If you’ve not read part one of this whacky story, you can do so here:
An intuition is neither caprice nor a sixth sense but a form of unconscious intelligence.
— Gerd Gigerenzer
On October 17th, 2021, just an hour or so after finding out I had a half-sister, my phone rang. Emily hadn’t replied to my 23&Me message telling her to call me ASAP, but in an age when nobody calls, who else was the unsaved number going to be? Knowing this was a “first” that shall never repeat, I tried to be present. From the start, our conversation felt oddly natural (all things considered). There were no awkward silences. We cracked a few jokes and told each other about our lives. Both of us were clearly excited and curious to figure things out.
We had peculiar things in common. For example, not only did it seem like our political views were much the same, but we had both made YouTube videos with our partners on similar political and cultural issues. As I wrote in part one, Emily was a classicist. When we spoke, I was reading a book on Thucydides. Another shared interest. Emily was also fascinated by psychology, my own academic passion. What’s more, she was also born around the time I was conceived.
Emily’s fiancé, David, was in the background, as was my partner, Maria. Arguably the weirdest double date in history. We all began to exchange theories as to (1) how likely this was to be true and (2) what explained it. As far as I recall, there was never much doubt that it was true (we would later do the maths and confirm with 23&Me). However, our first theory didn’t even entertain the possibility of a sperm donor. Instead, we assumed that my mother had cheated with Emily’s father. To sketch out why, I need to offer you a glimpse of the childhood memories that flashed through my head when forced to consider the possibility that my mum was the type of person who could not only cheat, but let her husband unknowingly (presumably) raise another man’s child — absent violence, perhaps the worst thing a woman can do to a man?
I have a memory of being in the kitchen of my old house (so I cannot have been more than ten, and in all likelihood was much younger), my dad is shouting at my mum. Perhaps she’s crying, I’m not sure. All I remember is him saying something like, “why don’t you tell him, then?” — the him being me. I believe I asked my mum what dad meant. She must’ve replied along the lines of, “your father thinks I cheated on him”. Everything is hazy, but I’m quite certain that my dad was referring to a holiday in Turkey. Small resort, pool, pasty working-class Brits with their pasty children, the odd German fiercely claiming their sun lounger. How this combination of images and words resolves into a relatively clear narrative is a mystery of the mind. I somehow came to realise that it was the Turkish barman dad was thinking about. He’d been flirting with my mum and I believe there was an incident where she’d left the bed in the early hours of the morning — this was surely spoken about in the kitchen with me present, as I had no idea at the time of course.
There’s another Turkish holiday memory, however. We went there twice, so I’m not sure if it’s from the same holiday. In light of the first memory it would make sense. We were on a 4x4 excursion. I have a faint image of an ugly Turk watching my mum’s breasts bounce up and down as she drove along a rocky road. I didn’t think I’d ever type this sentence, but here we go: my mother is, to put it British-ly, well endowed.
The next vignette is from later in the day, possibly at a waterfall. The ugly Turk comes up behind my dad, puts his fingers in his back and must say something like, “I have a gun”. My dad, not missing a beat, says shrewdly, “as long as that’s all it is”. What’s interesting is that I find it very hard to believe I knew what the fuck any of this meant. But it stuck with me. Why? Perhaps because it was just very odd. I think there was an English guy my parents befriended, Mick? He had no teeth. As I said, working class resort. Mick either explained something to me or had a conversation with my dad that I could’ve easily overheard. I also remember (again, I think on that holiday) finding a pack of cigarettes in my mum’s handbag, being surprised, questioning her, and, I believe, getting her to throw them away. I distinctly remember the feeling of surprise. The feeling that she suddenly wasn’t who I thought she had been. This feeling surely exacerbated by the particular vice — perhaps the disgust helped to imprint the memory.
The final memory to flash through (and I’ve no idea if it’s directly connected) is of my parents in the living room (old house this time). A strange atmosphere of quiet resignation — must’ve been post row. Mum asks my dad, “so how does this work, then?”. The detached tone makes me realise it’s serious before I even have a firm understanding of the object her sentence tacitly — purposefully, I now imagine — omits. Either I’m in the room or hovering outside. I believe there’s some similarly cold discussion about the logistics of divorce. I think my dad leaves and walks up the road. Crying, I run out chasing him, I catch up, and I’m pretty sure he is crying, too. I somehow manage to bring him back. I’m quite certain that I was told multiple times by my mother that I was a cause of many arguments like this; that “this is what happens”. I don’t know if this was one of those occasions, but I’d bet a fair sum.
Of course, these four paragraphs flashed through my mind in seconds, but it’s hard to convey that without omitting detail. I can only state it. State it in the hope that the contrast between the flashing, jumbled images and their reassembly in words will be enough to highlight our iceberg-like consciousness. When one commits such a series of disjointed memories to writing, one does so fully in the knowledge that they barely scratch the surface of what must lurk in the dark recesses, let alone what’s been permanently forgotten. It’s easy to see how an obsession with the past as prologue can form. Our parents’ stories are another matter entirely. Their lives — before they’re our parents — are either shrouded in total darkness or carefully stage-managed. And even when they become our parents, we’re rarely able to comprehend them and their choices as we would as adults who face the same trials of existence. This is to say we now recognise the fallibility, the distinct humanness, in short, that they are us and we are them. The illusion shatters like a pupil realising their teacher has no real authority, or that the power of money is literally paper thin. Some may prefer it this way. But I’d personally quite like to see it, their past “proto-parent” life in all its richness and complexity.
So, did I think my mum had cheated? I have to confess: it was my firm intuition. But I’ve always been wary about trusting intuition. For one, I’ve certainly found that those who claim to be good judges of character are often the worst judges. I don’t disregard intuition. I’m just all too aware that trustworthy intuition is developed through a kind of training, similar to how elite athletes develop the muscle memory that enables their majestic movement— the type people pay thousands to glimpse ten seconds of, as Usain Bolt repeatedly proved. A solid intuition is configured and refined by deep and varied life experiences. From these we glean insights into human nature. Those insights, in turn, allow us to build a semi-reliable model of the world. If it's not built on representative life experiences, intuition is like a thermometer in the sun, subject to the capriciousness of the clouds. And like the athlete’s muscles, one’s intuition can atrophy, too. To build and maintain reliable intuition you cannot retreat from life or hope to passively absorb wisdom simply by existing. Wisdom merely correlates with old age, it’s not caused by it. Plenty of old people are idiots, enough young people are wise.
But what did Emily think about the cheating hypothesis? She certainly thought it plausible, given her dad had done so before, causing a temporary separation. We tried to work out where everybody would have been 30 odd years ago. The geography seemed to click.
At some point in the conversation, Emily revealed another wonderful gift: she had a brother called Simon. Meaning I now had a half-brother, too. Again the rush of excitement came back, as well as the deep, deep longing for all of this to not be some devilish trick of the universe. We ended the call saying we’d exchange some photos. I was about to see my half-brother and the man we assumed with good reason to be my biological father for the first time.
When that first photo of Simon came through I fell to the floor. I couldn’t catch my breath between the crying. Maria tried to help me breathe normally. The only way I can describe this is that it was like a fairground mirror, a slightly distorted image but so clearly you. Simon was a little fatter in the face, but the eyes, the look, even the posture…at that moment I knew everything was true. Then came the photos of my “dad”.