Whitney Burkhalter’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
I wasn’t an early adopter of Supernatural. I knew some huge fans—long-distance, half-online, half-IRL friends who shrieked about it regularly on Facebook long before any of us had Facebook. I didn’t get into the show until one day when I walked into a certain university bathroom stall and discovered a shrine to fandom. Every surface was scrawled with declarations of love, from the classic Kirk + Spock to a host of Sherlock pairings. As a fan of the books, I beheld in absolute confusion a Mycroft + Lestrade—how naïve I was then. There was a Buffy + Spike and a Buffy + Angel and many others I didn’t yet know: Mal + Inara, The Doctor + Rose, Lilypad + Marshmallow. And then there were two that made me laugh out loud: Dean + Castiel, which I recognized vaguely thanks to my Facebook friends, and, scrawled beside it, Dean + ME.
I was in grad school, hungry for something new to obsess over during the Sherlock hiatus. I thought it would be something light and addictive, maybe with some eye candy and snappy dialogue. I expected it to be the Second Coming of Buffy the Vampire Slayer but with male protagonists (and thus inevitably less satisfying.)
I found the show on Netflix. I clicked play.
In my most significant early memory of my sister, I’m in a Toys“R”Us in Nashville, Tennessee, playing hide-and-seek in the clothes racks. My one-year-old sister is following me. After several minutes I grow bored and emerge to find my mother. She asks me where my sister is.
When I tell her I don’t know, my mother’s voice starts to rise.
“What do you mean, you don’t know? You were supposed to be watching her!”
No, I wasn’t, I think. You were. I’m eight. But it’s too late. My mother is ducking into the clothes racks, flinging back the hangers, but all of them are empty. She runs to the front of the store and I follow, beginning to feel sick to my stomach. Cashiers run from the tills to the doors, blocking the exits with their bodies. It’s like witnessing some sort of military operation. The employees look like they hold regular drills for just this situation.
An announcement goes out over the intercom: potential abduction, a missing girl, one year old, brown bowl haircut, wearing a pink t-shirt and blue jean overalls. That word abduction is ringing in my ears. I look at the other patrons standing frozen in the store, their eyes wide, no one speaking, and I wonder which one of them might have taken my sister. Which one of them is a monster in disguise?
A man comes stumbling out of an aisle, pointing and yelling, “I found her! She was in the toys!” My mother bolts, sobbing, to scoop up my sister, who is blinking wide-eyed on the floor, holding a teddy bear.
A few months earlier my mom had been sitting at the kitchen table paying bills, and as she sealed the last envelope with a flourish, she announced, “That’s it—we’ve officially paid the hospital for your sister.” I made a face and asked, “Does that mean it’s too late to take her back?”
Staring down at her on the dirty floor of that Toys R Us, I made a vow in my heart, the first vow I’d ever made in my life. I would never take her for granted again, never again say aloud or in my heart that I hated her, because for a moment I had known what it would mean to lose her.
When you start the pilot episode of Supernatural, you know within the first five minutes that this is not going to be a happy show. A demon breaks into the Winchesters’ home and kills their mother by setting her and the baby’s nursery on fire. (You might be tempted to think, beyond your gaping mouth, Our heroes’ motivation to hero: one dead mother, check.) It’s graphic, horrible and jarring. The father runs through the fire to rescue the baby and then does something unthinkable: he shoves the baby into the arms of the horror-struck four-year-old in the hall and tells him, “Take your brother outside as fast as you can! Don’t look back!” Then he runs back into the flames. This is the defining moment of Dean Winchester’s life, the directive that gives him purpose and will set in motion the events of the next nine (so far) seasons: protect Sammy.
I can’t remember now if my sister had started watching Supernatural before I did or not. I can’t remember which one of us first texted the other, “You have to watch this, it’s US.” She doesn’t remember when she first recognized me in the show, but if I were guessing I’d say it was somewhere around the point in the pilot when Dean sasses the police and Sam stomps on his foot. I say this as someone who once opened the front door to the county sheriff with a scowl and a terse, “What do you want?” I was ten.
I don’t know when my sister first thought of me as Dean, but I know the exact moment when I recognized her in Sam: in those heart-stopping first five minutes, when Dean takes the baby in his arms and his father tells him to run. I lived that, but instead of my father, it was my mother. Instead of a demonic house fire, I was running from my stepfather and a gun.
Like Dean, I’ve always loved classic cars and classic rock. My childhood ambition was to own a ’65 Mustang, supposedly the original choice for the Winchesters’ iconic car before a friend of the series creator pointed out that the ’67 Impala has more trunk space (and thus better for transporting bodies.) In high school I wore a lot of flannel with leather jackets and cropped my hair short. I was known to declare that I didn’t trust any band formed after 1975. I tried to sign up for auto shop, but my school didn’t allow college-track kids to take it. My celebrity crushes included Sean Connery and Steve McQueen. I am breaking-out-in-cold-sweats afraid of flying, and humming Metallica doesn’t help. I was once given a speeding ticket while dressed as Heath Ledger’s Joker. In college my attitudes toward women and alcohol took a disturbing, unhealthy turn, but I grew out of it a few seasons later when a gruff angel gripped me tight and raised me from perdition (Reader, I married him.)
