Engaging, disturbing view of siblings


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Siblings are the closest of kin, yet they can also be the fiercest of rivals.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/03/2012 (3925 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Siblings are the closest of kin, yet they can also be the fiercest of rivals.

Sibling rivalry runs rampant among the birds and bees. Black eagle and white pelican nestlings murder younger and weaker brothers and sisters as soon as they hatch. In ants and bees, sibs cannibalize sibs and tropical trees resort to poison.

Human parallels date as far back as the pages of Genesis. Cain smote Abel. Jacob stole the birthright from his twin Esau. Jacob’s wives, the sisters Leah and Rachel, engaged in fierce competition to have the largest family, costing the life of the more beautiful but less fertile Leah.


Cain’s Legacy is an engaging albeit sometimes disturbing exploration of the complex lives of human siblings. American psychotherapist Jeanne Safer presents case studies of sibling relationships that run from selflessness where sibs protect and nurture weaker brothers and sisters, to the extremes of selfishness where sibs cheat, abuse and bully sibs.

Safer begins with a brief exploration of evolutionary origins of sibling rivalry in plants and animals, drawing upon the pioneering work of animal behaviourist Douglas Mock. The solution to sibling conflict among animals is often straightforward if not ruthless: kill the offending sibling.

For humans, life is much less tidy, as the murder of brothers and sisters is normally frowned upon. We resort to less lethal but often no less diabolical means of managing sibling relationships.

The book is a showcase of these, exploring how rivalries begin and why siblings often grow apart to become very different people. Some stories end happily — siblings separated by years or even decades of bitter conflict reconcile in later life and become friends.

More often the story ends less well. Some individuals torture themselves to maintain toxic relationships with brothers and sisters. Nicole, for example, travels each year to visit her sister’s family, even though she endures a constant stream of abuse and humiliation. She clings to this dysfunctional relationship, as letting go is even harder.

Siblings who grow up side-by-side in the same family can effectively live in different worlds and by different rules. Just because siblings are close kin is no guarantee of preferred treatment, and quite the opposite is a frequent result.

The family business is often a forum for conflict, and sibling strife often leads to their demise. Only one in four survive to the second generation, and just one in eight to a third. It is easy to see why.

Ira — a modern-day Jacob — swindles the family business and fortune from younger brother Bernie. Ethan becomes CEO of the family department store business, and uses his position of authority to insult and embarrass his younger sister Diana in front of the board of directors. Diana, trapped since childhood in her role of subordinate, smoulders with rage but stays because she needs the money.

Throughout, Safer is looking for the mechanisms by which damaged relationships can be repaired. It is never easy, and in some cases is simply not possible.

The chasm that exists between sibs can be so wide and so deep that it cannot be bridged. Here estrangement and simply attempting to understand what went wrong might be best for all.

For those suffering troubled relationships with brothers and sisters, Cain’s legacy may open a door to understanding why and just perhaps the path to reconciliation.

CP THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Famous siblings: acting twins Ashley (left) and Mary-Kate Olsen.

Scott Forbes is an ecologist at the University of Winnipeg who has spent the last three decades studying sibling rivalry in animals.

Cain’s Legacy

Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy, and Regret

By Jeanne Safer

Basic Books 275 pages, $30

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