Cain's Legacy

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


By Jeanne Safer, PhD

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Bonds between brothers and sisters are among the longest lasting and most emotionally significant of human relationships. But while 45 percent of adults struggle with serious sibling strife, few discuss it openly. Even fewer resolve it to their satisfaction.In Cain’s Legacy, psychotherapist Jeanne Safer, a recognized authority on sibling psychology (and an estranged sister herself) illuminates this pervasive but hidden phenomenon. She explores the roots of inter-sibling woes, from siblicide in the book of Genesis to tensions in Frederique’s family history. Drawing on sixty in-depth interviews with adult siblings struggling with conflicts over money, family businesses, aging parents, contentious wills, unhealed childhood wounds, and blocked communication, Safer provides compassionate guidance to brothers and sisters whose relationship is broken. She helps siblings overcome their paralysis and pain, revealing how they can come to terms with the one peer relationship they can never sever — even if they never see each other again.A heartfelt look at a too-often avoided topic, Cain’s Legacy is a sympathetic and clear-eyed guide to navigating the darkness separating us from our brothers and sisters.


Also by Jeanne Safer
Death Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change an Adult's Life—For the Better
The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling
Forgiving and Not Forgiving: Why Sometimes It's Better NOT to Forgive
Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life Without Children

For Harriet Wald,
my sister by choice

Fraternal love, sometimes almost every thing, is at others worse than nothing.
—JANE AUSTEN, Mansfield Park
Hostile feelings towards brothers and sisters must be far more frequent than the unseeing eye of the adult can perceive.
—SIGMUND FREUD, The Interpretation of Dreams
When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws . . . into a world that we have not made.
—G. K. CHESTERTON, Heretics

The names and identifying information of everyone interviewed in this book have been changed.

