The Dynamics of Familial Distance

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1777

‘‘Desire,’’ wrote Longinus, a philosopher in ancient Greece, ‘‘is full of endless distances.’’ In My Brother, Kincaid makes a related but highly personal point: ‘‘I am so vulnerable to my family’s needs and influence that from time to time I remove myself from them. I do not write to them. I do not pay visits to them. I do not lie, I do not deny, I only remove myself.’’ My Brother is Kincaid’s account of both the strong desire she feels for her family when separated from them and of the time she spends back in their orbit. From the safe distance of her new life as a successful American writer, she can plumb the depths of who her brother Devon is and what she herself might have become had she not left Antigua at the age of sixteen. In an interview in People Weekly, Kincaid says she wanted to write My Brother because ‘‘I just knew instinctively that my brother’s life was parallel to mine. We were both dreamers, both lived in our heads. I thought, ‘This could be me.’’’

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One reason why Kincaid’s writing has been described as economical is that she takes a single idea—distance is just one example—and lets it gather meaning until it comes to represent many important and complex truths. The distance Kincaid has personally travelled is evident in many ways, and Kincaid explores all of them, including geographical and cultural distance. Seeing the hospital where Devon is being treated, she is appalled. At Holberton Hospital, the furniture is dirty, the dusty ceiling fans present a danger to patients who have trouble breathing, and even something as ordinary as aspirin is sometimes impossible to come by. As an American, Kincaid is easily able to procure the AIDS medicine AZT for her brother, and the hospital staff is amazed when Devon begins to gain weight and recover his strength.

Physical distance is the most concrete type of distance in this memoir, but emotional distance is what’s central to Kincaid’s project. The gravity of Devon’s illness collapses some of the longstanding emotional barriers in Kincaid’s family. Kincaid once again returns to Antigua, allowing herself to be affected by the tragedy of one of her family members. Kincaid’s mother excels at caring for her adult son, going so far as to sleep in the same bed with him. Yet most members of this family have also taken drastic steps to distance themselves. When Devon was a drug addict, he stole valuable tools from his oldest brother, Joe, and then sold them; to protect his property, Joe ran a live wire around his bedroom with enough current that it electrocuted a puppy. This dangerously charged wire represents the power of Joe’s desire to keep Devon out of his life.

Yet the children reserve their most ingenious distancing maneuvers for their mother. One form of rebuke is refusing to eat the food she’s prepared. When Devon rejects her cooking, Kincaid considers his action ‘‘part of a separation he wished to make between himself and his family.’’ For Kincaid even distancing herself from her mother represents a sort of twisted intimacy, because the habit of refusing her mother’s food began when she was a young child: ‘‘not eating food my mother cooked for me as a sign of distancing myself from her was a form of behavior I had used a long time ago, when I felt most close to and dependent on her.’’

In this family, quarrelling is perfectly natural. At any given time, one family member is generally not speaking to another. Like communication, silence has its own code of conduct: ‘‘(and this not speaking to each other has a life of its own, it is like a strange organism, the rules by which it survives no one can yet decipher; my mother and I never know when we will stop speaking to each other and we never know when we will begin...

(The entire section contains 5410 words.)

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