Lena Dunham explores the enduring bond between sisters

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An introduction from Lena Dunham: “My sister is the most important relationship in my life, yet it’s also very complicated. I find out how other sisters have navigated the complexities of sisterhood”

Literature tells us that sisters are supposed to love, support and be endlessly kind to each other. Jane and Lizzie Bennet, for instance, or Jo and Beth March. United until the very end, or at least until a very rich man decides to marry them and remove the dreaded spectre of poverty.

In fact, the very concept of ‘sisterhood’ is an idealised state, one of perfect harmony and understanding. Yet, in reality, while the bond between sisters is deep, it’s also complicated and, very often, wrought with tension.

A variety of research has shown that the sister-to-sister relationship is one of the most complex in the family unit. In her 2004 book The Perfect Sister: What Draws Us Together, What Drives Us Apart, Professor Marcia Millman found that sisters often struggle to see female siblings as anything other than extensions of themselves, as individuals with experiences unique to them. She explains that they “fail to see the person who is actually there”. In The Sister Knot, Cambridge psychologist Terri Apter found that this very similarity makes the fight for parental love and recognition bitter to the extreme.

Yet despite the raging competition, a 2009 University of Ulster study claimed that having a sister can be a health benefit – women who grow up with at least one sister tend to be happier, more optimistic and more balanced than those with only brothers.

Here, Lena and her sister, Grace, writer Emma Forrest and her sister Lisa, and Lena’s PA Maria and her sister Leandra discuss the bonds between them, their childhood misunderstandings and the lessons they’ve learned.

Growing pains

Maria and Leandra Santos on their turbulent, but utterly devoted relationship

Maria on Leandra

Maria, 25, is Lena’s PA and an aspiring filmmaker from New York

My sister, Leandra, raised me. Don’t get me wrong, I had amazing and present parents. But between dawn-to-dusk labouring jobs and their Peruvian upbringing, they couldn’t understand my day-to-day struggles as an eight-year-old immigrant. But Leandra, ‘Lea’, was there for all my bratty growing pains.

Drugs and boys were a constant threat in our quiet working-class neighbourhood in Queens. And with no affordable childcare, Leandra and I were each other’s babysitter. The deal was that we both had to keep each other alive. Fine! But we didn’t have to like each other.

When I was 11, Leandra’s unwillingness to join the popular kids made me think of her as uncool. Conversely, she hated my low-cut tops and my misguided, but short-lived, fascination with Rage Against The Machine.

By high school, Leandra took to throwing things at me when she disapproved of my transgressions. This absurdity came to a head when her volleyball-practised arm threw an empty can at my head and blood started pouring down my face. I have a Harry Potter-like scar from the six stitches Lea marked me with that night. I don’t know if our parents believed the story we concocted about me hitting my head on a bedpost, but our inventive teamwork, especially when lying to protect each other, remains unmatched.

In fact, this is a warning to the world: it will always be Lea and I against you. I have the scar to prove it.

Leandra on Maria

Leandra, 27, is a nurse, living in Boston, Massachusetts

I gave up on making new friends at the age of four. This led my mother to consult many specialists regarding my “quiet problem”. I read books at lunch and befriended people with weird thoughts. My social network was very exclusive. Vice President of this club was my little sister, Maria, who had a “bossy problem” (not a medical problem but the subject of many parent-teacher conferences).

Maria started high school during my senior year. By then I had built a cocoon of social safety, armed with the baddest women’s volleyball team and friends who were as prickly as me. I was ready to save Maria from the banality of the people who ran the student government and theatre productions. All my efforts were wasted when her peers appointed her as executive producer of SING! (our obnoxious theatre production). I was bewildered by her desire to entangle herself in the social web I thought we both derided.

Presently, Maria continues to liberally grant membership to the Santos friendship club. She will be considerate and timely with people I would consider unworthy of our attention. Meanwhile, I resent that my phone allows for everyone with my email address to invade intimate dinners with friends or quiet me time. My solution is to silence or “forget” my phone. But as my VP reminds me, my ownership of an internet phone requires instantaneous responses to event invites or group messages or else I seem like I am actively ignoring them.

My parents often said “your most prized gift is your little sister” and that has never been truer than when she annoyingly challenges me. Now I promptly respond to group messages and have even come to enjoy the friends she made during her SING! days; one day I may award them with membership.  

Closer than ever

Grace and Lena dunham discuss what it means to go from bedroom sharers to creative partners

Grace on Lena

Grace, 22, is an actress and poet, living in New York

My sister Lena and I shared a bed through my whole childhood. In the apartment where I was born we shared a lofted bed in the TV room. We stuck our bubble-gum to the ceiling, and at night Lena would teach me how to suck more grape flavour out of the already chewed up pieces. During the summer we shared a wroughtiron twin bed in the old boarding house our parents rented. We huddled together under a 50-year-old lace blanket, and moved as one to urinate in the bedroom sink so we wouldn’t have to walk down the hall to the bathroom. When we moved to a new apartment in New York, we shared a fold-down bed and Lena’s anxiety got really bad. I was only six, but I remember promising her I wouldn’t die and offered the kind of patience and admiration that only a little sister could. As she moved into adolescence, I would sleep while she instant messaged, talked on the phone, and watched teen movies about lesbians. I watched the sex scenes from under the covers pretending to be asleep. I was 12 when she left for college, and I remember walking into her closet, petting her filthy thrift store dresses and crying on the floor. Would Lena and I never exist in a world unto ourselves again?

