Emotional Health · Family & Friends

Book Review: On Recovering from Sibling Rivalry


I have not spoken to my sister since 2007. That was the year our mother died. According Jeanne Safer, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in New York, the timing is significant. The death of a parent and the settling of the family estate are often the final blow in sibling tensions that have festered for decades.

In Safer’s book Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy, and Regret  (2012, Basic Books), she traces the root causes of sibling rivalry, exposing the painful wounds that rarely heal on their own. She starts by sharing her own story:

“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, the universes we inhabited never intersected, and our parents were the same people in name only.”

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I read that opening paragraph with stunned recognition. Safer says that at least one-third of adult siblings in American suffer “serious sibling strife,” and the number rises to 45 percent when clinicians take detailed histories.

How can this be? Is sibling conflict in our blood, passed from generation to generation, along with our hair and eye color? Safer makes a case for it, relying on evolutionary biology, Bible stories, and contemporary examples to illustrate that murderous competition for survival—or for a parent’s love – has a strong genetic component.

Safer suggests that parents act out their own sibling conflicts with their children, to some extent. That caused me to view the behaviors of my deceased father in a different light. I knew he had been beaten violently by his father, who strongly favored his sister. And I knew my father had fought physically with his sister when they were young. No wonder he recreated the scenario by favoring my sister and physically abusing me. It was a learned behavior.

Safer traces the poison of parental favoritism back to Adam and Eve. In her re-telling of the story, Adam’s preference for his son Cain played a large part, not only in Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, but also in Cain’s getting just a slap on the wrist and not being banished from his father’s house.

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  • Gloria April 15, 2016 at 3:55 pm

    Thanks for the excellent review!
    My parents favored the elder son(10 years older than I), not an unusual thing to do. Fortunately, I had my younger brother with whom to bond, more so as we got older.
    Knowing that the parents’ death can cause major problems with siblings, I was very pleased that the 3 of us hung together and were considerate of each other during the time of Mom’s hospice care and after her death. My elder brother especially appreciated the care my younger brother provided for Mom. Aside from that, my brothers are rather strange, especially the elder one who still does not have running water at his house (by choice); neither of them valued decent plumbing, so visiting is an adventure.

  • Diane Bones April 15, 2016 at 1:48 pm

    Well done review of a topic that confounds all of us, especially middle children like myself!

  • Mary Dougherty April 14, 2016 at 9:59 pm

    Fascinating topic. So many thoughts and feelings, so many siblings… Thanks for bring the book to our attention.

  • Paul D Neuwirth April 14, 2016 at 5:48 pm

    Stacia, your writing ability is remarkable. That you review the book in depth while at the same time telling us about yourself in equal measure is a fine and rare talent.

  • Ana Rey-Oktay April 14, 2016 at 11:30 am

    Very, very interesting. I definitely need to read this book, then we need to talk! 🙂

  • Sally Wiener Grotta April 14, 2016 at 11:01 am

    An insightful and honest essay that makes me want to read the book. Thank you.