Books

Cain’s Legacy

Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy and Regret

Bonds between brothers and sisters are among the longest lasting and most emotionally significant of human relationships. But while forty-five percent of adults struggle with serious sibling strife, few discuss it openly. Even fewer resolve it to their satisfaction.

In Cain’s Legacy, psychotherapist Jeanne Safer, a recognized authority on sibling psychology (and an estranged sister herself) illuminates this pervasive but hidden phenomenon. She explores the roots of inter-sibling woes, from siblicide in the book of Genesis to tensions in Freud’s family history. Drawing on sixty in-depth interviews with adult siblings struggling with conflicts over money, family businesses, aging parents, contentious wills, unhealed childhood wounds, and blocked communication, Safer provides compassionate guidance to brothers and sisters whose relationship is broken. She helps siblings overcome their paralysis and pain, revealing how they can come to terms with the one peer relationship they can never sever—even if they never see each other again.

A heartfelt look at a too-often avoided topic, Cain’s Legacy is a sympathetic and clear-eyed guide to navigating the darkness separating us from our brothers and sisters.

“Cain’s Legacy is an engaging albeit sometimes disturbing exploration of the complex lives of human siblings…. For those suffering troubled relationships with brothers and sisters, Cain’s Legacy may open a door to understanding why and just perhaps the path to reconciliation.”

-Winnipeg Free Press

“Dr. Safer shines a light on the darkness that invariably inhabits the heart and soul of readers burdened by sibling strife. Her illuminating and helpful book will go a long way towards alleviating that pain.”

-Bonnie Maslin, PhD, Author of The Angry Marriage

“An important contribution to the self-help bookshelf.”

-Kirkus Reviews

“I have studied sibling rivalry for 30 years as a scientist, but that work never focused on Homo sapiens. Even as she works through some of life’s darker issues, Dr. Safer is cheery and frolicsome. Her psychoanalysis of God in the first chapter is not to be missed!”

-Douglas Mock, PhD, evolutionary biologist and author of More than Kin and Less than Kind

“In Cain’s Legacy, Jeanne Safer goes where at least a third of Americans fear to tread—to their troubled and seemingly intransigent relationships with their adult siblings. Safer makes the powerful argument that our brothers and sisters have a profound influence on who we are—even when we appear to be disconnected. For siblings in strife to make peace with the past, and even forge a new present, requires clear-eyed plumbing of the nature of the connection, says Safer. Cain’s Legacy shows you how.”

-Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn, author of The Empty Room: Understanding Sibling Loss

Cain’s Legacy is a compelling, deeply intelligent book about a subject all too often avoided: how destructive relationships between siblings can be, how much a bad sibling relationship can hurt us long after our childhood years are over, and what can be done to acknowledge and repair the damage. Dr. Jeanne Safer has made another courageous, illuminating journey into the dark places of family life.”—

-Reeve Lindbergh

The Secret World of Sibling Strife

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. We had the same coloring, the same body type, some of the same talents. But the universes we inhabited never intersected, and our parents were the same people in name only. Our relationship, begun in simmering mutual resentment, progressed to rare obligatory meetings, and ended in complete estranged silence. Although I made some futile attempts, I could never be a sister to him, and I did not grieve when he died at age sixty-four. Only a year later, when I happened to attend a concert of the vintage jazz he loved and performed, did I find myself weeping uncontrollably for what we never had.

At least one-third of the adult siblings in America suffer serious sibling strife like mine—the number rises significantly, to 45 percent, when clinicians probe more deeply. Instead of feelings of kinship and warmth for their nearest relatives, these brothers and sisters feel secret shame, rage, guilt, resentment, alienation, contempt, or, worst of all, more cold indifference than a stranger could ever evoke. Frozen in time, frozen in place, they cannot be their adult selves in their adversary’s company. Nobody thinks or talks about this predicament because nobody knows what to do about it. We convince ourselves that problem siblings—many of whom seem perfectly normal except when they are driving us crazy—don’t matter once we leave home and no longer live under the same roof with them, that they have no further impact on our lives. Denial tends to wear off over time, however; the majority of adult siblings, when questioned late in life, confess that they feel worse about unresolved relationships with brothers and sisters than about any other unfinished business. Eighty-five percent of Americans have siblings, and because these ties last longer than any others—fifty to eighty years is the norm, compared to the thirty to fifty years most people know their parents—and 90 percent of people over sixty-five still have at least one living sibling, that’s a lot of regret. I wrote Cain’s Legacy to explore that regret, to relieve it, and, when possible, to transform it.

