Throughout Riding the Bus with My Sister, one of Rachel Simon’s most pervasive frustrations with her sister Beth is that, while Beth fully understands how her behaviors harm herself and others and is fully capable of changing these behaviors, she simply chooses not to. Rachel knows that Beth’s developmental disability makes it difficult for her to change, but she also sees that Beth’s rigidity is just a more extreme version of the universal human tendency to stubbornly stick to harmful habits and routines. In fact, Rachel realizes that she, like Beth, often behaves like “a clock that nobody can reset.” In her conversations with Beth, Beth’s care team (including Olivia and Vera), and her numerous bus driver mentors (like Jacob and Cliff), Rachel constantly returns to the question of what truly makes people change for the better. She realizes that she cannot force the people she loves to change, and that instead, they are only likely to change when they face failure, crisis, and despair. Therefore, Rachel argues that people are caught between two equally natural drives—the impulse to stick to bad habits and the desire for self-improvement—and the pressures they face determine which of these drives wins out.
Rachel is consistently frustrated by Beth’s inconsiderate behavior, which she desperately wants to change. First and foremost, nobody can stand Beth’s incessant talking. As Rachel puts it, “She is so loud. And she talks all the time. About nothing. […] Over and over and over.” It bothers Rachel, bus drivers like Rodolpho and Cliff, and even Rachel and Beth’s father—when he got Beth a job in his office, he couldn’t bear to drive to work with her, because she would talk over his music nonstop during the two-hour car ride. Ultimately, being around Beth isn’t just frustrating because she talks about things that aren’t relevant to other people—it’s also frustrating because she has no consideration for other people’s time, space, and attention. Moreover, Rachel also takes issue with Beth’s manipulativeness, taste for revenge, and refusal to take responsibility for the conflicts she causes. For instance, while most insults don’t faze Beth, when a “fat girl” yells at her, she spends days plotting to publicly humiliate the girl. She tells Rachel that she simply doesn’t care about the girl’s feelings. Similarly, she turns the drivers Claude and Cliff against each other when Claude suggests that she should get a job. These examples all show that Beth simply doesn’t take other people’s needs or moral worth into account.
Meanwhile, Rachel’s conversations with the people surrounding Beth constantly return to the question of how people can improve their lives and moral character. For instance, Jacob tells Rachel and Beth about how he nearly drank himself to death, then had a religious revelation after a liver transplant. He uses this story to highlight the importance of mercy and forgiveness. Rachel, who already believes in mercy, finds the lesson touching. But Beth doesn’t—she still believes in revenge, and she refuses to change. Similarly, the driver Bailey dedicates inordinate time and effort to helping Beth find a job, which he believes would give her meaningful day-to-day activities and help her contribute to society. He even tells Rachel that he cares for Beth as much as his own children. And yet Beth fails to appreciate Bailey’s effort and flat-out refuses to consider getting a job, since she doesn’t need the money. Worse, she doesn’t even recognize or appreciate Bailey’s effort to help her. In short, she rejects an opportunity to improve her life because she faces no consequences for refusing it.
Over the course of the book, Rachel decides that encouragement doesn’t convince people to change nearly as well as serious consequences do. Beth’s failed makeover lightheartedly captures this principle. After a group of beauticians completely transforms Beth’s look, everyone is delighted to see her—except Beth herself, who quickly returns to her old, proudly unfashionable style. This shows how she resists changing, even for the better, so long as it’s harder and less comfortable than staying the same. As Rachel puts it, “Beth seems to need a cataclysmic event for her to change in any way.” Similarly, while Beth generally refuses to see doctors and take even the most basic preventative health measures (like brushing her teeth properly or eating vegetables), Rachel does convince Beth to undergo two key surgeries: a sterilization procedure to prevent her from getting pregnant and an eye surgery to prevent her from going blind. These require lots of explanation and patience, but Rachel shows Beth that the “cataclysmic” consequences of failing to act—like having a child she’s incapable of raising or losing her vision—justify taking action. Again, this shows how crisis can be a powerful force for change. Meanwhile, Rachel’s key transformation in the book—her decision to finally prioritize relationships over work and start reaching out to other people—also affirms the principle she observed in Beth. Namely, she changes through a moment of crisis: while riding in the back of Melanie’s bus, she accidentally sees her reflection in the window, and she glimpses the same emotions that she remembers seeing in her mother’s face after her divorce (terror, self-pity, and shame over her failures). Like Beth, Rachel decides to change only when she finally grasps the catastrophic consequences of failing to change.
