The rules of the game were simple: we would dig our nails in until the weaker one pulled away. It was supposed to stop there, but always one of us would go too far, drawing blood or peeling a strip of skin, and then we let loose. We clawed at each other’s cheeks, pulled hair, and threw a few punches — our eyes going wide and wild — all the while grunting and swearing, “You bitch!” We only played this unnamed game when our parents were off somewhere else (though now I wonder how they never noticed the bruises), and only after we grew bored of flipping through TV channels and rifling through their dresser drawers, the sight of our father’s white briefs with the front flap stopping us cold. Too often, we transgressed our previously established boundary of acceptable cruelty, and then one of us crumpled onto the floor, sobbing, the other fetching a dish towel filled with ice cubes, apologizing. The remorse was real. But if there wasn’t some pleasure in it for us, in seeing the other wounded, why would we keep inventing similar games? Like a game that should’ve been called Does This Hurt? — where we bent each other’s fingers at odd angles and used forks to stab our thighs. Or the dunking game, where we held each other’s heads underwater at our grandmother’s lake for long minutes, arms thrashing.
There was never a clear winner. So we played again and again, marring each other’s flesh as if in a blood ritual, bound together by the violence of our sisterhood. Oh, it felt so good, the release of all that pent-up, primal animal envy. Someday though, if we didn’t stop, someone was really going to get hurt.
We’re in our forties now. Maybe it’s no surprise that we’ve grown up to have grim obsessions: Debbie spent her high school years studying serial killers — John Joubert, a.k.a. the Nebraska Boy Snatcher, was a favorite because of his close proximity to us — and now works as a clinical psychologist. I’ve written a book about the violence and fear afflicting women and mothers. Reenacted true-crime stories, like the ones airing on Dateline and 20/20 and especially those about somebody murdering a member of their own family, fascinate us. Perhaps we find comfort in the clear delineation of evil and the safe distance from which to witness aberrant behavior in a relationship that is not ours.
I call Debbie one afternoon and tell her about the Dubrovina sisters, whose story I’ve accidentally discovered while searching the internet for true-crime podcasts. In 2016, 19-year-old Elizaveta murdered her 17-year-old sister, Stefania, in a flat in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her fury was personal, her method barbaric. Using a kitchen knife, Elizaveta stabbed her sister 189 times, from head to toe, then set to work mutilating her. She hollowed out her younger sister’s brown eyes — eyes the same color as hers — and sliced off her ears. She wanted her own sister to suffer. The police found Stefania’s dead body naked and upside down, halfway off the bed. News outlets reported the older sister “copied the image of her younger sister — the same hair color, the same lipstick.” As proof, they included a picture taken at a nightclub in the weeks before the murder: The women wear their identical bottle-blonde hair past their shoulders and paint their lips the same bright red. They dress in black tights and revealing lacy tops. The younger cups her older sister’s breast. They pout at the camera.
I know Debbie must recognize one small way the Dubrovinas’ story resembles ours. When we were teenagers, Debbie hid my favorite blouses under her sweatshirts in the morning, only to reveal the offense in the hallways between classes when she knew I wouldn’t confront her. A few times she stole and wore my prized panties, bikini-cut, decorated with flowers and unlike the high-waisted, solid-colored kind my mother bought for us at Kmart — the familiarity of which disgusted me. “Stop copying me!” I’d scream at her after school, roughly yanking the blouse off over her head. “Are you wearing my … perfume?” In retaliation for her clothes-and-perfume-stealing offense and others — I perceived so many things as offenses — I dropped any pretense of protecting her from the humiliations of high school and ignored my younger sister at lunchtime, pretending I didn’t see her sitting with only one or two other girls at one end of the long cafeteria table, the empty table signifying their lower place in our school’s social hierarchy. (I still can’t name the elusive trait Debbie lacked that caused so many of my sister’s peers to overlook her. She wasn’t cool, peppy, or conventionally attractive, but neither was I.)
“I’m tired of being ‘Jody’s little sister,’” Debbie confessed to me once when we were teenagers. “Some of the teachers don’t even know my name.”
