Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My brother married a gazillionaire heiress. She's really, really nice. She's generous, takes the whole family on luxury vacations where she pays for everything once a year, is crazy about my brother and they are, like, sickeningly cute together. And, she's beautiful, and smart, and has a big degree and a real career on top of it all.
Anyway. I can't help it but feel like trash around her. I dropped out of high school and had drug issues, and did stuff I'm not proud of. Now, I have my shit together like no other time in my life. I did it through writing, and sweating my pain and failure out of every pore in my body until my skin was clear. My life is really, really good now, and I'm working on my first novel, and I've been getting good feedback from my writer's group, and I have an agent that I'm talking to.
But goddammit, my sister-in-law just sold a novel. She did it to this big house with a star-studded agent, and I just know it's going to sell a gazillion copies. I mean, she's Ivy League, so she's smart and deserves it, but I just can't help but feel like it's so unfair. I feel like trash next to her, and she could stop working and give away her money every day of her life and still have enough to buy a country, but I have to struggle for every scrap. I don't begrudge her, but I can't help but feel jealous and awful, and I want to be a good sister to her too.
Help me, Cienna! What should I do?
Sister Heart, Capitol Hill
Dear Sister Heart,
Succumbing to jealousy is graceless and exhausting, like signing on to be the principal dancer in a clubfoot ballet.
I have been seethingly, sweatily jealous of two women as an adult: a fellow writer who I felt unfavorably compared to and the girlfriend of a man I briefly loved, who unfortunately shares many of my passions and hobbies (with the exception of breastfeeding spiders). Unlike you, there were no warring feelings of love for either woman. I felt only ugly things. At one point, I fantasized about the vainer one contracting jaw cancer and having her lower jaw removed so perhaps — just perhaps — she would post fewer pictures of herself doing things I loved to do (with the exception of breastfeeding spiders) with people I loved on the internet.
I wish I could say I overcame those feelings but I didn’t, not really. Fortunately, they burned so hot that they mostly burned themselves out. Once my all-consuming jealousy had collapsed into an emotional bruise that only ached when I acknowledged it, I was able to privately concede that neither woman deserved the emotions I ascribed to them. They had unwittingly threatened parts of my identity that I cherished, at times in my life when I felt especially vulnerable.
You, Sister Heart, are in an enviable position: You’re at a very good place in your life, you respect the woman you envy, and it sounds like you have a good relationship with her. You should know that her successes don’t undercut your own — the insights of a billionaire heiress writer are likely radically different from the insights of an ex-drug-using writer (and frankly, your life sounds more fascinating). There’s room in the publishing world for you both.
Looking back, if I were in your position and had a relationship with either woman, I would have exorcised my demons by telling them how I felt, in my own clubfooted way. Like, “I mostly enjoy your writing but I hate that people compare us because we’re both women.” Or: “I will probably always resent that a person who was so important to me treats you better than he ever could me. Sorry about that. Also, would it physically kill you to take a picture that didn’t prominently feature yourself in it?”
Sometimes I still fondly remember the jaw cancer.