On Anger, Autism, and Blackness

By

Whenever I sleep in the same house as my sister, I have these dreams about her. In the better dreams, I start awake to find Remi standing over me, wearing a white sheet like a crude ghost costume with holes punched out where her eyes should be. In worse dreams, she’s standing there—ghost costume and all—but this time she has a pillow in her hands and smothers me with it. In the worst dreams, she stands over me with a knife, dragging the dull edge along her wrists before plunging the blade into my chest. I have dreams about my sister killing me because my sister makes me fear for my own safety. Over the years, she has beaten black eyes into my face and splayed hand-shaped bruises across my back. I have dreams about Remi killing me because I once thought about killing her, too.

When I was in first grade, we learned that Remi, my three-year-old sister, had autism. The doctors knew she was on the autism spectrum, but where exactly on the spectrum was up for debate. At first, her disability started with a cognitive delay that put her in special education classes in Durham, North Carolina, where we grew up. By the time she turned sixteen we had moved to Tampa, and she had beaten the shit out of me so many times I still flinch whenever she walks past. Within the walls of our yellow house on that golf course in Tampa, she regularly went through violent fits of rage, sinking teeth marks into my parents’ arms and wringing bracelets of bruises around all of our wrists. Over the years, we’ve tried many different things to help Remi, but nothing seems to quell her rage and the heartbreak it causes my family.

When I was thirteen, I decided I would never have my own family. I made the decision in boarding school while my friends and I ate Chinese food on the floor of our dorm’s common room. As the carpet and the hems of our plaid kilts left deep impressions in our legs, everyone talked about how many children they wanted to have and the names they would give those children. When it was my turn to speak, I realized I had never thought about those things, that I didn’t care to think about those things. I always knew Remi would become my responsibility because to grow up with a sibling with autism is to grow up as a third parent. I spent so much of my own childhood caring for my sister that I knew I wouldn’t be able to take care of both Remi and my own children.

Without going into detail, I simply told my friends I didn’t want children.

 

The world’s second-largest confederate flag flies above I-75 in Brandon, Florida—a thirty minute drive from my high school in Tampa. For some Black people, seeing this flag every day on your way to school would ignite rage like a struck match. Remi, my sister, is one of those people. For others who grew up in rural North Carolina like I did, you can become desensitized to the flag and all it represents. But even when you’re desensitized, that anger doesn’t completely go away. For me, it flares up whenever I see that flag flying at half-mast on the anniversary of the South’s loss of the Civil War. It hits me when I think of how the man who owns that flag once said in an interview it was “irrational logic” to assume the flag is a racist symbol. And it comes out the most when I think about my sister and how much of her struggle with her autism and mental illness is compounded by the fact we are Black in a world that perceives us as less.

When I was eighteen years old, on a car ride home from the beach, next to that stupid flag on I-75, I got my first black eye from Remi. I sat in the backseat between Remi and her friend, Alyssa. Next to me, Remi had her Beats on and I could hear the tinny base of a Lady Gaga song leaking out of her headphones. I watched Remi tap at her phone screen with trembling fingers, a side effect of her medication. Even though I knew she couldn’t help it, the perennial tremor in her hands made me nervous. It was a physical reminder of her instability. She kept tapping and tapping and tapping and tapping and tapping and tapping and tapping until she saw a nasty comment on her phone that made her scream, “Stop the car!”

At first, my parents in the front seat were worried something had happened, that she was in danger, that she couldn’t breathe or something worse. But then Remi raised her hand and smacked me so hard across the face I saw lights on the backs of my eyelids in bursts like fireworks. I wonder if “seeing stars” is a way of your brain telling you something has ruptured all the capillaries around your eye, that someone has just cleaned your clock and given you a black eye.

