listening to her siblings’ answers, Czarnecki comes to see her living siblings in a more intimate and human light. And though the siblings are able to view their missing sister, animated on a resurrected family film, they recognize the space she held and lament that they will never be able to fill that empty spot for their parents. “There are no home movies of Cynthia, Ted, or me,” Czarnecki writes.
Once you start turning over stones in the family garden of forbidden topics, it’s likely that others will appear. In her exploration of family lore, Czarnecki learns of a paternal great uncle, Paul, who was a “unruly lad” and whose father had him committed to “a closed institution for wayward youth.” Her father, in telling her this story, concedes that a grave injustice was done to Paul, who might have lived a normal life if only he’d been given a chance. He died in a scalding accident in prison—though, as far as the author’s father knew, had never been convicted of a crime. All of this is news to the narrator, and when she tells her siblings of the discovery, Cynthia writes, “God, Kristin, I don’t think I can take much more of this.” And Ted simply types: “WTF??!!!” Such is the nature of family secrets and the toll they take.
The narrative does more than excavate family loss; it weaves in how the writings of literary authors, most notably Virginia Woolf and Louise Erdrich, have shaped the author’s understanding of her family’s pain and helped her make sense of it. In many ways, this memoir is as much an examination of how these literary figures were shaped by loss as it is Czarnecki’s specific investigation into the sister for whom she’s named. The author pivots to these more literary sections with transitions like, “Lost children carry my thoughts to Virginia Woolf, whom I have been reading, teaching, and writing about for over twenty-five years.” In these sections, an academic tone takes over the narration, which becomes much less emotional and intimate than in the personal sections. Deep literary discussion of Woolf’s oeuvre and of how her dead brother Thoby showed up in her writing leads to a discussion of Anne Carson’s Nox, an interesting, if fairly dry, academic discourse. Czarnecki finds herself drawn to literature that eulogizes siblings, and to writers who are themselves replacement children, like Jean Rhys. (She points out that Ludwig van Beethoven, Vincent van Gogh and Salvador Dali bear the name of deceased siblings; they may also be considered “replacement” children.) One author leads to another and we visit the minds of many, including Alexander Pope and John Milton. Some of these literary references feel more germane to the story than others. A quote from Louise Erdrich’s Antelope Woman, for example, concerns a loved one’s name: “How is it that the web of bone, hair, brain, gets stuffed into a syllable or two?” This speaks directly to the naming of Kristin. The author also explicates poetry on the subject of child loss, most deftly with “Minor Poem” by Bill Knott:
The only response
to a child’s grave is
to lie down before it and play dead
Czarnecki adds, “There is no end-stop to the poem, however—no punctuation at all, suggesting, perhaps, that a young life never really ends so long as there are people who remain who remember.” These words echo in the reader’s mind as the author unpacks her thoughts, telling us, “The only way to play with the first Kristin is to play dead.”
The two narrative strands—one personal, one literary—weave together, providing both a visceral intimacy with loss and a philosophical take on what those losses mean. Throughout, Czarnecki writes of how examining the life of that first Kristin affects her parents. As the book comes to its conclusion, the narrative grapples with an essential question: Was it worth it? “My mother told me that the pain is as bad now as it was the day the first Kristin died, over 58 years ago,” Czarnecki writes. “And I’m tormented, because the fresh pain that she’s feeling is because of me and my writing of this memoir.” When the author gives a draft of the book to her mother to read, her mother feels awful because “it brought it all back.” Still, her mother says, “‘I’ll read it again, though, and again after that, and perhaps I’ll feel a little less awful each time.’” This is the nature of grief and how we come to live with it. Her father, prior to his death and the completion of the book, thanks Czarnecki for writing the book: “‘(Y)ou’re bringing her back to life.’”
Throughout this moving memoir, the author makes clear that digging into family history, both the parts that are celebrated and those left shadowed, can be invigorating and distressing. Yet, by the end of the work, Czarnecki seems to think it’s been worth the effort. She now keeps a small shrine to remember her sister, provides her parents with an outlet for discussing and holding their first child’s memory, and finds a way to connect with her two living siblings. Yes, pain is involved. But life and love inevitably lead to loss and pain. That is the price of having loved. To the author’s credit, she does not shy away from that pain, but walks through it to what awaits on the other side: a fuller understanding of who she is, her place in the world, and how she fits within her own family. Her naming, she comes to see, is a kind of blessing. That other Kristin, she reflects, will “forever have ‘first’ appended to her name. I’ve never been called ‘the second Kristin.”
Bernadette Murphy is the author, most recently, of Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life (Counterpoint Press, 2016) and a core faculty member of The Newport MFA at Salve Regina University, Rhode Island.