By contrast, sibling memoirs spin subtler tangles of backstory and memory. We feel as if we're eavesdropping on therapy sessions as, in The Water Will Hold You (Harmony, $22), Lindsey Crittenden reminisces about choosing a name for the baby boy her parents adopted when she was five, how little daredevil Blake became a junkie who flunked out of rehab, robbed their folks' house repeatedly, fathered and neglected a son, then took up tree trimming before being shot to death. In Thick as Thieves, Steve Geng might be transcribing his own 12-step mea culpas as he eulogizes the "girl who'd watched over me since the cradle...my hero, full of endearing contradictions—so fragile that she seemed to go through life teetering on the brink of tears." She cut him off forever when, HIV-positive, he went back on drugs once too often.
Crittenden's and Geng's memoirs are mirror images: One is by a straight-edger straining to understand why the smart, sensitive sib with whom she shared Tang and secret nicknames became a heroin addict who stole. The other is by a heroin addict who stole.
That both authors, sick risk-taker and relative square, are the ones who survived is another of those stranger-than-fiction ironies. Blake Crittenden was arguably doomed. But Veronica Geng, after finally casting out Steve for endangering his health, died of a brain tumor. He found out while recovering from frostbite at a halfway house. Describing her wake, he namedrops Jamaica Kincaid and Philip Roth.
You'll have noticed a pattern here. A lot of these siblings are dead. As recounted in the lyrical Casting with a Fragile Thread (Picador, $15), Wendy Kann's beautiful sister Lauren experienced a car crash that in another country she might have survived but, in Zambia, did not. In If I Am Missing or Dead: A Sister's Story of Love, Murder, and Liberation (Simon & Schuster, $25), Janine Latus details curly-haired thirtysomething Amy, who survived lymphoma only to fall in love with an ex-con who called her fat, refused to have sex with her, trolled for other chicks while using her AOL account, and drained her credit cards before killing her. Now an anti-domestic-violence activist, Latus devotes most of the memoir to her own awful marriage, to the husband who coerced her into getting breast implants and strong-armed her into wearing thongs.
If the object of our study is deceased, we can conjecture and investigate, condemn and eulogize with less ethical muddle. Loudon is excellent at this in Relative Stranger, spinning a real-life mystery from her meetings with people who knew her long-estranged sister during the last dozen years of Catherine Loudon's life: an era the latter spent living as a man. "It's too bad if this annoys her," the author muses while wading through dead Catherine's flat, sorting through reefs of keepsakes. "I never disputed her right to disappear...but I never disputed my right to care about her."
Applying spotlights 'n' speculums to one's closest relatives is an almost certain way to stoke bad blood. Books have such a permanent quality, like slaps that keep on stinging. But hey, ain't no lawsuits in heaven or hell.