I was too immature to hear it for the rare moment of vulnerability it was. Our childhood fist-fighting had given way to psychological warfare, and I didn’t know how to stop engaging. A part of me didn’t want to stop. “Well, get used to it,” I scoffed, “because I’m not going anywhere.”
Currently, our relationship is in a “good stage” — one where we can tolerate spending a few hours together and aren’t yelling at each other through the phone — though it is far from the close sibling relationship I now long for. We live within an hour’s drive of each other, yet several months pass between our brief visits.
“So why did Elizaveta do it?” Debbie asks.
I tell her that under another picture of the Dubrovinas — this one taken when they were young girls with poorly trimmed bangs, Elizaveta’s arm slung around Stefania’s shoulder, when it was still too early to tell which of them the world would adore more — one reporter wrote, “There are photographs of both sisters hugging each other but there is no doubt that the elder sister envied the younger one.” Reporters used the phrase “fit of jealousy.” Another said Elizaveta was “tortured with envy.” In the dozens of articles I read, no other motives were given. Perhaps envy and jealousy are always reason enough. If envy means longing for what someone else has, then jealousy means fearing someone will take away what we think is ours. Elizaveta was envious of Stefania’s modeling career, the reporters mused, jealous of the attention and admiration she felt her younger sister had stolen from her.
I ask Debbie, half-jokingly, if she has ever fantasized about killing me.
She laughs dryly, “Only once or twice.”
In a study called “The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy and Jealousy,” neuroscientists Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Baland Jalal write that “even though culture plays a major role in the final expression of human nature, there must be a basic scaffolding specified by genes.” Envy, it turns out, is part of our genetic programming, an inescapable and instinctive human emotion, though we’re socialized to believe it’s unattractive and petty-minded — a sign of our weak character. I visualize green blood percolating in the womb, passing through umbilical cords, generation after generation. Our envy is fortunately limited to those who inhabit our own social spheres, so for instance, unless we become billionaires, we won’t waste our envious thoughts on someone like Warren Buffett, who lives a mere 20-minute drive from me. Although the Dubrovina sisters’ biological mother appeared on a TV show after the murder to accuse Stefania’s boyfriend — the one who’d found her mangled body and called the police — the girls grew up without parents, in an orphanage. For much of their lives, Elizaveta and Stefania were each other’s social spheres.
In a similarly titled article, “The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy,” evolutionary psychologists Sarah E. Hill and David M. Buss write, “Whether or not people are aware of it or whether they do it directly or indirectly, they continually compete with friends, family, and rivals to gain access to valuable resources necessary for survival and reproduction.” No matter how enlightened or good-natured we may feel ourselves to be, we experience what many consider the most shameful and vilest of all human emotions. Neuroscientists have found that envy is experienced in the same region of the brain that recognizes pain and triggers the release of stress hormones, perhaps driving us to find ways to level the proverbial playing field and alleviate our discomfort. We might try to improve ourselves as a positive use of envy, or we might use envy as a prescription for ill will. As Hill and Buss put it: “This is as true now as it was for distant ancestors.”
If we’re born with the scaffolding for envy, then our parents and society are the ones who heedlessly teach us how to use it. “Barb might be The Skinny One, but I’m The Pretty One,” my mother said of her oldest and only surviving sister (her other sister had drowned in childhood). My mother and Aunt Barbara — “Barb” — grew up in poverty with four other siblings and only two bedrooms. At times, food was scarce; so was shelter — my mother’s three brothers slept on an enclosed porch — and given what I know about my abusive, domineering grandfather and his kindhearted but submissive wife, love was scarce, too. It’s no wonder my mother and her oldest sister grew up fighting for the limited space in the physical and emotional life of their family.