I don’t believe my likeness to Dean Winchester is pure coincidence. I think similar attitudes can be naturally occurring between two people, even one real and one fictional, who grew up around the same time in related cultures (or as the show once put it, “Relax, they’re not cops, just hicks”) and social/economic classes. People who experienced similar events, similar traumas.
My dad died when I was a baby. I don’t remember him. My mother remarried when I was three, but other than the inestimable contribution of my sister, the marriage was a nine-year disaster of abuse and drug use. Most of my memories of these years are of school, a neutral place where my life at home only occasionally bled through, such as my habitual refusal to make Father’s Day cards. Before my sister came along, most of my memories are of being alone, often waiting. Waiting for my mother to pick me up from school, sitting on the front stoop with a lone employee as the sun went down, wondering if my mother had forgotten it was Halloween. Listening at the top of the stairs to my mother working her second full-time job in our basement’s industrial kitchen, our only assets left from my step-father’s abandoned, debt-logged catering business. Fuming in the car because my mother had dragged me away from watching the Miss Universe pageant to force my step-dad home from a bar again. These memories aren’t fair. They don’t speak to the woman who told me I didn’t have a choice about going to college—I was going, no matter what—or the woman who survived being widowed and left with an infant at age twenty-one.
After my sister was born, and specifically after the Toys“R”Us incident, she filled up my life whether I wanted her to or not.
She’s the interesting one. I’ve always had a reputation for being smart, or at the very least a smartass, but my sister’s the real brain. She goes to church because she likes it, because she sincerely believes, but she’s also the one shutting her fellow churchgoers down for intolerance. She’s the champion of the underdog, a long-haired vegetarian who wants to be a doctor. She still visits her dad almost every other weekend, because, like Sam, she’s always appreciated the nuance of monsters and believes in redemption. I hold grudges, and I remember everything. Dean would probably make a pretty good writer.
I’ve never asked outright, but I don’t think she remembers much of what I remember, and what she does remember is distorted, like looking at my memories through a dirty pane of glass. There’s an episode of Supernatural devoted to this topic, season five’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” in which all of Sam’s happiest memories are revealed to be Dean’s worst: Sam leaving for college, Sam running away from home. Sometimes it’s the same with us.
“I was scared of you for a long time,” she tells me. “I thought you were a monster.” (This is, by the way, exactly what you want to hear from the most precious person in your life, especially when it’s something you suspected all along.)
She was serious. When I was eleven or twelve, my dentist decided I needed braces. They couldn’t be installed until all my permanent teeth grew in, but my baby teeth showed no signs of budging. The dentist decided to remove them surgically.
He took out all four of my canine teeth in one sitting. At home, I lay on the couch like a dead thing, hideously swollen and pained. My four-year-old sister crept up to me in awe.
“What happened to your teeth?” she asked.
I rolled my eyes. “I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.” I liked to make things up on the fly back then. Still do.
“Please tell me,” she whispered.
I made her promise not to tell anyone, and then I leaned in close: “I’m a vampire.”
“You are not.”
I pulled up my lip so she could see the gaping holes. “Of course I am. The government found out and de-fanged me to protect the populace. They keep a database of creatures like me, like the X-Men.”
“But you’re not dangerous anymore? Not if they took out your teeth?”
I sighed. “No. But I’ll tell you something they don’t know: those were my baby teeth. So if my fangs ever grow back….” I winked at her, and she ran back to her room and locked the door.
My teeth didn’t grow back for two or three more years, but for a long time beyond that, my sister believed my story. Whenever she met a new adult she thought might believe her, she would tug on their sleeves and whisper, “My sister’s a vampire. Will you help me?” And of course they would laugh—how cute! That’s another thing we have in common, yet another lesson I wish she hadn’t learned. Sometimes it’s easier to keep your head down, your mouth shut, and rely on no one but yourself.
I had a friend growing up with an older brother the same age difference as my sister and me. They knew nothing about each other, and they didn’t seem to care. That terrified me, so I always made a concerted—if not always welcome or advised—effort to keep in touch. It didn’t work for a long time, or at least it didn’t seem to. My sister blames herself, typically.
“It was me,” she says. “I had this image of you built up in my head, like you were Mom 2.0, always telling me how to act and what to do, always scolding me. It wasn’t until you really moved away that I realized you were your own person with your own interests and your own life. That’s when I realized I liked you.”
