Ninka (left) and me in the bath – we were probably about 2 and 3?
This is Ninka and my father; he died in March this year, just 10 days before the 21st anniversary of her death.
I was thinking about my sister late one night – she died in April 1992 but I still think about her every day – and I absent- mindedly googled her name. It was very strange when nothing, well nothing connected with her, came up. Surely everything in the world is in Google?
I had always told myself that I never wanted to write about her death – and then all of a sudden I really really wanted to. I wanted to write about a wonderful, funny girl who died far far too young. I wanted to write about how much I missed her, how much I still miss her, and about the way that I had come to see myself and human beings as a result of her death. I pitched the piece to Psychologies magazine and the lovely editors there were insanely sweet and thoughtful throughout the whole process. But about five minutes after it was published, it suddenly dawned on me that they would not be putting it online – they don’t run their pieces online. My sister would still not exist in Google. So I thought I’d put it up here.
For almost all of my childhood, my younger sister was the person I saw most. My parents were busy journalists, both working fulltime, so we were mostly raised by nannies. We were just 18 months apart. We shared a bedroom. We sometimes ate breakfast with our parents, and usually had dinner with the current nanny.
Forbidden to watch TV (apart from on Saturday mornings and Thursday evenings – Top of the Pops!) and with no garden to play in, we built blanket-covered hideouts under the big table in our bedroom and played long, complicated games about being orphans, princesses, time travellers. We spent hours setting up the rules and characters; “I had long black hair, I was really curious and didn’t want to be in the palace any more.” Sometimes for variety, our characters had long blond hair. I was known as the bossy one, but Ninka usually got her own way. With her skinny legs, her sticky-out tummy and her huge grin she could make everyone laugh.
We planned out our futures. Ninka was going to have loads of children and be happily married, and I would be Wicked Aunt Bibi, travelling the world and descending every so often with bags full of fantastic presents. Moved from school to school and city to city because of my father’s postings, Ninka and I held on to each other, sharing anxieties and experiences that no one else knew about. She was my absolute favourite person.
When Ninka was 16, she was diagnosed with leukaemia. It was my first week at university. I stood in a payphone by Edinburgh train station as my father told me the news. For a year and a half she had every sort of treatment, but by April 1992 they had all failed and she died. I held her hand for six hours as she slipped away.
It rained during the funeral. I went home to Edinburgh and dropped out of university, spent long hours in my room, in a winged armchair where I felt safe, smoking, not sleeping, and sometimes, when things got too much, going for long walks in the white nights.
Why, I wondered sometimes, did this feel so very very terrible? I had lost my sister, my best person, yes. But surely it should be possible to think, I’m sad, and for that to be enough? Instead, surrounded by other young people in the middle of university craziness – coming out, falling in love, breaking up – I felt as if I was in an invisible howling storm that no one else could see or hear but me. Some huge part of me had been ripped away, and no one even realised.
Years passed. I kept going, drank too much, did stupid things, but eventually finished university and got my first job. The feeling that part of my body, myself, was missing, ebbed. It felt as though I had somehow, awkwardly reconstructed myself, had stitched myself back together. The confusion and pain and anger slowly turned to pure uncomplicated sadness, as if I could finally just mourn my sister.
And now I started looking for explanations. Why had Ninka’s death felt like a bomb being detonated in my own head? This had not just been losing someone, missing someone, occasionally thinking fondly ‘ooh, they’d have loved this’. My whole world had collapsed. It had taken many many years before I had confidently been able to think again “This is Bibi. This is who I am.” Why?
I knew that the human mind was traditionally regarded as being seated in the brain; across the (long) history of philosophy and (shorter) history of neuroscience there is very little agreement about what the mind actually is, but that assumption is fairly fundamental. But increasingly I didn’t understand why. Given that there is so little agreement over what makes up our consciousness, why should we assume that it’s all within our skulls? The only way I could make sense of the way that I had felt after she died was if I had literally lost a part of my own consciousness. Why not? Why couldn’t another person become, somehow, part of your mind? Over the years I slowly evolved my own theory, that humans had ‘cloud’ minds with a consciousness built up in part from the people around us, and, in particular from those that we spent most time with. It was hard to talk to other people about this though – it made me sound even more bonkers than I often felt. It just made me feel a little better.