The trials of life with a mentally or physically dysfunctional sibling was the topic of my partially autobiographical book The Normal One, but as the powerful and revealing stories told by the sixty beleaguered adults of all ages I interviewed for Cain’s Legacy demonstrate, the phenomenon is far more widespread than that. A brother or sister need not be incapacitated to cause trouble.

Why are sibling woes so disturbing and so recalcitrant? Our first peer relationship has the deepest roots of all, and you can’t get a divorce. Problems between husbands and wives derive from childhood experiences, but problems with siblings are childhood experiences in contemporary guise. Rivalry, competition, and anxiety about your place in your parents’ affections underlie these problems, breeding rancor that haunts siblings all their lives and recurs in each phase of adulthood—work, marriage, parenthood, caring for aging parents, and, eventually, settling that perpetual minefield, the estate. The mutually injured parties (at least those who still maintain a precarious connection) walk on eggshells, loathe to confront each other for fear of precipitating an unfixable breech. As a result, their discord goes underground, only to reemerge in times of crisis, with mutually assured destruction.

Sibling strife is nothing like the normal fighting between brothers and sisters who basically get along. These opponents never make up; there is not enough goodwill to counter – balance their perennial grudges. Always on the defensive and in management mode, strife-ridden siblings never feel natural in each other’s company; they cannot be playful together or comfort each other. They even talk to each other in a special language, which I have dubbed “Sibspeak,” in which words are weapons rather than modes of communication. They view family occasions with foreboding and joint decision-making with dread. If you also have simpatico siblings the contrast is excruciating, but if your only sibling is estranged you cannot imagine what brotherly or sisterly tenderness feels like. You may try—often successfully—to find surrogates with whom to imitate that instinctive intimacy, but it is never quite the same. Far beneath the surface, as I discovered, there still lurks a secret hunger for the fundamental security that loving family ties provide, a sanctuary forever inaccessible when your sibling cannot be your friend.

Cain’s Legacy: An interview with Dr. Jeanne Safer on Sibling Strife

Dr. Jeanne Safer, internationally recognized sibling expert, answers questions about her new book

What is “Cain’s Legacy”?

Cain and Abel, as we all know, are the first siblings in the Book of Genesis, the children of Adam and Eve. Significantly, Cain is also the first murderer, and siblicide is the first crime in the Bible—which means that sibling conflict is very ancient indeed. In my new book, I use the term “Cain’s Legacy” to describe all manner of serious strife between adult brothers and sisters.

You’ve already written one book about problem siblings. Why did you write another?

My book The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling describes the experience of growing up with someone who has serious physical or emotional difficulties. But in the ten years since it was published, I’ve realized that major, sundering sibling problems are not confined to situations where there is a significant disability. Research shows that 45% of adult siblings have major conflicts, and that these troubled relationships are one of the biggest sources of regret in later life, and one of the most neglected.

There have been other books about adult sibling rivalry. What’s unique about Cain’s Legacy?

Most books about adult siblings focus on reconciling or fixing the relationship. This one frankly faces the fact that not all sibling bonds can—or should be—repaired. It shows people how to know the difference, and what to do in either case.

Why do people avoid thinking about sibling conflicts?

Somehow we all feel that we can put it off, or avoid the problem altogether. People easily succumb to what I call the “Geographical Proximity Fallacy”: “My sibling and I would have a better relationship if we only lived closer to each other.” Variations on this theme include explaining away problems by blaming a sibling’s politics, way of life, obnoxious spouse or some other external factor that would not keep you apart if you really wanted to be together. You can only resolve a problem that you face.

What was it like to write this book?