She wasn’t wrong in her comparison: Barb was tall and angular and had her family’s trademark nose, pointy and with enormous nostrils. My mother was curvy, her facial features soft and indeed pretty. My mother rarely drove us to visit Barb when we were kids and then usually only for weekend chili feeds at the smoky flyspeck bar she and Uncle Rusty owned in a small town near the Platte River. Mom and Barb were so different in looks and temperament that it was hard to believe they were related. My mother was safe and reliably rote, and, in my reproachful teenage eyes, a little dull. She dressed for work in solid-colored Jaclyn Smith pantsuits and brushed our hair into ponytails for school. At dinner, when my father asked for more ketchup for the meatloaf — even when he sat closest to the fridge and in arm’s reach — she retrieved it. My mother rarely wore makeup on her pale skin — “I distrust women who make such a big fuss,” she said. I’ve never seen her drink more than one glass of wine.
Barb, on the other hand, always made a big fuss, and she was anything but predictable. She was exciting and maybe a little dangerous. Barb was a barmaid who would divorce three times by my 18th birthday, marrying my Uncle Rusty twice. She had long, acrylic fingernails with intricate designs on the tips and wore her hair in a bleached-out updo resembling a ’60s beehive. Her skin was always an orangey-brown from the tanning bed in her basement. Barb poured beers and slammed down shots of whiskey in front of regulars before they even had their coats off, a cigarette between her coral-painted lips. Wiping the bar down with the rag she produced from her hip pocket, she said things like: “Ed, has your mother-in-law recovered from hip surgery, or is she still lying on your couch like an anchor is tied to her ass?” The regulars loved Barb’s mouth, and in appreciation, they ran up high tabs, getting her drunk in the process. She occasionally drank so much she fell off her barstool. Rusty sometimes hit her, and she clobbered him back, one or the other of them landing in the hospital. Or so our mother said. Barb was the black sheep of the family, and an embarrassment to her parents, whose approval she still craved. She called her father “Daddy” her entire life.
“She still dresses like she has the body of a teenager,” my mother said to Barb’s thin retreating figure in our rearview mirror. Barb stood waving to us outside the bar, wearing a frilly low-cut top and jean shorts and blowing cigarette smoke from the corner of her mouth. “She’s no lady,” my mother said, a hard edge to her voice.
My mother prided herself on being a lady. Barb was this. My mother was that. I wonder if my mother realizes she and Barb provided my sister and me with the model for our own sibling rivalry. It seemed like there wasn’t enough psychic room for Barb and my mother to share traits, to be both things at once. It was as if their egos formed as opposing forces. And it was clear which one of them my mother felt was better.
I pressed my foot down hard on the gas pedal, Debbie, me, and the car careening dangerously around curves in the road, tires squealing as we inched over the white line down the middle. I pushed just as hard on the brakes, throwing us both forward in our seats. “Shit! Slow down!” Debbie shouted, bracing herself against the door. I was driving us home from school on Nebraska roads where tractors and semitrucks frequently passed by. Debbie and I never wore our seatbelts. I could have killed us. I wanted to scare her, punish her — but for what? Did she flirt with a boy I had a crush on again? Laugh into my mother’s hair, understanding a joke I had no humor for? Earn my parents’ praise? She seemed to get along better with them than I did. I no longer remember why I was vengeful that day, but the image of her head, whipping forward, nearly colliding with the dashboard, comes to me unbidden — and terrifies me. Envy has its roots in the Latin invidia, “nonsight.” Envy can make us blind to our compassion for life, Cain slaying Abel. It can become a sickness, malicious envy, an acute feeling of pain driving us toward violence, filling our hearts with rot, challenging our very morality, making us crazed.
In a video the Dubrovina sisters took of themselves, they dance in the back of a car to a club song, “One Here Comes the Two” by Tropkillaz, the lens pointed at their chests, giggling. They dart their tongues; Stefania mimes kissing her sister’s breast, indulging their youthful verve — the power of two attractive sisters out on the town. Why the night of the murder, of all nights, did Elizaveta diverge from the road of typical sibling rivalry, slamming her foot down on the metaphorical gas pedal, when they’d spent so many other nights together, happy and with bodies humming with energy? Did Stefania say something that set her off, or had Elizaveta been planning her moment for many years? Or did their own version of Does This Hurt? go too far? Perhaps it started with a small slap across Stefania’s (Debbie’s) face, after a cruel comment about Elizaveta’s (my) breasts being too small or Stefania (Debbie) always making everything about her. Maybe Stefania (Debbie) confessed to having slept with Elizaveta’s (my) boyfriend, and Elizaveta (I) laughed cruelly and said he’d never been good enough for her (me) anyway. I imagine our collective envy growing, unsurmountable, green blood rattling in all our veins. Or maybe it was deeper: one sister feeling like she’d always be a shadow of her better, prettier, luckier sibling, the one who fortune unfairly smiled upon.
