The sibling bond can be a thing of both sweetness and madness—often at the same time. That can cause more than enough upheaval in the home, but when the sibs are famous and things get scratchy, a lot of innocent people can pay. Severe sibling storms have broken out in the political world of late—which Maureen Down covered nicely in Wednesday’s New York Times: the feud between Liz and Mary Cheney over gay marriage, the slo-mo effort by Jeb Bush to edge back into presidential contention while stepping around the debris of his big brother’s presidency, and the jaw-dropping spectacle of the Ford siblings of Toronto—the crack-smoking mayor and his enabling councilman brother.
I wrote extensively about the mysteries of sibling relationships in my 2011 book, The Sibling Effect and decided to round up my three full brothers (we also have a couple of well-loved half-sibs) to kick around the sib dynamic in the wake of the recent stories. The four of us have certainly had our scrapes: the time when I was 12 and put gum in Bruce’s hair, because, well, I had the gum and his hair was there; the time I was six and Steve was eight and I sneaked up behind him after he had gotten out of the bathtub and swatted him across the butt with a plank of balsa wood, producing an exquisite thwacking sound that I can still summon up in moments of reverie. And I still can’t quite forgive Garry for the fact that there has never in recorded history been a bad picture taken of my him, while I am fast becoming a middle-aged crank who is photogenic only with the help of soft focus, slow shutter speed and the forgiving light of a solar eclipse.
But somehow we’ve made it deep into adulthood as one another’s best friends—a status that, yes, sometimes includes arguments and old feuds, but nothing too serious. Am I right, guys? We’re all solid? No cautionary lessons about the sibling dynamic?
Steve: Okay, that’s the second time you’ve told the balsa wood story in a public forum, now putting the number of people who have pictured me in that position in the millions. Note that in more than four decades I haven’t once opened my mouth about it. At long last, sir, have you no shame?
Jeff: But…but it’s to make a point. As I wrote in my book, roughhousing, especially among boys, is a way of establishing and testing hierarchies—and testing them was exactly what I was doing back then. It’s in some ways what famous siblings like the Cheney sisters do in public.
Bruce: Notice he managed to work in a mention of his book—twice. Is it hot-linked to Amazon?
Jeff: Um, what do you mean?
Bruce: Exactly. Just keep me in the trust fund.
Jeff: But look at you. Everywhere I go I see your name. As I also wrote, siblings often purposely enter separate fields so as not to compete—a phenomenon called de-identification. But other times they deliberately pick the same fields, sometimes by way of emulation, sometimes by way of competition. The competition part isn’t always pretty, but even then, siblings usually have one another’s backs. Dowd writes of Jeb Bush “sinuously” delivering Florida to his brother in the 2000 election, but like it or not, it was also an act of family loyalty. The Ford brothers may be completely dysfunctional, but they look after one another too.
Garry: So did the Corleones, Fredo—until they didn’t. And that’s the point. There’s a thin line between supporting your siblings and competing with them, and circumstances can determine which way it goes. I certainly didn’t have to feel competitive with you when we performed in Guys and Dolls at camp and you sang the opening number in H flat. But every single time we played James Bond, you got to be Bond while I was stuck with being Felix Leiter.
Jeff: Hey, he was played by Jack Lord.
Garry: Right, and you got Sean Connery.
Jeff: Still, competition—even flat-out fighting—is important among sibs. My favorite statistic from my research is that in the two-to-four age group, there’s some kind of fight every 6.3 minutes—or 9.5 fights per hour. In the three-to-seven age group it gets better, but it’s still 3.5 per hour. If fighting weren’t natural and in some way important, kids wouldn’t do it. Then of course there’s favoritism.
Bruce: Here it comes.
Jeff: But you were the favorite.
Bruce. Well, I was the funniest. The cutest too.
Garry: I was the cutest—still am, actually.
Jeff: Either way, favoritism is everywhere. One study of sibling pairs at the University of California found that parents exhibited a preference for one child over the other 70% of the time. And the key word here is “exhibited.” The rest of the time, parents may just be doing a better job of hiding it. In this study, it was the oldest who was typically the favorite, and the reason is similar to the corporate law of sunk costs: parents have spent the most time, energy and money on the first born, so they’re genetically driven to prefer that child as the best reproductive bet. The next most common favorite is the youngest, who wins on cuteness points. University of California, Irvine anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy titled a chapter of one of her books “Why Be Adorable?” The answer is that parents find it irresistible—and survival goodies can flow from that. Jeb Bush is younger than George W. and by most accounts he was their parents’ favorite. Mary Cheney is 44 and Liz is 47, but it’s Liz who was always more visible in her father’s campaigns. By all appearances, however, the Cheney parents seem genuinely torn and equally devoted to both of their daughters. No matter who’s the favorite in any family, it can create strains later in life unless the sibs come to terms with it. But we’re fine, aren’t we, boys? Boys?
Steve: I’m sorry, was someone speaking?
Jeff: Sigh. It’s the balsa wood, isn’t it?
Bruce: And the gum. Definitely the gum.