Learning about sibling strife in the natural world and Holy Writ was intriguing. I discovered that creatures of every sort—including bacteria and even plants—behave just like us; so do the dysfunctional siblings in Genesis. The interview process was also fascinating. I was profoundly moved by the stories and secret struggles of my subjects. These were the longest interviews I’ve ever conducted; they were like therapy sessions, with intense feelings and astonishing insights. I got feedback from many of the participants that their sibling relationships actually improved as a result; they reported better communication and self-awareness. That’s the most gratifying thing that can happen to an author who is also a psychotherapist.

What are the most valuable insights readers will find in Cain’s Legacy?

When I analyzed the interviews, I realized that siblings in conflict speak their own highly dysfunctional language, which I have christened “Sibspeak.” It’s more about injustice collecting than communicating. When siblings read Sibspeak dialogue and recognize themselves, they can finally learn to address each other in English. Readers will also discover how to understand their childhood world from their problem sibling’s point of view, which I believe is essential for change.

What was your most surprising discovery?

How widespread, deeply-rooted, and denied sibling strife is, even among thoughtful, intelligent and caring people. I also had to revisit my own tragic relationship with my estranged brother, whose death gave me new insights into my own experience.

Where did you find your subjects?

Sibling strife, I found, is everywhere, but people don’t talk about it unless you specifically ask them. As soon as I told someone what I was writing about I got a story—in my doctor’s office, from neighbors, friends, my husband’s colleagues, and complete strangers. Even members of the staff at my publisher are not exempt!

What struck you most about the stories your subjects told?

How compelling, emotionally intense and long-lived sibling experience really is. Memories from childhood live on and haunt us. I hope that my book helps people revisit and reinterpret these relationships, which accompany us throughout our lives.

What were some of the most moving or unusual stories you heard?

So many of them were riveting, like novels, detective yarns, tragicomic plays. I couldn’t get them out of my mind, and readers won’t be able to either. Some highlights:

  • A young physician who agonized over her need to ask her far less successful sister for a kidney transplant
  • Two sisters who are struggling to overcome the sado-masochistic relationship they had as children and to appreciate each other as adults
  • A dying woman who decided to leave everything she had to the brother who had stolen her inheritance
  • An eighty-three-year-old man who reconciled with the sister he had not seen for twenty-five years on her deathbed

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WHAT READERS ARE SAYING

“I want to thank you for offering a very different view of sibling relationships. Until I heard you speak today on NPR I’d never heard anyone else say they felt this way about their brother. I have felt so guilty for my feelings. I believed there was something wrong with me, that I am an evil, bad person for feeling this way. Just to hear someone say it was ok was so comforting. I am not alone and I am not despicable. Thank you for writing your book, and for tackling this painful subject.” 

“I heard your interview regarding Cain’s Legacy on NPR last week.  About 6 months ago, I was shocked to learn that my older sister has been carrying a lot of resentment and hostility toward me. We were never particularly close, and dealing with her has been difficult for as long as I can remember.  Still the experience left me feeling awful.  In the end, I concluded that if events went so poorly between the first siblings [in the Bible], then why should I expect something ideal with my sibling?  Hearing you on the radio affirm what I had come to realize through my experience brought me a great deal of comfort. Thank you for that.”

“I am writing to let you know how grateful I am for your book on sibling rivalry. I returned to the midwest when my father’s health was failing and it seemed that no one noticed. I re-located my career near them to assist. My siblings have been outrageous!! Your book has been a validation for my experiences. It is amazing to witness the morph of siblings… your book is helping me firm my emotional resolve with grace and ease. I thank you for your work!”

“Cain’s Legacy was like a message straight to me. I had just decided yesterday that I must end contact with my sister because I felt that it is harming me. Your comments about toxic relationships described exactly what I had come to realize, but I was frightened of admitting to anyone that I no longer want my sister in my life; I thought that I would be considered unnatural and the unreasonable one. I just wanted to tell you how your book resonated with me.”

“Thank you so much for writing Cain’s Legacy. The book has opened my eyes, finally, to why any relationship with my sisters has been so fraught, going on 54 years. Many of the stories in the book resonate deeply. I was reduced to tears more than once…. After reading your book I feel a great weight has been lifted. Your book cracked open a very hardened shell.”

“I think parents should include this awareness in their parenting skills. It would have been great to read your book before I had children.”