In July, as the delta variant of the coronavirus spread and the call to get vaccinated grew more urgent, four of my six siblings’ vitriol against public health officials became more defiant and illogical. While I have been dismayed by their anti-vaccine stance for months, I am now especially worried about facing them at our brother Daniel’s funeral in September. Daniel died earlier this year of complications from diabetes at the age of 64, and we agreed to meet in his honor in California this fall.
As we are now middle-aged siblings living in three states, we use group texts to stay in touch. One recent evening, I sent a text saying I was anxious about the delta variant. I explained that though I am vaccinated, I could still contract the virus and expose my two young grandchildren, both of whom are under 5. I then asked my siblings to get vaccinated before we meet in California.
I awoke the next morning to find their responses.
Sibling 1: “That’s what you’re told. Bunch of lies. You believe it. I don’t. My choice.”
Sibling 2: “It seems to be OK that a million illegal immigrants can cross the border with the virus and that’s OK. I will get the shot when THEY are all vaccinated.”
Sibling 3: “Yes, that is amazing and they’re pouring into all our cities!! Super spreaders, and they will be voting in November.”
Sibling 4: “Anne, when they prove this is all a big scam so [the Democrats] could cheat in the 2020 election, are you going to accept the truth, or will you still believe all the lies?”
Sibling 3: “Brainwashed.”
They told me to stay home. Sibling 3 summed up their collective sentiment: “Maybe you shouldn’t leave your house. You are not going to put your fear of getting sick on me or my choice!”
What they wrote was consistent with what I know about Trumped-up, deep-state conspiracy theorists. It began as a low rumble during the 2016 presidential election, and has gradually been dialed up to this full-throated gibberish.
They equated the call for vaccines with “getting 666 stamped on you” and “trial runs from [those in power] to see who obeys n who don’t.” They spoke of “prying weapons out of my cold dead hands,” and “shipping all these alien illegals to all over our cities.” One of my siblings told me, “I will listen to God and pray for Trump.”
I wanted to bring the conversation back to vaccinations and remind them that hospitals are beginning to see children testing positive for COVID-19 as the CDC investigates whether the delta variant can make them severely ill. I wanted to plead with them to think about all of our grandchildren.
But I didn’t. I just stared at my phone, sickened.
“They equated the call for vaccines with "getting 666 stamped on you" and "trial runs from [those in power] to see who obeys n who don’t." One of my siblings told me, "I will listen to God and pray for Trump."”
My siblings and I grew up in the ’60s in a large, blue-collar Italian Catholic family in Macomb County, Michigan. The UAW-proud autoworker enclave there had historically voted Democrat, but it grew increasingly socially conservative. Today, it is solid Trump country.
Our parents were hardworking children of Sicilian immigrants, and lifelong Democrats. They were not by any means enlightened social agents. They leaned left because, as they put it, “Republicans are for the rich.” Over the years, though, my siblings turned away from the liberal values on which we were raised. My brothers and sisters are now unrecognizable to me.
It wasn’t always like this. As little kids, we made up our own “Let’s Make a Deal” game and traded personal treasures. My brothers paid me to do their homework with their paper-route earnings. We laughed ourselves silly over who could do the best imitation of our sailor-mouthed dad.
We became godparents to each other’s children. We helped each other with rent, car payments and the occasional airline ticket. The year Dad turned 80, he wanted a family reunion. We rented a hall, hired a photographer and had dinner for 60. Ten years later, when both parents needed 24-hour care, we split up the week and tag-teamed caregiving shifts.
Over the years, I began to feel a shift. I went to college in the mid-’70s and was an early member of the National Organization for Women. My siblings’ initial good-natured ribbing of my newfound feminism morphed into serious, angry opposition.
As we raised our children and tended to our aging parents, we continued to get along. We were mostly too busy to notice our differences. But our children are now grown, our parents are gone, and Donald Trump surfaced.
I have thought long and hard about this divide. I’ve concluded they truly believe that when other people benefit ― especially people who don’t look like them ― it’s at their expense. In their minds, success is a zero-sum game.
Two years ago, we gathered at my sister’s home in California to plant a tree commemorating the first two of our siblings who died. We’d agreed to leave politics at the front door, but that was easier said than done, and I found myself storming to my room more than once.
Now there’s another such gathering ahead of us. For a while, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. My siblings have made it quite clear they don’t want me there. I know my family is not alone in dealing with this new kind of difficult situation.
Studies analyzing the impact of divisive politics on family dynamics and friendships suggest little tolerance for those with opposing views. A Pew Research Center post-election survey reported that just 13% of Joe Biden’s voters and only 5% of Donald Trump’s voters said they wanted to get along with the other side. Similarly, an October 2020 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that family interaction among highly partisan relatives was creating an ever-larger chasm.
Before the delta variant was a daily headline, I bought a ticket to fly to San Francisco next month. After a lot of internal debate, I have decided to use that ticket and go to say goodbye to Daniel, even if my siblings say I am not welcome. I will be cordial to everyone, but I will not participate in family activities. It’s odd and very sad to know I will be standing back ― and apart – from my family, wearing a mask. I will be grieving not just Daniel but also a simpler, happier time and the siblings I have lost to such unbelievable madness.
Note: Names have been changed in this piece.
Anne Marie Biondo is a freelance writer who focuses on social justice issues for philanthropic organizations.