Filipino-American poet Jon Pineda's first memoir follows the story of his own boyhood and growth into manhood, while it also attempts to give voice to his older sister Rica, unable to tell her own story after brain injury from a car accident alters her life considerably: once a popular cheerleader, she loses the ability to vocalize and becomes paralyzed on one side of her body, suffering other neurological damage after months in a coma. The title, Sleep in Me, comes from one of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus, which Pineda uses as a fitting epigraph to the book: the sister "'made herself a bed inside my ear.// And slept in me, And her sleep was all.'" He feels both her indelible influence present in his mind, as well the responsibility to hold her "inside his ear," to represent what he knows of her experience echoed only through his own. He is both weighed down and strengthened by her disability.
In this, the book defies some of the expectations arising from typical illness memoirs, which often follow a first-hand narrative arc of disease onset, suffering, treatment, and "cure," or are told from the point of view of a caregiver, such as a parent, who absorbs and claims a second-hand experience of his or her child as authentic. While Pineda is asked to assist his mother in caring for his sister, lifting her from car to wheelchair, for example, he is not her primary caregiver but the younger brother, too small at under 80 pounds and too young to hold that kind of claim on her. He instead marvels at their mother's patience and devotion while he reluctantly learns that art. By carving out this younger brother's growing perspective on disability, mutability, and disfigurement, and doing so honestly and in his own skin, Pineda crafts a palpable and unflinchingly honest depiction of witnessing sudden and profound disability as a pre-teen and teenager. Pineda does not pretend to fully understand or accept his sister's condition, but throughout the book he forges new, meaningful connections with Rica, and his awareness grows.
The memoir is comprised of brief chapters, often lyric bursts of imagery and self-examination at their strongest, contextualized by more straightforward narrative passages that do the work of carrying the story along. While it follows a chronological arc that begins before the sister's accident, it does so by presenting compressed vignettes, evocative and vivid, that add up to a sensibility, a life. Repeated images of a woman's body drawn upon and divided, minnows collected, and jellyfish against the skin, turn and turn, gathering new meanings as the narrator's engagement with the world around him develops. Pineda cements the memoir in his own identity as a boy, separate from the sister who, before the accident, is at once an object of fascination in her quest for thinness, both in her body and her nose (which she pinches with a clothespin in the attempt to render it into a more Anglo shape), and also an object of admiration in her persistent efforts to perfect cheerleading acrobatics long into the night. From the start, this is not her memoir — she is not fully present as a character until the fifth chapter — but rather his collection of memories released to the page.
When he represents Rica's experience, Pineda does so with careful hesitations, alternatives, and correctives. He approaches describing the accident in the second person, a very effective way of simultaneously distancing himself from a painful event while drawing the reader closer. "You" have heard the story of how some of it may have happened, but "you" doubt, "you" perceive the accident through the unsaid, "you" imagine different scenarios and issue correctives upon "your" imagination: "Or not that way at all, but this way," and even that version isn't exactly right in "your" mind. Alone with his sister some nights, he checks to make sure she is still breathing. The writer likens her shuddering exhalation to "a wave in the ocean. A part of it breaks before it actually reaches the shore." A few sentences later he writes, "Her breathing is nothing like the ocean," and then offers a description that mirrors his own confusion and determination to get it right: "It is more labored, like the ocean, yes, but only when the wind is blowing northeast and the surface of the water looks choppy. Like a washing machine." In this manner Pineda is able to represent alien experience, Rica's initial tumult and resultant brain injury, through the lens of uncertainty, which allows a nondisabled representation of disability to sit a bit more soundly than one that might lay claim to her. Aware that he could never know her experience fully, he honors her with his repeated and admittedly inexact attempts to describe it.
Much of the memoir depicts the narrator's physical activity in baseball, swimming, skateboarding, surfing, and wrestling, contrasting with Rica's sedentary life after the accident. Another binary the author sets up compares Rica before (hair perfect, skin glowing, body slim and athletic, able to speak) and Rica after (hair splayed like a web, skin splotchy, body slumped and heavy to carry, able to communicate with one hand using rudimentary sign language). Activity is privileged, as is the sister's existence before the accident. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes apparent that when Pineda focuses on a particularly physical event, risk is involved: he nearly drowns, another skateboarder falls, and his sister is present in his mind. Rica helps him become aware of any body's fragility.
Although he never fully accepts Rica's condition after brain injury, internalizing her wheelchair as a metaphorical repository for the family's grief and fears, Pineda also recognizes Rica's predicament and spirit better than anyone else — even if this involves imagined conversations with her paralyzed eye in a particularly moving and transformative chapter. He alone recognizes her anger, witnessing her reaction when others would speak to their mother about Rica in her presence (to which, in one instance, she wryly signs, "I see God and you will all be dead"), and he is also aware of her frustration with him. She tries hard to communicate, but he, a boy in his early teens, lacks the patience to wait for each letter to form. "Sometimes what she only wanted to mention was a small joke, maybe something she overheard on the TV, but by the time you put it all together, the humor was lost. This delay had come to define her life." To which he adds, "But life was one long delay, wasn't it?"
Sleep in Me dwells in the breakdown of conversation between people with disabilities and their able-bodied family members, but it also conveys the growth of a boy who moves from perceiving his sister's disability and disfigurement as a curse, to understanding the ways in which he can absorb portions of her life as a disabled woman into his own psyche. While it is fresher than the typical illness narrative, it also presents some attitudes that have become painfully familiar to PWDs, such as anger directed at the wheelchair, the ultimate symbol of a loved one's tragic decline. Through empathy and lyricism, however, the author manages to subvert such notions. In this memoir Pineda explores the difference between self and sufferer — whether that sufferer is his sister or a wrestler he's pinned or a fish or himself — and sometimes, most beautifully and wrenchingly, they merge.