Mariah Carey’s new memoir The Meaning of Mariah Carey aimed to unpack the woman behind the fantastical, larger-than-life persona she’d created for herself — and it really, really delivers. Carey’s reflections on how her upbringing and the challenges she’s faced have informed her choices as an artist are as illuminating as they are emotional, combining a rare self-awareness with a radical level of respect for her inner child and all that she’s survived. Among these deeply felt revelations, Carey details for the first time the extent of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her older sister Alison when she was a young child — specifically, right around the age of 12 to which she’s clung for so long. In recalling the terrifying day that her sister severely burned her with boiling hot tea, Carey is unflinching in recreating who she was in that moment. And hearing the betrayal in young Mariah’s voice when she realized her big sister couldn’t be trusted is absolutely heartbreaking.
The incident in question started when Carey, sister Alison, and their mother were at home together, trying to have a family tea when their father called. Carey wasn’t close with her father — but she also hadn’t suffered the physical and emotional abuse at his hands that she knew her sister and brother had, complicating Carey’s own relationship with her siblings.
When Carey took the phone to speak to her father, she was only thinking about winning over her sister: “As I went through the mechanical niceties of the conversation, my sister began gesturing wildly, shaking her head and slicing her hand across her throat, signaling for me not to let on that she was there. As I tried my best to carry on the conversation with our father, I made silly faces back at her, doing all I could not to break into laughter. I thought we were playing a game. Eventually I figured it was her turn to try and talk seriously to our father while I tried to make her laugh, so I said, ‘Guess what — Alison is here! Want to talk to her?’ Laughingly, I motioned at her to take the phone.”
“But she wasn’t looking at me. She was looking down at her mug of still-steaming tea in her hand, and when she lifted her face, her eyes were rabid, without a trace of playfulness,” Carey continues. “Before I realized what was happening, she yelled, ‘No!’ and, in a flash, threw the boiling-hot tea on me.”
The effect was immediate. “The next thing I remember I was stripped down to my waist, and a doctor was removing the remaining bits of my white-and-turquoise diagonal-striped top, which was embedded into the flesh of my shoulder, with large tweezers,” she writes. “My back was splattered with third-degree burns. I couldn’t recognize it as mine, as it turned different shades of maroon from the violent scalding I received at the hands of my sister. The horrific physical sensation had been so intense that I blacked out.”
Carey says that a touch as light as a pat on the back was painful for years following that incident. But the reason this day sticks out in her mind is not the horrifying physical pain, or the years of scarring and recovery that followed. It was the final nail in the coffin of her attempted relationship with Alison, the last day Carey remembers having hope for them as siblings.
“The truly irreversible damage to me came from the burn of my big sister, not the tea,” she explains. “Her arson was deliberate — she burned my back and my trust. Any faint hope I’d help up to that point of having a big sister became scorched earth.”
This story breaks our heart — but Carey’s insight on why it defined her relationship with her sister proves that she’s taken the time to process and work through that trauma. Young Mariah may have had her heart broken, but grown-up Mariah is teaching us all what it means to heal.