There’s probably some truth to that—that she had to grow up some before she could see me as an equal, and there’s no doubt that I was an unforgiveable hard-ass when she was little. But I remember little details: the laying of groundwork, a common language in fandom. Teaching her the words and the dance moves to Queen music videos when she could barely walk. Trick-or-treating dressed obediently as the Phantom to her Christine. Summer and winter college breaks marathoning Buffy together.
And then the summer after grad school, I got a job in my hometown and moved back in with my mom, step-father #2, and sister. I said it was to save money for my student loans, and that helped; if my sister hadn’t been there, I would’ve been hundreds of miles away. I wanted to help her through her last year of high school, one of the hardest years of my life. We watched Supernatural together.
During the season one episode “Something Wicked,” there’s a flashback to young Dean heating up dinner for toddler Sam. We were rewatching this episode for at least the second or third time when my sister said, as if just remembering, “You did that for me. I remember you cooking for me—soup with rice. Yours was always the best. Yours is still the best.”
She looked away from the TV then, straight at me. “You’ve always taken care of me, just like Dean did for Sam. I don’t know if I’ve ever thanked you.”
“You don’t need to thank me,” I said. “I was just doing my job.”
That kind of recognition, that kind of thanks, is very rare in families, I think. It’s too common to take the people you rely on most for granted, to ignore the past while allowing it to harden around you, encasing you in resentment and buried emotion. She probably would have thanked me anyway, or shown her appreciation another way, but something about the mirror of Supernatural brought out the best in us. For the first time, we had a vocabulary for talking about what happened to us—what we’d been through together, whether we both remembered it or not.
Sometimes our affiliations flip; under the surface, we’re pretty alike. I identify much more strongly with Sam’s omnipresent, simmering anger in the early seasons, when just being in his father’s presence could bring them to blows. When Dean bodily steps between them, pleading for peace, his face could be my sister’s. This is us—our family, my sister, my mother, and me in our worst moments—reflected on the small screen.
But I identify with Dean most strongly after Hell, the swings between forced joviality and bleak, dead-eyed resignation. I see myself most of all in the roiling self-loathing that Castiel sees through in an instant: “You don’t think you deserve to be saved.” One episode I’m so glad I watched without my sister is the season seven episode, “Death’s Door,” during which I had a complete emotional breakdown. That episode, though it’s not Dean-focused, is my avatar, the distillation of everything I could ever want to say about life, family, and relationships. If you’ve seen that episode, you know me (if you haven’t, I can’t say a word without spoiling it.) But how could I explain that to my sister without spilling everything, all the terrible moments locked in my head that I’m sure she doesn’t remember? I don’t want her to remember.
In some ways, my entire relationship with my sister feels like season five, my favorite: what do I have to do to keep her from going through what I’ve gone through? When my mother found out she had cancer shortly before her divorce, I used to lay awake at night and practice the speech I’d make to the courts if she died—arguing for my own emancipation and for custody of my sister, documenting examples of her father’s base unfitness as a parent or guardian. I worked through high school and college but advised her to focus on her studies; I encouraged her science and math skills where I failed. She hates the taste of alcohol, and, while I discourage the fear, I secretly love it. I want her to be safe and healthy. I don’t want her to face her own lack of self-control or to struggle with addiction like I did. At my college graduation, I kept looking around in awe, not so much proud of my achievement as shocked by it. Deep down, I never thought I’d make it. I always expected something catastrophic to pull me away—illness, bankruptcy, acts of God. No matter what my mom told me, I didn’t feel like the kind of person who graduated college, much less went on to grad school. I always figured I’d end up in jail.
After averting an apocalypse at the end of season five, things fell apart. Sam ended up going through everything Dean had experienced and worse. Dean failed at leading a normal life. Even the writers have admitted that season nine was particularly and extraordinarily painful. I don’t see my relationship with my sister in what Sam and Dean have now. Unlike Dean, I’ve accepted help. I’m living the life I want; I’m escaping my trauma. My sister’s leaving for college. I’m letting her go.
I don’t know where the road’s going to end for Sam and Dean—or us. I have a dream of an isolated roadhouse out on the prairie where two women sing along to the jukebox while they close up shop. One of them cooks the burgers and samples the wares behind the counter; the other one keeps swapping Elvis for Taylor Swift in the karaoke machine. It’s not a realistic dream, and it shouldn’t be. “There ain’t no me if there ain’t no you” does not a healthy adult relationship make. But sometimes I go there in my head, just to dance with a mop. Just to gaze at her a while. In real life, we have to be apart sometimes in order to grow. I know if she doesn’t face the same trials I did, she’ll never be strong enough to survive the worst trials of all—death—betrayal—loneliness. All I can do is offer my advice, if asked, along with my silent support: I’m here. I’m waiting. I’ll catch you. I love you.
Whitney holds a master's degree in Northern Renaissance art history, but she will respond sincerely to any topic of conversation with, "I'm very interested in that."