Ultimately, Rachel’s year with Beth makes her optimistic about her own chances of finding love, her own capacity to build a community, and society’s ability to help people with disabilities live fulfilling lives. But it generally makes her more pessimistic about the likelihood of Beth deciding to change for the better, and her own chances of forcing Beth to change. Rachel still affirms that people are capable of change, even without crises, but she just concludes that it’s very difficult—and doubly so for people with intellectual disabilities, like Beth.
Growth, Change, and Morality ThemeTracker
Growth, Change, and Morality Quotes in Riding the Bus with My Sister
In the course of my life, cars and trains and jets have whisked me to wherever I wanted to go, and I was going places, I thought; I was racing my way to becoming a Somebody. A Somebody who would live a Big Life. What that meant exactly, I wasn’t sure. I just knew that I longed to escape the restrictions of what I saw as a small life: friends and a family and a safe, unobjectionable job that would pay me a passably adequate income. Although this package encompassed just the kind of existence many people I knew were utterly content with, I wanted something more.
Then, in the winter of my thirty-ninth year, I boarded a bus with my sister and discovered that I wanted broader and deeper rewards than those I would find in the Big Life.
There it is again, that deep voice grumbling on inside me: How can she be so blithe about the possibility of trouble? You can’t let her do that. She may be putting herself in real jeopardy!
I take a deep breath. Despite her familiarity with this city, I’m not sure she fully understands, or accepts, how perilous the world can be. Yet if I get too “bossy,” I know she’ll dig in her heels all the harder. I also know it would be a great loss if I let some inner voice of criticism come between us. I’m enamored of her feistiness and her keen-witted street savvy. I feel privileged to be her sidekick. I want this year to go on.
Put a lid on it, Beth, the dark voice inside me wants to say—the same voice that’s been piping up since this year began, and especially in my past few trips to see her. You’ve said precisely the same thing to every driver today, regardless of how the last one responded. Can’t you get back to a sweeter mood? Would it be such a hardship to listen to someone else for a minute?
I still have not untangled how much is Beth and how much is Beth’s brain, nor whether, when she does not welcome new conversations, fashions, manners, boundaries, or concepts of space, it is because she cannot, or will not, or is simply not in a mood to open her mind at a given moment. I also have not ascertained how much, if any, of her self-centeredness is a result of her mental retardation. And, given the inextricable weave of nature and nurture, of self and society, that exists in all of us, it seems unlikely that I ever will.
But now I do know that, like me, and the drivers, Beth is on a journey. It’s just that Beth’s bus chugs along a lot more slowly.
Wouldn’t it be nice, even liberating, if I could begin to see beyond my cynicism and resistance and controlling impulses? […] I think about how so many of these drivers, at crucial turning points, learned to view and inhabit their own lives in fresh ways, [and] slowly it comes to me.
Beth is living by her own choices, unfettered by the whims of an institution or group home placement decision; she travels according to the starred dots on her map; she eats what she likes when she’s hungry; she boldly dresses in a fireworks display of ensembles that declare, Look at me, I count in this world. She is, in many ways, the embodiment of self-determination.
A tension that I hadn’t even realized I’d been feeling—a tension that has possessed my body throughout this day—for weeks, no, for months—begins to ease.
Beth has sought out mentors in places where others might not look, and, moreover, taken the time, and endured the pain, to weed out those drivers who are decent and kind and reflective from those who are indifferent or hostile. The ones I’m meeting are, I realize as I quickly do the math, only about a sixth of the whole bus company. That took Beth a huge amount of trial and error—and, yes, determination. I shake my head, amazed at how much I’d somehow missed, and then, with a surge of optimism, wonder if one out of six people in any profession or community would also be exceptionally thoughtful. How could I really know? Have I ever spent this much time exploring the worldviews of my colleagues at school or the bookstore? Do I have a clue about whether my neighbors feel committed to the Golden Rule?
“I wish I had a ‘Help Anyone, Anytime Book,’ like Jack’s.”
What I want is a guide to being a good sister, to doing well by Beth, and I would leave it propped on my lap all the time. There would be instructions on how to adjust my guidance to her self-reliance, and how to find the difference between caring and controlling.
