My Sister, My Love
In Joyce Carol Oates’s My Sister, My Love, the central character Skyler Rampike is crippled in a number of ways. An accident in gymnastics when he was six has left him with a permanent limp, he has been through several treatment centers and schools for special needs kids, he has been a drug addict, and he now lives, at age nineteen, in a rundown rooming house in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in self-imposed exile from his parents and trying to write the story of My Sister, My Love. The novel is subtitled “The Intimate Story of Skyler Rampike,” however, for while he is attempting to unlock the mystery of his sister’s death“One day, Skyler has to reveal all he knows of his sister Bliss’s life/death. It is Skyler Rampike’s responsibility”he is also trying to decipher the meaning of his own life in order to save it. “Dysfunctional families are all alike,” Skyler writes in the novel’s first line. “Ditto ’survivors.’” In the process of trying to solve the decade-old crime, Skyler reveals the dysfunction of his family and exposes the pain of his childhood, including the social and familial forces that led to the murder of his sister and the disintegration of the Rampike family following that crime. The novel is painful to read, and at the same time its story is compelling.
My Sister, My Love shares many elements with the JonBenet Ramsey story, the six-year-old child beauty queen who was murdered in 1996 and whose death and murder investigation became front-page tabloid stories. Bliss Rampike is a six-year-old child ice skater who has been pushed into competition by her ambitious and needy mother. The Rampikes have moved after every promotion that Bix Rampike achieves in his corporate job, and they now live in a mansion in Fair Hills, New Jersey, where Betsey Rampike knows no one and her husband is away on business most of the time. Trying to win the love of her workaholic husband, she focuses all of her anxieties on her two children, especially training and outfitting Bliss as a child skater and leading her into the sordid world of preteen skating competitions, an arena inhabited by other needy, unhappy parents and an audience of obsessed fans. “Our daughter is our destiny,” Betsey tells her husband, after changing Bliss’s name from Edna Louise to make her even more glamorous. Bliss is almost illiterate, and, like her mother and brother, also heavily medicated, but for a few brief years she is famous, and her fame shines on her family as well. Mothers who have ignored Betsey in the past call to invite her to join their clubs, and schoolmates even start to talk to Skyler, whom they earlier called “weird,” but only because of his sister. Soon after becoming the youngest “Little Miss Jersey Ice Princess” in 1996, however, Bliss is found dead in the furnace room of the basement. As in the Ramsey case, the police are unable to solve the brutal murder, even after repeated investigations, and the Rampike family rapidly dissolves into even deeper dysfunction.
The murder intensifies the pain Skyler has experienced since he was an infant. He was the first victim of his parents’ ambitions; Skyler’s father, a college football star, was embarrassed by his son’s lack of athletic ability and pushed him into gymnastic training that ended in an accident that broke bones and left Skyler with a limp. Skyler’s memoir traces his unhappy journey from childhood through a series of schools and then treatment centers, as the drugs he took as a child to mask his physical pain become the hard drugs he uses as a teenager to blunt the pain that fills his mind. In a sense, the novel is Skyler’s therapy, for in it he works out his problems: his guilt as the “survivor” who abandoned his six-year-old sister to her “fate,” his fear that he may have committed the murder himself, and his inability to understand why she died and he ended up in this condition. He has been estranged from his family for some years; after Bliss’s death, his parents split up, his father remarried and started another family, and Betsey turned her grief into a series of popular books (such as Pray for Mummy: A Mother’s Pilgrimage from Grief to Joy) and then into a line of beauty products aimed at what Skyler calls “the Christian-consumer community.” Seeking to recover her youth and beauty,...
(The entire section is 1775 words.)