The Secret World of Sibling Strife
I had an older brother, but he was never a brother to me. We spent our childhoods at the same address with the same biological parents, ate dinner at the same table every night, and even shared a room for a few years at first, although we never shared a single confidence while we occupied it. We had the same coloring, the same body type, some of the same talents. But the universes we inhabited never intersected, and our parents were the same people in name only. Our relationship, begun in simmering mutual resentment, progressed to rare obligatory meetings, and ended in complete estranged silence. Although I made some futile attempts, I could never be a sister to him, and I did not grieve when he died at age sixty-four. Only a year later, when I happened to attend a concert of the vintage jazz he loved and performed, did I find myself weeping uncontrollably for what we never had.
At least one-third of the adult siblings in America suffer serious sibling strife like mine—the number rises significantly, to 45 percent, when clinicians probe more deeply. Instead of feelings of kinship and warmth for their nearest relatives, these brothers and sisters feel secret shame, rage, guilt, resentment, alienation, contempt, or, worst of all, more cold indifference than a stranger could ever evoke. Frozen in time, frozen in place, they cannot be their adult selves in their adversary's company. Nobody thinks or talks about this predicament because nobody knows what to do about it. We convince ourselves that problem siblings—many of whom seem perfectly normal except when they are driving us crazy—don't matter once we leave home and no longer live under the same roof with them, that they have no further impact on our lives. Denial tends to wear off over time, however; the majority of adult siblings, when questioned late in life, confess that they feel worse about unresolved relationships with brothers and sisters than about any other unfinished business. Eighty-five percent of Americans have siblings, and because these ties last longer than any others—fifty to eighty years is the norm, compared to the thirty to fifty years most people know their parents—and 90 percent of people over sixty-five still have at least one living sibling, that's a lot of regret. I wrote Cain's Legacy to explore that regret, to relieve it, and, when possible, to transform it.
The trials of life with a mentally or physically dysfunctional sibling was the topic of my partially autobiographical book The Normal One, but as the powerful and revealing stories told by the sixty beleaguered adults of all ages I interviewed for Cain's Legacy demonstrate, the phenomenon is far more widespread than that. A brother or sister need not be incapacitated to cause trouble.
Why are sibling woes so disturbing and so recalcitrant? Our first peer relationship has the deepest roots of all, and you can't get a divorce. Problems between husbands and wives derive from childhood experiences, but problems with siblings are childhood experiences in contemporary guise. Rivalry, competition, and anxiety about your place in your parents' affections underlie these problems, breeding rancor that haunts siblings all their lives and recurs in each phase of adulthood—work, marriage, parenthood, caring for aging parents, and, eventually, settling that perpetual minefield, the estate. The mutually injured parties (at least those who still maintain a precarious connection) walk on eggshells, loathe to confront each other for fear of precipitating an unfixable breech. As a result, their discord goes underground, only to reemerge in times of crisis, with mutually assured destruction.
Sibling strife is nothing like the normal fighting between brothers and sisters who basically get along. These opponents never make up; there is not enough goodwill to counterbalance their perennial grudges. Always on the defensive and in management mode, strife-ridden siblings never feel natural in each other's company; they cannot be playful together or comfort each other. They even talk to each other in a special language, which I have dubbed "Sibspeak," in which words are weapons rather than modes of communication. They view family occasions with foreboding and joint decision-making with dread. If you also have simpatico siblings the contrast is excruciating, but if your only sibling is estranged you cannot imagine what brotherly or sisterly tenderness feels like. You may try—often successfully—to find surrogates with whom to imitate that instinctive intimacy, but it is never quite the same. Far beneath the surface, as I discovered, there still lurks a secret hunger for the fundamental security that loving family ties provide, a sanctuary forever inaccessible when your sibling cannot be your friend.
The hopeless pain that sibling strife provokes is the only remaining taboo topic in contemporary life: the black box—as well as the Pandora's box—of family problems. We don't even let ourselves dream about it very much. Thinking about problem siblings always goes to the bottom of the to-do list, somewhere after cleaning the closets, because most people—and until quite recently, most psychotherapists—believe the fallacy that dealing with difficult brothers and sisters is optional. But you can never escape them because they are part of you.
Whether you make peace, never speak to each other again, maintain a chilly civility, or vacillate between love and hate, you're stuck with this relationship—at least inside yourself—for the rest of your life. You can and do have a choice whether to interact but not whether to be influenced by them; it is a fait accompli.
Even if you haven't seen them in decades, troublesome siblings accompany you everywhere—the bedroom, the professional meeting, the cocktail party. They are psychically present when you work with a colleague, when your friend has a triumph or a failure. Collaboration, competition, making friends and losing them, bear their marks. So do your own children, who evoke them all over again. They subtly influence your most important relationship choices—including whom you marry—almost as much as parents do. They provide the template for much of adult life and its discontents.
Not only are they our constant internal companions, but the worse the relationship, the more potent and hidden it is. Nonetheless, one hundred years after Freud discovered the central importance of childhood experience in defining character, siblings remain terra incognita. Otherwise thoughtful, self-reflective adults have "no idea" why they're not close to a brother or sister. They use external explanations to rationalize their aversion (" We live in different cities," "He's a Republican," and "I can't stand her husband" are typical excuses), without realizing that none of these things would keep them and their siblings apart if they wanted to be together.
Unless you understand your adversary as a person with a view of the world and of you that is radically different from your own, you cannot fully understand yourself. We cut off a part of ourselves when we ignore these siblings; they come back to haunt us when we thrust them away. Even if we cannot love them and find interacting with them toxic or infuriating, we owe it to ourselves to think about them in a new way. Cain's Legacy shows you how.
I wrote this book to bring these troubling, long-neglected life companions into the spotlight where they belong, because only then can we begin to make sense of our relationship with them. By looking at them rather than looking away we can figure out what went awry and perhaps have a chance to change course, or realize why we never can, but sealing the relationship off leaves it forever unresolvable. This field guide to problem siblings shows you how to understand who they are, why they act the way they do, and why you react the way you do, which permits you to see the relationship from a new perspective. And should you decide to try to connect or reconnect, you will find out how to go about it—including what not to do or say.
Siblings who fail to confront their childhood hurts—for all serious strife has childhood roots—inevitably drift apart or become permanently estranged, stuck in a disturbing relationship they can neither comprehend nor alter, its meanings forever locked deep within the estranged partners. Even those who long for reconciliation have no idea how to proceed, or are too frightened and angry to try.
The insights offered here cannot create love, but can help neutralize hatred and alter the inner landscape that siblings inhabit. Whether the final destination is rapprochement, management, or well-considered rejection, and even if only one partner participates, this book provides a road map to navigate unexplored terrain and the guidance of a sibling "couples counselor" who is both a sister deeply familiar with strife and a psychotherapist who specializes in the unique struggles siblings face.
In addition to plants, animals, and the matriarchs and patriarchs of the Book of Genesis—the natural world and the world of the Bible are hotbeds of sibling strife—here are some of the siblings you will meet:
• A dermatologist who agonized over her need to ask her far-less-successful sister for a kidney transplant
• A journalist who struggled to decide whether to liquidate her savings to prevent her ne'er-do-well brother from foreclosing on his mortgage
• A teacher whose mother left her entire estate—including the family home he helped build—to his sister, who had no qualms about accepting it
• Two sisters who are currently laboring to overcome the sadomasochistic relationship they had as children and to appreciate each other as adults
Most therapists and authors of books on siblings have a bias—sometimes unconscious, sometimes clearly stated—toward reconciliation, and they make it sound far easier than it often proves to be. Ignoring siblings has now been replaced with a compulsive need to embrace them, no matter how they act or how we feel. Most authorities encourage unquestioning acceptance of the conventional wisdom that family ties are always worth preserving because "blood is thicker than water"—a mantra that reflects the pernicious trend in contemporary society toward universal, unconditional forgiveness. On the contrary, I have found that sometimes this substance is too toxic to absorb; not all betrayals, even by our closest relatives, can be forgiven, nor should all siblings be welcomed back into one's world. This book will help you figure out how to know the difference.
Cain's Legacy reflects my passionate conviction that it is essential not to gloss over the dark side of life. We must acknowledge how difficult these relationships really are in order to address effectively the obstacles they present. Facing reality is a great relief for siblings who feel like failures when they cannot resurrect their relationships even if they follow all the instructions and exhortations they find in the existing literature.
I do believe—because I have seen it and assisted siblings in achieving it—that reconciliation can happen even when the bonds are severely strained and anger goes deep, but both parties have to want it badly enough to do the hard work it entails. Some people I interviewed have transformed or are attempting to transform decades-long deadlocks into living, and even loving, connections. Others have made the rational and self-enhancing decision never to see their offending relatives again. Both kinds, and many gradations between these extremes, tell their stories here. Not "being close" to your closest relative is always a loss, but it is often a necessary or unavoidable one. This book will help you to determine your own truth.
Regardless of how siblings behave or what role we grant them in our adult lives, gaining perspective is always possible. Whatever the outcome, confronting the causes of sibling strife is arduous but rewarding; it is guaranteed to reveal secrets you keep from yourself. The process will transform your relationship to your history and will help you recognize the real human being who shared it, often for the first time. Then, even if you cannot become friends, you can cease to be enemies.
When you look in the mirror, your difficult sibling always looks back, though the image is distorted. In the shadows lurk parts of yourself and your past that you don't want to notice. Behind the reflection, silently influencing the interaction, stand your parents, your grandparents, and all their siblings. If you learn to look you can understand them all.
I hope this book opens your eyes.

A Brief History of Sibling Strife

I. Wild Siblings

Sibling strife has been a fact of life for a long, long time. It's much older than sex. Siblings (defined by evolutionary biologists as any genetically related peers, from the unicellular up to and including us) were at one another's throats before they had throats. It started with bacteria and continues throughout the phylogenetic scale. From microbes to humankind—even plants are not exempt, but they move slowly enough that their brutal and occasionally lethal competition is harder to detect—sibling strife is the norm. Of course, there are also bonds of affection—wolf cubs take good care of each other (at least as long as food is plentiful)—but that's the nicer side of nature.
Siblings naturally vie with each other from birth for food and parental attention and protection, sometimes to the death; parents collude or look on as their offspring attack or kill each other in their battle to prevail. Humans, although their conduct is typically more restrained, have not improved significantly on this behavioral design.
"Siblicide," a term popularized by evolutionary biologist Douglas Mock to describe the most extreme form of sibling rivalry, and also known as "Cainism" after the first biblical brother-slayer, is a fact of life for many species. The deadly efficiency of the infant perpetrators and the insouciance of their mothers and fathers is hard for humans—even scientifically trained ones—to accept. Although our own species is hardly immune, murder and cannibalism clash with our family values, as well as with the assumption formerly widespread among biologists that protecting all their offspring is always a parental priority.
Mock disproved this comforting notion serendipitously. When rough waves prevented him from observing the great egrets he was studying in the wild on an island where the colony bred, he had to hand-raise them in artificial nests. Then he noticed the hatchlings "jabbing each other" with their sharp beaks. The youngest of four sons himself, he assumed both from his childhood experience and from prevailing theory that watchful egret parents would naturally behave like his human ones had and step in to curb the mayhem ("Parents won't allow this, I confidently announced," he recalled), so he created mock-parents out of pillowcases stuffed with dried leaves to police the orphan chicks. However, when the waves calmed, his assistant was able to observe actual nests from a blind. Mock described the far more chilling scenario he learned of via walkie-talkie. "'What's going on out there?' I asked in excitement. 'Broods are fighting like hell!' my assistant Rick replied. 'What are the parents doing?' was my very next question. 'Nothing, they're just standing there watching!' he responded."
Not only did the real egret parents lift nary a wing, but they actually yawned in boredom as their firstborn chick viciously pecked the youngest one and often succeeded in evicting it from the nest, where the parents ignored its piteous begging. What he saw changed his mind. "I realized that the whole drama is from a script written and directed by the parents," he concluded. "The young are brutal, systematic, and relentless in their attacks on siblings. The parents are relatively ineffective (or uninterested) in their efforts to minimize the impact of that rivalry." What looked like inaction was actually tolerance or collusion with brood reduction. Mock has an incriminating yawning-egret photograph to document the adults' depraved indifference. "That photo embodies the most unexpected thing I've discovered during forty years of fieldwork," he told me.
Since relative ease of observation makes birds a favorite subject for field study, research has now repeatedly confirmed that the blasé egrets are far from the only neglectful and complicit avian parents. Many species do not intervene when an older sibling pecks a younger one to death or inflicts wounds that hasten its demise.
The family values of the blue-footed booby, whose startlingly hued webbed feet and quizzical expression delight visitors to the Galapagos, are notorious; booby parents stand idly by as the first booby baby pecks and ejects all others siblings from the nest to die of predation or starvation. The majestic golden eagle is no more kindly disposed; eaglet number one dispatches eaglet number two by casting it out from their lofty nest, in full view of the adult birds. Its nearest relative is this fuzzy little predator's first victim. These raptors mean business; a firstborn African black eaglet was observed to administer a total of 1,569 blows from its hooked beak during thirty-eight assaults on the secondborn one, which died in three days. Contrary to their heart-warming reputation—the film The March of the Penguins got kudos from political onservatives—not all penguins are model parents; in one of the most extreme examples of favoritism from the very beginning, Magellanic penguins hatch two chicks, but feed only one. And why are those kookaburras laughing? Because as youngsters they used their temporarily hooked bills—the weapon nature provides expressly for the job—to intimidate their nestmates in order to procure for themselves the best tidbits their parents have to offer. The chicks are so intent on fighting that they don't stop when researchers pick them up to take measurements.
Charles Darwin noticed, among other disturbing observations, that most animal siblings are not intrinsically kind to one another, and this has now been documented in all manner of creatures. "Whenever two or more offspring depend on resources provided by parents, sibling rivalry kicks in automatically," says Mock; "human family dynamics are a special case of a ubiquitous phenomenon."
For newborns of every species, the first order of business is looking out for number one by securing maximum parental resources for oneself; in the competition for survival, the goal is insuring that you're the fittest. The urge to be the favorite child—or the only one left—by any means necessary rules. What soon-to-be-civilized human babies fortunately commit mostly in fantasy, many of our pseudopod-ed, winged, and four-legged forebears act out literally, with no guilt at all. Evolution determines the "script" that animal parents follow; memory as well as innate behavior programs people.