Two weeks ago, in the same place for the first time in months, Lena and I shared a bed and stayed up whispering until 3am. We did the usual things: disgust one another with details of our sex life; imitate people we can’t stand; argue about proper snuggling technique. But this time we also talked about work – about ambition and privilege, about feminism and power, about how to convince people to give you money and how to correctly format a Microsoft Word document. Lena is my first and last bed-buddy, my role model and teacher, my collaborator in things little and big.  

Lena on Grace

Guest editor Lena, 28, is an author, screenwriter and actress, living in New York

There is so much I could say about my sister. She has been an enigma to me: her independent spirit – ready to travel to Italy alone at an age when I could barely have a sleepover – and her sense of adventure. I’ve always felt deeply connected to her, as if we are tied together in an eternal three-legged race. But I have never felt closer to her than I do now that she’s graduated from university and we’re working as a team.

I’ve always admired Grace’s intellect, humour and style. But as I began to prepare for my book tour I realised I NEEDED her. She is socially conscious, intellectually rigorous and intuitive. I knew she was the only person to bring the social action aspect of my tour to life. I proposed the idea, selling her hard: “You travel with me for TWO MONTHS. We partner with Planned Parenthood and literacy organisations to give workshops and encourage young women to write and vote. WE EAT MANY HAMBURGERS.”

She took her sweet ass time answering, but finally relented and has impressed me with her  work ethic. It’s a pretty wild thing to get on a conference call with your baby sister and hear her use words like, “voter’s rights legislation”. When I work alongside her it stirs something pretty primal: I squeezed those cheeks! I changed that diaper! I cut that kid’s hair without permission! And we grew up to be collaborators with a shared belief in community action, women’s rights and yes, hamburgers. 

A world apart

Lisa and Emma Forrest examine why it’s often the great differences between sisters that make the bond so strong

Lisa on Emma

Lisa, 34, is a film editor. She lives in London

As a child, I had no desire to be like my big sister. Emma was a talented gymnast and dancer, whereas I stuck to hobbies less likely to result in people staring at me, like playing Tetris. I watched in confusion as she wallpapered her bedroom with dead movie stars, when I knew pocket money could buy a girl a shiny, new poster of an actor from Neighbours.

Aged 15, Emma launched a career as a writer, earning her celebrity status at school. She let me tag along for the good parts – to my first concert, or to a film screening so great (The Craft) we stayed to watch it a second time. She was still an alien to me, but a friendly one.

A few years after leaving university, I went to New York to work on a documentary, and became Emma’s room-mate in the teeny studio apartment she’d moved into aged 21, with her two rescue cats. I began to appreciate the love Emma gave them and got back, and to recognise a side to her I’d never known: a carer, and a good one too. With hindsight, I see that I finally wanted something that Emma had. This is why, as I write a decade later, I am shooing my own two naughty cats off the keyboard.

Nowadays Emma and I see each other just twice a year, so I don’t waste time worrying about our differences. Instead I applaud as she dances to entertain her baby daughter. I’m inspired by her discipline when it comes to work, and marvel at her ability to light up any room she walks into. Being this way is more scary than playing Tetris, but there’s room for both in a personality. 

Emma on Lisa

Emma, 37, is a journalist, novelist and screenwriter, living in LA

The first crush Lisa had was Paul Rudd in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. The idea that she would not, therefore, want to meet Paul Rudd – that if she saw him, she would duck into a cafe to get away – did not cross my mind when I landed tickets to a play he was in and inveigled our way backstage to meet him. The fact that you would not reach out and scoop into your life people you admire simply never occurred to me.

Lisa says she marvels at my ability to light up any room, but she’s kindly glossing over my long history of setting fire to rooms (emotionally). I wish I’d had better control on my sexuality and impulsivity. But that was a long fought battle and only one I mastered after I moved to New York at 21 and found a psychiatrist.

Those were dark times and, as I note in my memoir, a bright spot was the homemade card Lisa gave me in the psych ward: “You’re such a lovely person, So sweet and kind and gentle, So I was sad to have to hear, That you are going mental.”

Lisa can find the funny in anyone and anything and it is, of her many gifts, my favourite. It is indescribably soothing to be told, in the most affectionate, insightful and humorous way, to get the f*** over yourself.

When I left England almost 20 years ago, Lisa called me “The Woman Who Moved”, less heroic than “The Boy Who Lived” but an accurate description and a great dismissal. And it’s when I moved that she and I fell together properly.

Oh my goodness, did we enjoy each other the summer she took her first editing job, living as my Manhattan roommate in that miniscule apartment. Almost all my heroes came to New York to figure themselves out, and I love that my sister was no exception. 

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