Sep 2, 2014

The Claws of a Sister

By Allison Kieselowsky

I’ve had bad experiences with cats.  They have been known to claw up my legs under my skirt, to stalk me late at night after the children I’m babysitting have gone to bed, and to hiss and shred a chair where I’ve sat.  Even without scientific evidence that such a thing exists, I have come to believe I emit some cat-maddening pheromone. This may explain why the adjective “catty” immediately conjures up for me the image of a malicious pet boring into the back of my head with its green eyes, just waiting to pounce.  

Uncomfortable as my interactions with the family Felidae have been, I shudder to think of how ably human females out-feline the cats.  Sisters in particular can be unbelievably catty. From young ages, we girls have a remarkable ability to craftily insult one another and to gossip with the sole purpose of hurting reputations.  We turn off the sympathy-filter because of our familiarity with one another, and all sorts of regrettable things fly out of our mouths before anyone can stop them.    

I have four younger sisters, all smart, hard-working, creative women whom I deeply love.  Of course, I still rule the sisterly realm as the heroine of virtue whose elegant cape gently ripples with righteousness.  I never dwell upon past disagreements, never criticize the way they do things, and certainly never insinuate that I know best.  I set the bar for all gracious big sisters. 

Just ask my sisters. 

No, don’t bother them.  I think they’re busy. 

The fact that five very different and sinful girls were thrown together as sisters, and shared physical space for many years, makes it somewhat remarkable that we still speak to one another. We perfected the art of throwing each other under the bus and telling our parents as soon as we saw a sister do something forbidden, even if we had done the same thing the week before and gotten away with it.  We insulted apparel, chanted mantras just to infuriate a sibling until she screamed, and hid beloved objects simply to be mean. I blush when I think of some of the things I’ve said, or in many cases screamed, at my sisters.  In other words, we walked around deliberately irritating the specks in our sisters’ eyes while ignoring the large plank of cattiness in our own.  This is a serious deal because the spiteful habits we form when young, if left unchecked, are amplified and increasingly destructive as we grow older. 

It’s a little painful to read Luther’s explanation of the eighth commandment with sisters in mind: You shall not give false testimony against your [sister]. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our [sister], betray [her], slander [her], or hurt [her] reputation, but defend [her], speak well of [her], and explain everything in the kindest way.

Sisters from the earliest age break this commandment with regularity.  Lies and betrayal are part and parcel of sibling rivalries, which is why as a mother I believe in “forced sibling affection,” or making sisters demonstrate kindness, thoughtfulness, and consideration for one another.  Good habits need practice.  But no matter how much we practice, if we do not see our sisters as our nearest neighbors to serve in due reverence to God, our base cat-like instincts kick in.  Fur often begins to fly when issues such as influence and inheritance are at stake.  I’ve lost track of how many times I have heard of sisters fighting over their parents’ estate, battling for possessions only to lose relationships.    

Think King Lear.  The affection of the king (and thus significant power) rests upon the competition of sisters to out-flatter one another and wrestle clout from everyone around them.  The older sisters ruthlessly claw at the youngest, Cordelia, who refuses to play along.  She repels their aggressive scavenging with forgiveness.  She speaks to them and her pitiful father in love, matching seething spitefulness with graciousness, until her tragic death in the final scene. 

It’s a shame that this kind of unrequited generosity has been relegated for the most part to older literature and fairy tales. We have learned to despise a sister whose graciousness makes her appear weak, and to celebrate the one who can stare someone down with jaundiced eyes. Yet in reality, it’s much harder to hold my tongue than to burn my sister with sizzling zingers, and more difficult to relinquish the upper hand than to squeeze it harder.  

The eighth commandment demands truthfulness, loyalty, and helpfulness in the way that sisters speak to and about one another.  I’m not recommending that we submit to our sisters’ every whim or extend unqualified acceptance and approval to their every decision.  There are times when it is our job to remind our sisters of God’s law with gentleness and loving concern for their souls.  Sometimes this includes the very painful decision to speak the truth even when it means the fury of a beloved sister.  Regardless of the situation, we owe our sisters the courtesy of keeping sisterly conflicts from leaking out inappropriately to other family members, friends, or strangers. Gossip begins not when we speak the truth but when we speak it to someone who doesn’t need to hear it. 

At other times, when sisters share their grief and burdens with us, we are bound by God’s gracious will to resist purring in smug satisfaction at their misfortune, even if our sordid sisterly past tempts us to feel vindicated.  They may not deserve the forgiveness and comfort of Christ, but neither do we. And thus we arrive at the crux of the matter:  sisters become catty when their bruised souls lash out in frustration and they withhold forgiveness from other women in their family.  No amount of practiced sibling affection can heal the scars of cat fights, harsh words, and years of bitterness.  No matter how well we treat our neighbors, co-workers, and friends, our interactions with sisters usually remind us of how sinful we are.

Christ fulfilled God’s law by growing up the perfect sibling, a fact that likely annoyed his brothers and sisters immensely. He suffered the pain of family dysfunction for you and forgave the daily offenses that frequently ensnare us for years. He carried every snide comment, every condescending gesture, every catty moment to the cross. His forgiveness covers all your own pettiness and also frees you from the bondage of your sister’s sins against you, from the burden of hurt you carry. Faith hears these words and believes that Christ revives your clawed, bloodied, and shredded heart, and that of your sister, through the water of holy Baptism, in His Word, by His precious body and blood in Holy Communion.

I have come to terms with the fact that cats and I will never reconcile—I don’t think it’s gossip if I tell you that I don’t really like them, either. The real reason, though, that I could not own a cat is that, with four sisters and four daughters, plenty of trouble stalks me without it. I don’t need a pet to pounce on me from the hallway. I need a Savior to defend me from the feline instincts that always lurk when we girls get together.


This article is part of our on-going Tuesday series about friendship.


Allison Kieselowsky lives in Springfield, PA, with her husband Rob and their four daughters. She has been a daughter and sister for nearly forty years, a wife for nearly fourteen years, an English teacher and reading specialist for nearly ten years, and a mother for nearly seven years. She currently works at home as the general manager of household affairs, short-order cook, laundress, and teacher.

Title Image: Cat (realistic) by Louis Wain


  1. I don't have a sister, but I have two daughters, and while they're only 2 and 4, already they can get much more petty in their interactions with each other than they do in their interactions with their older brother. I pray for them every day, because I have seen a lot of sisters who either ignore each other when they grow up, or even have huge arguments and refuse to speak to each other for years. Thank you for this article -- it's a great reinforcement of my determination to teach my girls to love, respect, and like each other.

  2. Excellent article. I am going through some of these issues as well..


Please note: Comments are moderated and will appear on the blog once we've had a chance to approve them.

Thanks for joining the conversation!