Around the time I was headed off to college, Barb stopped coming to family gatherings and my mother stopped inviting her altogether. Their silence seemed to be related to old childhood wounds. My mother told us stories about Barb as a teenager, running off with men 20 years her senior, making out in the backseats of a ’55 Mercury or a ’57 Chevy, stealing her mother’s checkbook. “Anything Barb wanted to do, she did.” Conversely, my mother assumed the role of Lady when she was a teenager to please her parents. “I could see how Barb broke their heart and I wasn’t going to do the same,” she said. I suppose in some way, I decided a similar role would be mine, too — but not for altruistic reasons. For a year or two while we were growing up, our mother had written “To My Favorite Daughter” in our holiday and birthday cards. It was supposed to be funny, once we figured it out. A joke. I wonder now if she was aware she was orchestrating our jealousy, as this was the title we had always subconsciously, and now consciously, fought for. For years we’d been laying at our mother’s lap — if not our envy of each other — then our jealousy of her affections. We wanted to know once and for all which one of us she loved most, the root of all sibling rivalry.
As if set forth on a path predetermined by the sisters before us, we each played at being Barb. Debbie went first, dropping out of college and dating a man, S, who had a criminal record — for grand theft auto. Much like Barb had done before her, Debbie thwarted our parents’ wishes at every turn, and after a courthouse wedding no one else attended, she and S moved to a small city in Oklahoma. She stopped shaving her armpits, smoked weed all day, and lost an alarming amount of weight. Meanwhile, I set out on a path to be our mother, or at least my own version of Lady, focusing on my grades and staying up all night to study. And then, as if further proving the theory that siblings define themselves in defiance of one another, after Debbie righted herself, divorced S, and returned to college, I graduated and — stashing my diploma in a dresser drawer — immediately set to work waiting tables in bars. I flitted from relationship to relationship with men who were alcoholics and claimed they used drugs recreationally. I streaked my hair with any color from the rainbow, swallowed Ecstasy before dancing at nightclubs, and, on impulse, got a back tattoo from a young goth tattoo artist in San Diego after flying there to escape a bad breakup. When one of us was “being Barb,” our mother would confide her worries and frustrations in the other daughter, who by default became the favorite.
A part of me loved playing at the bad girl, following my whims and whatever wickedness I wanted to indulge, though it wasn’t sustainable. If we couldn’t win at being best in ours and our mother’s eyes, we would win at being the worst. And it was liberating, too, the reprieve from seeking her assurances that we were worthy, the rebellion against the image of the kind of daughter we thought our mother wanted. There was no place for envy because there was no longer a point in comparison, no fairness or fun in sizing each other up. Though “being Barb” meant chaos and disruption reigned, the relief was immense. It didn’t hurt to be the lesser daughter if you were no longer trying. Envy, that disgraceful inheritance, was banished for a while.
If our envy story was a true-crime story — though a crime of the heart, violent in its own way — then the climax occurred at a wine bar in west Omaha. The genetic scaffolding was present for this moment, too. Although she and Rusty had tried for many years, Barb couldn’t get pregnant. It was, my mother said, a sore spot for her. “Sore spot,” is a horrible understatement for any woman who has longed for children but struggled with infertility. Barb frequently begged my mother to let us spend the night when we were very young. My mother had agreed only once, letting her take me when I was two years old and against the wishes of my father, who was frightened Barb would grab me and leave town in the middle of the night. My mother immediately regretted her decision and asked my father to park his car down the street from Barb’s home. He watched out his window until it was time to pick me up the next morning. The story made Barb seem more villainous but also somehow more alluring and mysterious. How could my mother possibly think her own sister would take me? What shadowy feelings was Barb hiding? What envy-driven impulse to even things out?
