What precisely is the sibling relationship, and how does it shape our lives? Cultures differ, of course, but if, from the point of view of evolution, partners survive by supporting each other, siblings survive by rejecting each other, and striking out on their own. But if resources are plentiful and the psychological stakes are not too high, they might play instead, until one grows up and rejects that magical space – and how disappointing it is to suddenly lose the mutual understanding of Sibspace (in Ben Pester’s brilliant term).
John Niven’s brother is in hospital, brain-dead, maybe dying. Niven vividly describes a scene where hospital staff refuse family access to brain scans on the grounds of ‘patient confidentiality’, as though his brother might miraculously return to life. To come up against ordinary hospital regulations at such a time seems a particularly cruel twist, but also, Niven wonders – what kind of miracle would it be? Perhaps we have forgotten that to wish for death – the end of suffering – is natural. Tolstoy’s Levin, keeping vigil over his brother dying of consumption, feels the hypocrisy of pretending that a dying man could still live, and that the end was not longed for: ‘They all knew he would die inevitably and soon, that he was already half dead. They all desired only one thing – that he die as soon as possible – yet, concealing it, they gave him medicine from vials, went looking for medicines and doctors, and deceived him, and themselves, and each other.’1
Emma Cline’s obliquely profound memoir piece is titled after Goethe’s poem Erlkönig, the Erl-King. She describes a walk – two sisters walking a baby, a seemingly ordinary scene that conceals the epic nature of this journey. In times of stress (Cline’s sister had been gravely ill) anxiety can attach itself to remembered fragments of ghost stories and legends. The sisters are duly spooked; Cline remembers a childhood story, and so a great cultural arc comes into being, spanning from ancient fairy tales via Goethe’s poem to a Disney record player and a memoir text for Granta. The stories drift in the wind; told and retold over the centuries.
An abundance of siblings can bring chaos. Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow writes with exquisite clarity about growing up in a household with numerous foster siblings, some gravely disturbed, and a tragically violent father. Lauren John Joseph describes growing up on an estate in Liverpool with a young mother who was like a sister, helping to care for numerous other siblings and half-siblings. A state of deprivation, in some ways, but also of tender chaos.
Swedish writer Karolina Ramqvist, by contrast, was a solitary child – until, that is, she discovered several sets of half-siblings. Here she describes the emotional legacy of her father’s (and grandfather’s) multiple affairs and marriages. Will Harris, on the other hand, was an only child who made up an imaginary brother, the theme of his forthcoming poetry collection – here he tells us why, alongside part of that poetry.
Sibling rivalry is a zero-sum game; a realm of eternal competition. Taiye Selasi’s twin accused her of parasitic dominance in the womb. Suzanne Brøgger’s sister broke with her after the publication of the novel Crème Fraîche, which solidified Brøgger’s identity as a writer. Charlie Gilmour describes almost feral spats with his older stepbrother. Lauren Groff writes about a harsh end-of-winter ritual of competing with her siblings over who could endure the cold and sludgy water of the unheated pool the longest, timed by their doctor father. ‘My memory tells me that I always won,’ she writes. ‘I would rather have died of hypothermia than let my siblings win.’
Groff was the middle child, the one who normally has to fight the hardest for space and recognition. A sibling combination is like a coded string of letters – BGG, in Groff’s case, boy, girl, girl – each letter deriving symbolic meaning from its position in the code. In that sense, families remain forever feudal – those ancient ranks are hard to break.
Sibling feelings can turn on a dime, but for all the wonder at the lives of our siblings there is a part of us, I think, that sees it all – the slow transition from what we were to what we became – and understands the why and the how of it.
We get it. The degree of separation is only wafer-thin – maybe that’s one of the compelling things about the state of sister/ brotherhood.
1 Leo Tolstoy Anna Karenina Penguin Classics (2006 edition), p.502, tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky