Emotional Health · Family & Friends

Book Review: On Recovering from Sibling Rivalry

In considering the psychological components of sibling strife, Safer “outs” Freud as being guilty of committing siblicide. While Freud didn’t actually murder any of his seven siblings in the manner of Cain, he acted as if they didn’t exist. The subject rarely came up in the 23 volumes he wrote. As a result, the field of psychology focuses more on relationships between children and their mothers and fathers than on their relationships with their sisters and brothers.

Paradoxically, it is not their insignificance that caused the first psychoanalyst to ignore his siblings, but rather his inability to deal with the emotion they evoked— feelings too radioactive even for the fearless explorer of the unconscious to investigate.

Was Freud the most favored child? Absolutely. Safer states that what occurred in Freud’s family is the same scenario that produced problems in her own family, which she describes as: subtle extreme favoritism and mishandled rivalry coupled with subtle abandonment by frustrated, conflicted parents unconsciously living through their preferred children.

RELATED: Poetry Sunday: Simmering Siblings

The author reminds us that even if we no longer have any contact with our siblings or they are dead, our relationship with them colors all the other relationships in our lives, including those with work colleagues. Using examples from the 60 interviews she conducted, Safer takes the reader through the maze of sibling conflicts, from brothers and sisters who dread family gatherings to those, like me, who haven’t spoken in years. She describes the Six Degrees of Sibling Separation, which range from total alienation to cool civility. With candor and sensitivity, Safer provides a path to choose the best possible course of action, whether it is making up or accepting estrangement.

Personally, I found Cain’s Legacy to be cathartic and liberating. It gave me the language with which to understand what was never discussed in my family. Why was my sister a stranger in the house? Why did we have nothing—and yet everything—in common? More to the point, the book made me realize that I am not alone in my shame and regret.

While Safer’s book doesn’t provide a magic wand for turning dysfunctional sibling relationships into the ones we always wanted, it does create an opportunity for self-inquiry and altering your perception of yourself. As Safer wisely concludes, “The only person whose involvement you can control is yourself, and that is all you need.”





Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • 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.