By the time my husband and I welcomed the birth of our first daughter, my mother and Barb were no longer speaking to each other, and Debbie was remarried to a responsible father of three who worked in social services. Our phone conversations were strained. Over the years, we’d allowed envy — or was it jealousy? — to create our own Great Pacific Garbage Patch, floating between us and filled with a resentment as toxic to a body as plastic bags are to the sea. We were still competing, but instead of comparing jobs and salaries, vacations and homes, married lives and happiness — all of which we’d already done — we now only competed for our mother’s love. Grown women should not compete for their mother’s attention, yet we’ve been insatiable in our hunger. When she remarried, Debbie became the mother of three older stepchildren, and her second husband didn’t want more. Debbie agreed, but no matter, she was later diagnosed with a medical condition that precluded pregnancy. If it was also a sore spot for my sister, she never said. And I never thought to ask if it bothered her.
One evening Debbie and I met at a wine bar when my daughter was just shy of nine months old, during the tender and absurdly demanding period of motherhood when it felt like I might never leave the house again. We drank wine and told stories about our husbands’ idiosyncrasies. I’d have to pump and dump the tainted breast milk later. Since Lily’s birth, Debbie and I had grown a little closer, and she visited a handful of times to hold Lily so I could shower or eat. But so had our mother, who was over the moon about finally having a grandchild.
Debbie leaned across the high-top table where we sat, her eyes hard and moist, and said: “The night Lily was born was the worst night of my life.”
I remembered how Debbie had waited in the lobby with our parents and my in-laws the night I’d gone into labor but had left after a few hours. I hadn’t thought anything of it. No one knew how long it might take. My brother-in-law’s girlfriend later told me she’d found Debbie in the hallway outside of the birthing room, listening while the nurses loudly coached me to push, crying. I’d believed they were happy tears.
I was stunned speechless, but only for a moment. “No,” I said, waving my hands in front of me reflexively, the same way I might if a swarm of bees were surrounding me. “No, you can’t say that, not to me. You can’t take this from me. Her birth isn’t about you.”
I grabbed my purse and rushed out, my younger sister close on my heels. In the parking lot, Debbie threw her wine glass at me. She screamed some things about my lack of compassion. I screamed some things about her selfishness. I got into my car — I had driven us both — and she climbed into the passenger side and spun the radio dial to full volume, making it impossible to talk or concentrate. It felt like childhood, like our fingernail game had gotten out of hand again. I was afraid she was going to hit me and knew it would really hurt. I turned down the volume and told her to get out if she couldn’t calm down. I clutched the steering wheel so she wouldn’t see my hands shaking. She slammed the car door behind her, then pounded the hood of the car with her palm, releasing a guttural shriek. Her face looked crazy with rage. In the end, she called a taxi. I clicked my seatbelt and drove off, watching the image of her pacing in her low-cut flowered top in the parking lot in my rearview mirror. She may be The Smart One, but I was The Sane One.
At home, I told my husband what had happened and asked him to dig up the spare key we kept hidden in the front yard. I thought of Barb. I thought of the look on Debbie’s face. I thought of what “fits” of envy can make people do. I thought of the sickening childhood feeling of being slighted, of being picked last. Or not being picked at all.
I was afraid she would sneak into our home and take Lily.
In her essay “In Praise of Envy,” Michele Morano personifies her envy as female, and explores the idea that envy is not always an ugly, odious emotion, though we’ve been taught to view it this way. She writes, “She doesn’t feed on venomous toads. She compares and evaluates, yes, but she also imagines and admires. She’s prone to sarcasm and a bit of crankiness, but she’s not evil.” I’ve read that “benign envy” can be good, motivating us to achieve more, do better. It can even look and behave like awe, or as Morano writes, “Sometimes, I would argue, there is but one step from Envy to Love.”
