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A Bond Like No Other: The Ties Between Brothers and Sisters -- and What Happens When a Sibling Dies

Two new books address the power of the ties between siblings, an often under-appreciated relationship.

Ever since Cain and Abel, sibling rivalry has been with us—big-time. Had the Bible been a tabloid, the headline would have screamed: “Brother kills brother! Murderer denies sibling responsibility and is cursed by God!” And if you think sisterhood is superior to brotherhood, just try the story of Rachel and Leah: “Older sister steals, then shares, younger sister’s intended hubby, Jacob!” As for the blended family of half-siblings that Jacob and his two wives produced and raised, you can read all about it in the saga of Joseph, whose half-brothers sell him into slavery, thereby setting in motion a story filled with so many lies, tricks, and turnabouts that even the most accomplished psychotherapist might have despaired of finding a way to the family reunion that eventually ensued.

These archetypal tales continue to possess us because our sibling bonds mark us—not as a curse like Cain’s, but as a roiling mix of love and anger, affection and rivalry, pride and guilt, loyalty and animosity, trust and suspicion. These emotions form the complex fabric of sibling (and family) life, and the imprinted patterns of these relationships stay with us, and affect us, in one way or another, throughout our lives.

That is the theme of two new books, "The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us," by Jeffrey Kluger, and "When a Brother or Sister Dies: Looking Back, Moving Forward," by Claire Berman. Though they overlap somewhat, the intended audience for each is distinct. Kluger’s book is directed at adult siblings who want to understand the dynamics, both positive and not, at play between their living siblings; it’s also directed at parents of siblings who want to raise kids who’ll continue to get along with each other, and even remain close, throughout their lives. By contrast, Berman focuses on the aftermath of a sibling’s death, and the grief that follows when the person you’ve probably known the longest over the course of your life is no longer present.

As a longtime writer and editor for Time, Jeffrey Kluger adeptly reports and synthesizes the results of numerous research studies conducted over the last few decades about all aspects of siblinghood—from the impact of birth order to the truth about who Mom really liked best; from the dynamics of sibling rivalry to the loving mutual care that siblings can provide; from the differences between sisters and brothers to the similarities—and individualities—of twins.

What differentiates Kluger’s book from other surveys of the subject is the insight he brings to bear from his own picaresque sibling journey: “I have full sibs, I have half sibs, and for a time I had step-sibs,” he writes. “My family went through divorces and remarriages and the later, blended home—and then watched that home explode, too. My brothers and I have fought the birth-order wars and struggled with ongoing rivalries for parental attention.”

The story itself is pretty messy. When Kluger’s parents divorced, the score-settling custody battle ended with another loss—the splitting up of the four brothers, with the oldest choosing to live with his embittered, distant father (who promptly sent him to boarding school, seldom seeing him) and the other three remaining with their dysfunctional mother, whose disastrous second marriage gave the Kluger boys two new stepsisters for the 15 months the union lasted. Their father’s second marriage was more successful, but for unexplained reasons, it wasn’t until his children from this union were already teenagers that they even learned of the existence of their four half-siblings. To top off the turmoil, from grade school on, the Kluger brothers had to learn to become a true band of brothers, taking care of each other, as their mother struggled with addiction.

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