As soon as Remi hit me, I knew exactly what was wrong; someone on the internet had called her a “monkey-faced nigger” again. Under that fucking flag, the car swerved as Daddy looked at us in the backseat. Remi slapped me in the face a few more times before I could get my hands up. She screamed, “They need to pay for what they did.” When it comes to her autism, Remi is high-functioning in a lot of ways. She can multiply five- and six-figure numbers in her head with ease. She understands she is Black and female, and she understands racism and sexism and how prejudice influences others’ perception of her. What she doesn’t understand is how to process and cope with her own Blackness. Remi is brilliant in so many ways, but her biggest challenge is managing the anger and pain that comes with everything from facing microagressions to being called a nigger.

As Remi hit me in the car, she screamed, “They need to pay for what they did.”

They. I wanted to spit. Remi always posted mediocre vocal covers on YouTube but refused to disable the comments. Not only did people shit on her singing in the comment section, the anonymous assholes of the internet seized every opportunity to call her a “monkey-faced nigger,” and that was what had happened that night. The bullshit of the world was maddening enough as is, but, coupled with autism, I sometimes didn’t blame Remi for wanting to draw blood.

Once I got my hands up, I felt an anger so bitter and hateful that the thought of it still makes my stomach turn. It wasn’t the first time Remi hit me, but it was the first time it hurt so bad that my fight-or-flight instincts kicked in. There, still smelling like hot sand and salt water, wedged in the backseat of my father’s S550 between Remi and Alyssa, I was ready to fight. I hit her back and reveled in the sound of knuckles against flesh again and again until Alyssa unbuckled both of our seatbelts and pulled me off of Remi. Mama and Daddy were screaming in the front seat because we were on a part of I-75 where the shoulder of the road was too thin to pull over. We had several miles to go before it opened up again.

Somehow, Alyssa managed to switch seats with me and she huddled over me like a fireman protecting someone from a falling beam. I want to say if she hadn’t switched seats with me, I don’t know what I would have done—but I do. The anger was like a drug. It felt good to give into it and in that small moment in the backseat of the car, I did want to kill my sister.

I have only told this story to two people in my life. Both of them asked what happened after Alyssa separated Remi and me, but honestly, I don’t remember. I don’t remember whether or not my father stopped the car when the road opened up again. I don’t remember pulling into our driveway at the end of the night. I don’t remember whether or not my parents Baker Acted her that night, and if they did whether or not Remi went peacefully when the sheriff deputies came for her. The next thing I remember is wearing sunglasses the following day as I drove past that flag again to get to my then-boyfriend’s house, him taking one look at the black eye and saying we should have lunch in the house because he didn’t want people thinking he was the one who had hit me.

You may be wondering: why did she want to kill her sister? Did she want pay back for all of the times Remi had hit her? Was it the caretaker fatigue? Or did she want a future where she didn’t have to take care of her sister? For the last seven years, I have avoided writing about my sister because if I wrote about her, I would have to tell the truth. And the truth is this story with Remi doesn’t end with a bang, but a whimper. In these past seven years, I’ve come to terms with what I had done to Remi in that car, but my motive in that moment is still unclear to me. The rage and frustration overwhelmed all rational thought. I acted on instinct; I was being attacked, and I wasn’t going to take it. In the weeks it took my eye to heal, I honestly didn’t think about that night in the car. I didn’t think about it because I didn’t feel bad or ashamed of what I had done to my sister. I didn’t think about it because I didn’t resent my sister for hurting me. I didn’t think about it because this violence had become normal.

 

Two years after I attacked Remi in the car, I was twenty years old and a student at Johns Hopkins when I had to sign the forms that would legally make me one of my sister’s guardians. After hearing all the horror stories from friends and neighbors about people taking advantage of their adult children with special needs, my mother started the process to maintain guardianship over Remi after she turned eighteen. This meant that at twenty I had to accept lifelong responsibility over my sister so when my parents were dead and gone there would be no confusion about custody. I didn’t think about it too much because I always knew it would happen. As I signed the papers, I realized I had decided not to have my own children all those years ago because I didn’t want to risk having a violent child like Remi, and because I knew I wouldn’t be able to love that child the way my parents loved my sister.