In animals that practice siblicide, firstborns have a head start. The advantage of size and strength helps the elder destroy younger potential competitors and become the parents' heir apparent; with its parents'implicit permission, the elder sibling does the dirty work. In the obligate type of siblicide, practiced by boobies, pelicans, and others, killing younger rivals is automatic; in the more frequent facultative variety, foul play occurs only when food is scarce. Humans notoriously reverse the natural order of things, as the book of Genesis recounts; the youngest child, often at the behest of the mother and with her assistance, frequently becomes the favorite.
Like the kookaburra, even many of the lowliest life forms are equipped with ingenious weapons specifically designed to maim or kill their nearest and dearest. Colonies of the bacteria Paenibacillus dendritiformis engage in internecine chemical warfare. Related aggregates cohabiting on a nutrient substance mutually inhibit the growth of their sibling-foes by secreting a lethal antibacterial compound. Bacteria facing each other at the edges of both colonies are destroyed; as in humans, neither side emerges unscathed.
Despite their loathsome reputation, leeches are among the simplest organisms that care for their young. Australian brood-tending leech parents (Helobdella papillornata) provide meals of microscopic gastropods—and the differences in size and heft among their miniscule offspring indicate that the plumper ones snatch more snails than their slimmer kin.
Family behavior gets no cozier as it gets more complex. Forest trees compete for lebensraum and sun slowly and relentlessly, but the Bad Seed Prize must go to the Indian rosewood (Dalbergia sissoo), a tree whose wood is among the world's loveliest. When its pods are still attached to the mother tree, the first seed to sprout (the one farthest from the tree) exudes a poison that moves toward the stem, silently killing every one of its podmates within weeks.
Sharks are the hands-down winners in the monstrous sibling sweepstakes: Even before they're born, they practice not only murder but also cannibalism. Biologist Stewart Springer made this creepy discovery when he was dissecting a ten-foot-long female sand tiger shark and had his finger nipped by a toothy embryo that was still swimming in utero. The first egg to hatch in each of the predator's two uteruses dispatches and dines on all its wombmates with its fully functional teeth so that only the two biggest babies survive.
We expect sharks to behave like sharks, but we harbor utopian fantasies about the domestic arrangements of other creatures. The beehive epitomizes ideals of communal living, altruism, and cooperation. But even in this utopia, rivalry between sisters can turn lethal; in their attempts to usurp the throne, wannabe queens sting their sisters to death. There is nothing PC about the natural world.
Spotted hyenas, on the other hand, are true to their image, biting same-sex twins with such brutality that 25 percent of them die of their wounds. Cute little pink piglets, who we think should be better behaved because they are domesticated, are equipped at birth with vicious baby teeth. They use them to defend their favorite teat from infant porcine usurpers by slashing their faces; farmers routinely clip these weapons to prevent injury to the sows' udders. In both cases, the mothers—who were sibling winners themselves—never object. Family life is unfair, from womb to tomb, and its inequities are continually reproduced.
If the behavior of our unicellular, vegetable, avian, and mammalian predecessors has anything to teach us, it is that intense, often murderous sibling rivalry is built into life on earth and that human beings, whatever else they are, are no exception. Selfishness precedes the capacity for empathy. Of course, our forebears are not prey to the ambivalence, guilt or the longing for connection that plagues human siblings and complicates their relationships; they are driven only by the imperative to survive. But we, like they, are aggressive at the core, as are our parents, most of whom are also siblings. This research makes clear that intense competition for limited resources (in our case, emotional as well as physical nurturance) is not only part of nature but also a fundamental part of human nature.
Relations between brothers and sisters are at their violent worst when the young are competing in close quarters—as in a nest, a den, or a human nursery. This hostility within the family assures efficient resource allocation—that the parents will have no more offspring left than they can effectively provide for. It is not going to disappear anytime soon. Therefore, despite many human parents' tireless efforts, siblings without rivalry are an impossibility. Siblinghood is deeply fraught, even when we don't fight to the death. Adult humans are as complicit as the yawning egrets. They pick favorites and offer love selectively, causing rivalry to fester long after their own demise.
Human sibling relationships have a built-in dark side; pretending it's not true only drives it underground. Turning a blind eye, as the boobies do, won't stop it; management, rather than elimination or denial, is the only realistic goal for both parents and children. Loving siblings is an achievement, brought about in large part by how their parents handle the inevitable conflicts among their children. The success of their efforts is determined by how the parents—and their own parents—handled the conflicts intrinsic to their own family life. Since sibling strife is here to stay, our best psychological tools to deal with it are conscious recognition, acceptance, and understanding.

II. Biblical Siblings


On Sale
Jan 3, 2012
Page Count
288 pages
Basic Books

Jeanne Safer, PhD

About the Author

Jeanne Safer, Ph.D., has been a psychotherapist for thirty-eight years. She is the author of The Normal One, Death Benefits, Beyond Motherhood, and Forgiving and Not Forgiving. She appears frequently on television and radio and lectures widely. She has written for O: The Oprah Magazine ,More, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, among other publications. She lives in New York City.

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