And then I came across a review of a book in New Scientist which seemed to be suggesting something similar, that minds could be “smeared” over more space than we had previously thought. But I lost the magazine and could never find the reference again. It was many years later that the actual thesis fell into my hands; Andy Clark’s Extended Mind essay was about his theory of the Extended Mind, an idea which was causing a furious argument among philosophers.
Clark asked a similar question to the one I had been asking myself. Why must the mind be confined to the brain? He gave a now famous example of Otto (who has Alzheimers) and Inga, who both want to go to a museum; Inga remembers the address, but Otto consults the notebook where he has written it down.
This, argues Clark, is not just a notebook, but part of Otto’s cognitive system. Your choice of words in Scrabble, similarly, can be explained as “a cognitive process involving the rearrangement of tiles in [the] tray”. And, if you allow this, then other people too can become part of your cognitive process. “The waiter at my favorite restaurant might become a repository of my beliefs about my favorite meals…. One’s beliefs might be embodied in one’s secretary, one’s accountant, or one’s collaborator.” In the footnote, Clark quotes a newspaper article about a couple where the wife “served as [her husband’s] memory bank”.
The relief! This was what I had felt, the explanation I had groped my way towards through all those years. Clark was based in the philosophy faculty of Edinburgh University, so I dithered for a while, and then seized my courage and rang him. After a few minutes of polite chat about the thesis I asked him (as neutrally as possible – you hesitate to talk to philosophers about your private life for some reason) about the extent to which other people may become part of your cognitive processes. “Absolutely!” he said. “Take a couple that have been together for ages, for example, and have come to rely on each other and offload certain jobs onto each other so one remembers what shopping they need and the other remembers where the keys are. This can absolutely meet all of our conditions.”
I took another step and asked him what he thought would happen if, in the case of the couple he refers to in his thesis, one died? “Well,” he said thoughtfully,”that is an interesting aspect of this. I think you could argue that in less extreme cases like losing a neuron or two, and in extreme cases it would be like getting a bit of brain damage.”
Is that how it felt? In the weeks after I talk to Clark, the conversation plays back in my mind over and over again. Clark is at pains to stress how limited the practical applications of this idea are; “How would you conduct an experiment to prove it?” he points out. There are cognitive scientists who have begun to explore the implications of the idea for our collective memory, but this work is at the very earliest stages. Nothing has really changed. My sister is not here again.
And yet I feel a profound sense of consolation and, for a long while, can’t quite understand why. Is it because Clark’s comments somehow validate the pain I felt after my sister’s death? Well, perhaps a little. But creeping into my mind is something else, the realisation that perhaps the process went both ways.
“Brain damage” did not seem too excessive a term for the way I had felt after my sister’s death, as if I was in rehabilitation, and trying to remember how to live. I had emerged from those years a wholly different person from the headstrong restless teenager I had been before; stronger, and at times so focussed I unnerved myself, but also kinder, more forgiving.
I had not, after all, become Wicked Aunt Bibi; instead, I had married a lovely, gentle man, settled down and had children long before any of my friends, driven by something I had hardly understood. I had carried on working while the boys were tiny, typing away while they slept, catching up with reading during their bath-times, pushing myself all the time to the absolute limit of what I could manage.
Late one night, I had told a friend about the long vanished ‘wicked aunt Bibi’, and she’d raised an eyebrow at me. “No wonder you’re always so busy. You’re trying to live two lives, not just one like most of us.” It occurred to me now, thinking over Clark’s theory, that if Ninka had taken something of me with her, she had also left more of herself than I had realised in me.
It’s been twenty years now, and if part of Ninka’s consciousness is still in my mind, it is so deeply embedded that it is really me. I can feel her there though, sometimes. I catch myself talking to her still.