You may be wondering why I signed those papers, because you may believe I had a choice, that I could have refused guardianship. If you’re thinking this, I want you to imagine sitting at your spot at your family’s kitchen table. Smell the smell of your house: the laundry room, the cleaning products used in the kitchen, that dish you look forward to every time you come home. Hear the chair squeak against the floor as the person who raised you takes a seat at the table. See their tired smile; they’re happy to see you, but even that small show of happiness takes a toll on them. See the way their shoulders slouch like Atlas’s, the way their hands wring, the way their chests sigh under they weight of all they carry. Now, look into their eyes, see the dimmest bit of light left in them, and blow it out when you say, “I don’t care what happens to your other child when you die.”

When I signed those papers at twenty years old, I didn’t have a choice because I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t make sure my sister was okay. I thought I understood the gravity of what I was doing because I thought I already knew everything about life, everything about suffering. I thought I knew everything because I knew what it was like to grow up with a sister with autism. I knew what it was like to watch bullies chip away at her spirit, to see her mental illness manifest in violence. I thought I knew everything because I knew what it was like to be her care provider, what it was like to have her break my thumb, my nose, my soul, what it was like to wear grief on my face, to make excuses for black eyes and bruises. I thought I knew everything because I knew what it was like to lock my bedroom door at night, to sleep with the fear she might slap me awake because someone on the internet called her a “monkey-faced nigger” again. But I really knew nothing because I was about to sign guardianship papers when I was a junior in college and still couldn’t hold my alcohol. Back then, I couldn’t predict the ways in which a vague dread for the future, for my life alone with Remi, would loom over me every time I went home.

I spent the next five years going home less and less and moving further and further away from our yellow house in Tampa. From Baltimore to England to San Francisco and South Korea, I have moved every year as if the sheer distance between me and that house, that family, the backseat of that car, could stave off the unavoidable future of me taking custody of Remi and facing the fear of my sister. But like a boomerang whipping back to the spot it was thrown from, I am careening back to Florida, back to Tampa to start my MFA program at the University of South Florida, to live again in the house that housed the car where I wanted to mortally wound my sister the way she had wounded my spirit. There, in my family home, I will spend my time wondering if my fear will make me become violent again.

A few weeks before I moved back home for good, I went to Tampa briefly to complete some paperwork before the school year started. I didn’t see Remi right away. My mother and I went to the hair salon we’ve been going to for the last ten years. As Ms. Brigette cornrowed my hair for my lace front wig, I practiced speaking Korean with Mrs. Kim, the woman who worked at the station next to Ms. Brigette’s. Mama stood in a corner of the shop, FaceTiming with my sister. Remi’s care provider had driven her out to Bayshore to see if they could spot any dolphins in the bay. When Remi finished telling Mama about her day, Mama walked towards me and said, “Remi, I have a surprise for you.”

She handed me the phone, and I looked at Remi on the tiny screen. The last time I saw her was a year ago, right before I moved to Seoul. In that time, she had lost forty pounds. Her cheekbones were higher than I remembered them, and there was a light in her eyes I hadn’t seen before. On the screen, it seemed like Remi stood up straighter, like she could better bear the weight of everything in the world she couldn’t change. The Florida sun lit her face as she smiled, and the smile touched her eyes. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen her genuinely smile. Behind her, the Hillsborough Bay looked still and serene, and Remi said with that big smile, “Katherine, I’m curing my depression.”

I handed the phone back to my mother. That was the most hopeful thing I had ever heard my sister say about her disability, and it was hard not to share some of that hope. While I have hope for Remi, it’s difficult for me to have hope for myself. Remi may be able to “cure” her depression as she described, but can I cure my fear of my sister? Sometimes, as I fall asleep at night, I hear the tapping of Remi’s fingers on her phone like the hands of a clock, counting down to something inevitable.

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Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.


Kat Lewis graduated from Johns Hopkins University where she held the Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund Fellowship. In 2018, she received a Fulbright Creative Arts grant in South Korea. Her work has appeared in PANK Magazine, Maudlin House, and The Rumpus. She is currently an MFA student at the University of South Florida. More from this author →