She goes on and on, and now the dark voice, which I thought I’d laid to rest last month, roars within me again. I squeeze my hands together. When I started riding the buses, I remember, I thought of the people who didn’t like Beth as insensitive and narrow-minded. Now I find myself more sympathetic to their point of view. Yes, some of them are coarse and offensively vocal. But she is so loud. And she talks all the time. About nothing. I know many of us babble on about nothing, too, but she does it over and over and over—and over and over and over—and it’s really eroding the limits of my endurance. Dad used to tell us he came to dread their car rides to work for precisely the same reasons. That was twenty years ago.
I think: I wish I were a saint.
I wish I were a magnanimous sister who could feel compassion for the way that Beth is re-creating a dysfunctional family environment on the buses.
I wish I had the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
I wish I could learn the language of Maybe It’s Good Enough. Maybe it’s good enough that she can memorize seventy drivers’ schedules and stand up to racists and read. I wish I could be a realist who could accept Beth’s level of development and not long for more.
I wish I were like acquaintances who think that people with mental retardation are “God’s true angels.” I don’t want to think, “I wish she’d behave a little more appropriately today.”
I wish I could change.
For a moment, as I stand halfway up the aisle in the now still bus, embarrassment courses through me. I realize how I keep turning to these drivers to help me steer my own life. But it has come to feel like a different world up here, with different rules, and, besides, I think, I am too desperate to remind myself that I should keep my mouth shut. I wait until I’ve calmed down, then slip into Beth’s seat. I face him, as she always does, until he feels my eyes on him. He peers over at me.
With a jolt, I know what scares me.
It’s not just the same old crush with a new face, or the same old song with the same wrong words. It’s not just the pattern she doesn’t see, or care about, and therefore cannot or will not change.
It’s that Beth seems to need a cataclysmic event for her to change in any way—an event like our mother’s complete abdication of her responsibility to protect her own child, Juanita’s rejection, or Rodolpho’s abandonment. This seems true whether she’s being called upon to develop resourcefulness, assertiveness, or just basic self-restraint. I look at her and feel a clutch in my throat. What will it take now?
Is this all there will ever be to her life?
I discover that [my mother] is not the cold-hearted, mayhem-loving monster I’d imagined, but a deeply unhappy and lonely woman who somehow got caught up with a violent con man, an event that fills her with shame. […] After Beth had been sent away, he’d almost beaten my mother to death—and only then, finally, had she fled, with fifty-seven cents in her hand.
I realize I need to learn forgiveness and compassion. Little by little, season after season, my days stop seeming so dark and my nights so scary.
I tell Laura how much better I feel, that my depression is lifting; I can even write again. I tell her that it may be the hardest thing she ever does in her life, but that if she can face it, she can do anything. She relents as she listens, and one day she too picks up the phone.
[I] make out my reflection far too well, hauntingly blue and close. I cringe at the expression on my face.
Failure, it reads, and terror. The way my mother used to look when she trudged into the house after one of her dates. The way I used to feel when love withdrew. […] There is self-pity, too.
That old darkness rises within me. Don’t think about this, it says. Keep telling the world, No, I can’t, I’m sorry. Keep shutting the door.
But I do think about it. Beth is in stitches along with her friend right in front of me, and I realize with a jolt that for all her failures and terrors, I have never seen self-pity on her face. Not even a trace. Not once.
I sit up to pull the curtains closed. But as I peer up to the light, I remember Beth turning our attention to the moon over and over as we drove to our grandmother’s apartment so long ago. I think of what she used to say: “Moon’s following us!” Suddenly I realize why this image has stayed with me all these years. It’s not because the moon’s the big thing and we’re just puny underneath and she had it all reversed. It’s because no matter how far you drive, or how hard you hide, you can never leave the moon behind. Perhaps this is what she meant all along.
[…] Maybe I should actually go to see her this year. Maybe I’ll call my editor and put him off. It’s time I went to visit my sister.
I lean against my wall, moved and chastened. For fifteen minutes I watch the flurries turn to serious snow outside my window and listen to her, and think how hard this apology must be for her—and how hard all this is for me. I had always told myself that facing my feelings about my mother was the hardest thing I would ever have to do, but now, standing here after telling my sister that I hate her, and hating myself for hurting her so, I realize that being a good sister to Beth might be even more difficult. No one can be a good sister all the time. I can only try my best. Just because I am not a saint does not mean that I am a demon.