Obedience Can Kill You

All religions have based morality on obedience, that is to say, on voluntary slavery. That is why they have always been more pernicious than any political organization. For the latter makes use of violence, the former – of the corruption of the will.
~ Alexander Herzen

Maybe my sister would still be alive had she been less obedient to “You should…” messages. Maybe she wouldn’t.

But this much I know as fact: 

  • She was an indescribably beautiful ashy-blonde with a dry wit, wry smile, the most beautiful blue eyes ever, and a lean bikini-made figure. (I’m adopted. And mesomorphic. I noticed.)
  • She refused psychotherapy which might have alleviated damage done by the compound fracture of our family, and suffered silently, mostly alone.
  • She drew her last ragged, hoarse breath at age 29 without ever having drawn close to a companion she thought both she and our mom could accept.
  • She worked her ass off trying to be a good daughter, student, employee, and citizen her entire life, cheating only herself in the process.
  • She did it because a conservative-natured, religious audience was watching, and she valued their respect and approval more than her own happiness.
  • She didn’t seek sufficiently frequent medical attention because she had no health insurance and was busy working 10-hour days to “make something of herself.”
  • She borrowed money from my mother to have her breasts augmented because the world told her that her factory-installed equipment was inadequate and needed an upgrade.
  • Scar tissue from those breast implants obscured from detection the virulent cancer that eventually took her life.

In her final days, I – the irreverent, contemptible, sloppy, embarrassing younger sister from whom she had always disassociated herself – was the only person she would allow to hand-feed her, see her without makeup over pasty, dying skin, or help her to the restroom when she could no longer make it alone.

Together, in those last weeks, she and I created a new source of dignity: our shared experience, gallows humor, and imperfect humanness.

I learned more about who she was or might have been in her last 30 days of life than in all of our 24 years together. So much time was wasted being who she thought she must be, rather than what she might have been if not kept in a container garden that shaped her, pruned her.

I also learned something about the value of my own disposition. My infamous incorrigibility. Even obstreperous Joan was bent nearly in half by guilt, expectation, and obligation.

Which is why I tell my children daily not to place much importance on pleasing me.

 Or you.

 Or anyone but themselves.

It is also why I’m willing to pay the price of having children who challenge Every. Single. Thing. I. Say. Their independence and demand for an answer to “why” may be exhausting, but it heals my heart to see it.

 “What will people think?”

 Caring too much about such irrelevant questions can kill you.

And conservatism, as a way of life…? Sucks the life right out of you.


  1. Sharing with a very dear friend.

  2. Philip Murphy says:

    Joan, you properly recognize the importance of being involved – even when things seem to be going OK. Sadly, it takes more than public political activity to deal with the likes of Sarah Palin. 1/2 Governor Palin is a certain type of citizen whose willingness to say whatever comes to mind can be useful in a face-to-face community, such as her hometown in Alaska. The insistence of such people demands a determined response by persons willing to do their homework, and who might otherwise not address the points she raises.

    This can be said also of the Tea Party. This is an informal aggregation of citizens who rightly perceive that there is something wrong, but either lack the intelligence or the willingness to sort out the data needed to ascertain what’s working and what’s not. If this spurs people like you to comment intelligently on the issues they rightly see as needing attention, their presence is not all bad.

    What is truly lacking in the political discourse of America today is the almost complete absence of honest and diligent journalism in the mass media. Without that, the public sense of reality is ripe for the picking by the propagandists of the right. That we should truly fear.


  3. You are a natural-born storyteller, Joan, and you clearly know how to cut directly to the heart of a tale. Welcome to the blogosphere. May your star shine bright.

  4. Wow. Quite the story! And you write very well Joan. As I’ve always said, you are raising your properly!

    OT I’m in twitter jail for some reason, bleh.

  5. Thank you for writing this. I am very sorry you lost your sister. My own family had a terrible breast cancer event ten years ago, and it tore us up. Thank you, again.

  6. Not many words needed – just a heartfelt thanks Joan for sharing such an incredibly personal – and important story.

  7. What a touching and personal story. Thank you for sharing it with us.


  1. […] urge you to read her recent post Obedience Can Kill You for a good example of the power of Joan’s writing. Then make her blog a regular stop on your […]

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