There have been many moments, between the envy, when my sister and I have allowed ourselves the openness required to love. I remember us as children, the hours of creating dramas with our ragdolls, floating in inner tubes at our grandmother’s lake, or watching the TV on the floor, propped on elbows, our shoulders touching. The two of us always together, each other’s best playmate — each other’s most trusted playmate. When we heard the other crying into a pillow at night as teenagers, maybe over a boy, or more likely because of our father’s unruly temper, we commiserated. (Because of our father’s unpredictable moods, we cared less about his approval than our mother’s.) During our youth, like the Dubrovina sisters, we went to bars and dance clubs, feeling safe and also irresistible in our togetherness, the potency (and fetishization) of sisters. As young women living independently for the first time in our lives, if one of us had had a particularly bad day, we offered our couches and a quilt made by our great-grandmother. Those quilt-covered nights, we listened. We sympathized. Yet more than one step separates us from the love Morano writes about. Maybe a sidewalk. Or a neighborhood. A city of envy we must walk through first.
Debbie didn’t try to kidnap my daughter. The next morning, with Lily nursing at my breast and my head throbbing from too much wine the evening before, the thought seemed more than a little absurd. I had been too blinded by an old bitterness to understand her distress. Empathy — an ability to open my eyes to my sister’s emotions — would have allowed me to consider how it felt for her to visit my parents and stare at walls and coffee tables covered in pictures of my daughter and my family of three. How agonizing it must have been for my sister to accept she hadn’t been able to give our mother the one thing she wanted most. In sharp contrast, my mother had framed only one picture of Debbie and her stepchildren, who, in fairness, had their own grandparents and weren’t interested in a relationship with step-grandparents they’d never known while growing up. But still. If we were playing our demented childhood games, it was clear what my mother’s walls were saying: I had won.
In the video I find of Elizaveta’s trial, she wears a pink puffer jacket and no makeup, her face impassive as she is given a sentence of 13 years in a penal colony in Russia. Elizaveta doesn’t speak during the sentencing. The events leading up to her murdering her younger sister are still unknown. Why that night? What happened to push her envy into evilness? I think of her and wonder if she’ll be beholden to her anger when she’s released, her sister Stefania stuck forever at 17, as Elizaveta contends with that great harbinger of envy — youth. Ironically, evolutionary psychologists Hill and Buss argue that the frequency and potency of envy fades with age, possibly because we learn to accept our social positions. This has been true for my mother and Barb, who forgave each other late in life and became, if not quite good friends, sisters who deeply cared for one another. Three years after my daughter’s birth, Barb drove out to my parents’ home to at last meet her grandniece. When Rusty died from lung cancer, it was my mother’s shoulder Barb leaned on, my mother who helped her get her finances in order. And when several years later Barb also received a diagnosis of lung cancer, it was my mother who visited her and took her to her doctors’ appointments, my mother who she called late at night when the pain scared her. At Barb’s funeral my mother sobbed from a church pew, inconsolable, as if recognizing, for the first time, that having a sister increased, rather than depleted, the love she would know in her lifetime.
Barb died two years ago. My oldest daughter is nine. My youngest daughter is three. Their envy is nascent and mostly benign; I keep a close eye on it. More than once or twice, I’ve caught myself comparing them. I keep a close eye on my mothering, too. I believe there is hope for my sister and me. We’ve grown to accept our differing circumstances and the paths each of our lives have taken. We seem less interested in weakening the other’s foothold. That’s not to say envy doesn’t simmer underneath our ordinary days together. We mention, for instance, when we’ve talked to our mother or when we are first to know gossip about our extended family. We’ve known envy so long and so intimately that I wonder if we will ever know love this fully, too. Neither of us has since laid hands on another person the way we once laid hands on each other. This, too, is a kind of closeness, as if it were up to us to claim the darkest part of each other’s own imperfect humanity.
Jody Keisner’s debut memoir Under My Bed and Other Essays (September 2022) is about the fear and violence that afflict women and mothers, starting with the working-class Midwestern family she was adopted into and ending with her own experience of mothering daughters. Read more of her work at www.jodykeisner.com.
Featured image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder — The Seven Vices — Invidia (Envy), 1558.