Wednesday 11 December 2019

David Diebold: 'My sister was my real mother - That was the truth of it'

David Diebold reveals the family secret he shares with Jack Nicholson

David Diebold
David Diebold

FOR a time, as a child, I considered my family situation quite unique, and an endless source of pride.

If I could have articulated such a thing, I might even have said that it felt like my life, before the truth came out, had been some sort of elaborate undercover operation; that we were assumed identities on a witness protection programme or something, dad striking a Cary Grant figure, and my mother…

"She's not my real mother," I'd announce to the waitress, or to people at the next table, beaming baby teeth as mom curled into her fists before smiling apologetically over my head.

"Where he gets these ideas, I don't know…"

"My sister…" I'd pipe up, hyper, high-pitched, bouncing on my seat. "She's…"

"Drink your milk," mom would say, pulling my chin towards her and glaring.

My sister was my real mother. That was the truth of it. It wasn't so unique.

Much later, I learned that Jack Nicholson found out the same thing about his 'sister', the same year I found out about mine. It was 1974, only he was 37, and just finished Chinatown when a reporter from Time magazine broke the news. I was seven, a yo-yo immigrant from Los Angeles, having been moved to Ireland sometime after the Manson murders, drifted back, and then returned to Ireland again for good.

That's when my sister showed up out of the blue and told me the whole thing before her suitcases even hit the hall floor. Seven years' absence, it wasn't a terribly long time to keep a secret.

"So, instead of coming from her tummy," Mom would return from the restroom to find me explaining to the waitress, having borrowed a crayon to illustrate a napkin, "I came out of my…"

Dad would be sitting nearby, nose buried in a paper, oblivious, as the waitress grimaced with mounting horror and nodded like a dashboard dog.

If my sister was my mother, I never once wondered what mom and dad were. Mom was mom. Dad was dad. But my sister, she was my 'actual' mother, and if that wasn't a story worth telling every stranger, then I didn't know what was.

"Well, thanks a lot," mom would rasp at dad, snatching the crayon and giving the waitress a pained smile. It was a scenario I blithely took immeasurable pleasure in repeating, at the school gate, in shops, at bus stops. They say the truth will out. For me, it was a verbal diarrhetic.

Jack Nicholson's 'sister' and 'mother' died years before he found out the truth about who was who, and he's since said how glad he is they kept their secret to their graves. "I didn't have to deal with it with them. They were dead," he said.

I was fine with my truth, young as I was, but I think I started to sense the fears and jealousies that lurked around my sister/mother's re-emergence. I would favour her company, making the trek from school to where she was renting, some distance away, without permission. We moved house and I moved school and still we grew closer, until my sister was given an ultimatum. Take him or leave him. She left.


The spidery letters and blotchy paintings I insisted on sending off for the first years after she disappeared again went for the most part unanswered. Years later, I found many of them in a scrapbook under mom's bed. It would be 15 years before I would see my 'sister' again, by which time I had long stopped regaling people with our painfully complex family past.

The closeness we'd felt when I was seven had gone, replaced by other emotions: guilt, caution, sadness. I felt guilty spending time with her now when I sensed it upset mom; cautious about not leaving myself open to being rejected again; sad about all the years without the easy intimacy that mothers and their own children often seem to have. We never recaptured the magic and excitement of that first, early reunion.

Jack Nicholson has said that all he feels is gratitude that his sister and mother never told him the truth: "Show me any women today who could keep a secret, confidence, or an intimacy to that degree, you got my kind of gal."

Do I ever wish, in my case, that everyone had just kept their secrets to themselves? Sometimes.

For a while, I felt the happy, easy child I had been, so at home with the truth, had been ditched. For an even longer time, I felt compelled to walk away from things that were going great; from jobs, from friendships. Better to dump them before being dumped.

But that's the great thing about growing up, eventually you stop blaming the bad decisions you make on the things that happened in your childhood.

And that's my ambition. To grow up. Someday.

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