Today would have been the 57th birthday of my little sister, Helena. She died at the age of 24. She had had a history of drug use, abuse, and dependency (heroin, hash, meth), had been in trouble with the police from age 13, and been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. In 1988 she died in Australia after stealing a car and doctor’s bag and being flung through the windscreen at speed during a police chase.
She was three and half years younger than me. We were both much younger than our other sisters and were, functionally, a different pod; in that sense I was very much the older sister—almost a mother to Helena. We were very close; she shared many parts of my life that no one else ever knew. When she died in 1988 there was no longer anyone in the world who knew those things about me; it felt as though a huge part of me had died with her.
So today for no other reason than that I’d like to see them all in one place, here are some photos of her and me.
The first is taken on the beach at Filey, Yorkshire; my mother is holding Helena who is probably four months old. I’m three, almost four.
This one’s taken outside the bungalow we rented every year for two weeks in summer, in Hunmanby Gap—just a few miles from Filey. Standing by the old Ford Zephyr is my second-eldest sister, Carolyn, with me sitting on a football wearing shades, and Helena with her bucket and spades, ready to get to the beach. I’m guessing she’s three and I’m six. Carolyn would have been about fourteen—just before she started having psychotic episodes (most of my sisters have, or have had, serious emotional and psychological struggles—Carolyn, too, died young).
This is just a couple of years later. Helena (front) and I are in the river at either Bolton Abbey or Fountains abbey. Bolton Abbey was the setting for the very first novel I tried to write, aged nine, about a girl who discovered a Ouija board in an Olde Curisoity Shoppe and ends up travelling back in time to the abbey’s heyday. (It was built in the 12th century but at that age I just knew it was a Long Time Ago.) I remembered writing very carefully and specifically about the stepping stones across the river…
Here Helena has just take her first Holy Communion: she’s the one looking like a perfect little angel (she was not) looking at the camera, aged seven. Standing behind her are my eldest sister Anne, my mother, me, and my third sister Julie. I’m ten. I’m always struck by this photo, and how protective I am of Helena; that is, although I always knew I was protective, I had no idea it showed so clearly.
And here we are in a school photo taken just a few months later. I love this photo; it captures how I like to remember her, how close we were, how we were everything to each other.
This one—I’m…well, I’m not sure how old I am. Younger, I think, than I look. Twelve or perhaps thirteen, which means Julie (back to camera) is either 18 or 19 and Helena is either nine or ten. By this she time had already started to show a few disturbing tendencies—pulling the legs off spiders and watching them struggle, stealing things—but no one else had noticed and I was still pretending there was nothing wrong.
By this time it was super clear there was something wrong: she was already using a variety of drugs, shoplifting, and had left home and school the first time at age 15. Here she’s 16, I think; I don’t know who took the photo; I was living in another city.
All the above photos came to me after my father died a couple of years ago. The three below were taken by Heidi Griffiths, my friend (no relation), and Helena’s lover, in Hull, in 1981. She gave them to me some time after Helena’s death. They’re the most recent photos I have of Helena because after she died my mother—crazy with grief—demanded I give her every single photo of Helena I had. I did. I never go them back.
In this photo I’m twenty, she’s seventeen—during a brief hiatus in the long, horrible descent into horror: Helena had come back home, was temporarily off drugs, and trying hard to be what she considered normal. But neither she nor I were ever ‘normal,’ so, well, it was never going to work. One of the essays in my memoir is titled, “A Whole Psychopath,” about how between us Helena and I displayed the classic Macdonald Triad of psychopathy symptoms. To be clear, I think that theory does not hold up, but it’s always been an easy shorthand to explain our childhood. However much credence you give the idea, I seemed to have turned out okay but Helena did not get the chance.
This was taken the same day. Helena and I were both annoyingly fit and sporty even though we smoked and drank and took drugs a lot. In fact, if I recall correctly I had a terrible hangover that day…
And here’s a closeup of Helena using my tobacco to roll her own cigarette. Even then, living in different cities, what was mine was hers, and what was hers was mine. (We even traded lovers a couple of times.) This is the last image of her I have, and this is how I prefer to remember her, before she grew rail thin, and hard, and paranoid enough to keep—and use—a machete by the front door.
I often wonder whether, if she had not been killed in that car crash, she might have managed to survive into her thirties. I’ve known, and worked with, many users and former users, and sometimes if you can just get past your early thirties the odds of survival go up. But I’ll never know.
What would she be like at age 57? I’ll never know that, either.
I miss her still.