MY SISTER DIED AND I WAITED SIXTEEN YEARS TO DEAL WITH IT
I never expected to make a documentary film about my family. I didn’t think of myself as someone who had a story to tell. My sister had died when I was ten years old and by that time her illness seemed pretty normal to me. Aimee was diagnosed with leukemia when I was two years old, so I grew up always knowing my older sister was sick. One of my earliest memories is playing with the toys in the hospital waiting room while she was in the examination room getting a spinal tap.
When she died in 1994, I became an only child. My whole world changed. My personality changed. But that’s not how I experienced it at the time. At the time, I kept marching forward in the same manner I’d learned over the past eight years of her illness. Over the course of her five relapses and various traditional, then experimental treatments, I’d tried to be what I thought my parents wanted me to be: the normal one, the happy one. When Aimee was suddenly gone from my life, I didn’t stop to try to process the loss. I tried to just keep moving forward playing that same role in our family.
The story of how I came to make a feature length documentary about my experience began sixteen years after Aimee’s death. I was twenty-six years old, a few years out of college, living in Brooklyn, already having some success as a documentary filmmaker. But I felt like a distant observer to my life, a powerless bystander. My relationship of seven years was unraveling and I felt like I was just floating, watching it happen from afar. I started to worry that I just wasn’t cut out for relationships.
I think it was out of that sense of desperation that my thoughts turned to Aimee. I started to wonder if the experience of her illness and death had made me permanently allergic to intimacy. But when I started digging into my feelings surrounding her death, I found something that disturbed me more—my most vivid memory of Aimee was her death itself. Most of my childhood memories of her were hazy and vague. Furthermore, I had no idea what my parents were going through during any of it. We hadn’t talked about it. And we hadn’t talked about it since.
My film Peanut Gallery is the story of my parents and me learning to talk to each other about Aimee’s death. It follows our journey together, starting from when I went home at age 26 and lived in their Indiana home for six weeks. We went through family therapy, interviewed each other, and unearthed old photos and diaries. It’s a story of what happens when the silence breaks.
It’s also the story of what happened when I became a more active participant in my own life—quite literally, a character in my own documentary. When I was a kid and my dad wanted me to be quiet, he’d say, “That’s enough out of the peanut gallery.” In vaudeville theaters, the peanut gallery were the folks who sat in the back rows, the hecklers, the ones whose opinions didn’t matter. That’s the attitude I’d carried with me from my childhood into my adulthood: that I was a powerless bystander, that I was not wise enough or perceptive enough to even begin to comprehend my own story. That’s why the film is called Peanut Gallery. Because when I began the project, that was my starting point, watching my own life from afar. In making the film, I’ve become an active participant in the drama.
I started working on my documentary almost five years ago. Since then I’ve been back to my parents’ house several times with my video cameras. I’ve regained memories of my sister. Now I can empathize with what my parents were going through during her illness and death. Now I can see what it takes for firmly rooted family dynamics to begin to shift. But those are all stories for the film itself.