Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Book: Apples and Oranges

I don't usually comment on books unless I've read them, for obvious reasons. But in going through my "Ted is Here" folder this a.m. (way too early this a.m.), I came across a review of the book Apples and Oranges by Marie Brenner. In it, Brenner, a high profile writer for Vanity Fair, explores her relationship with her brother, Carl, who couldn't be more different. "Our relationship is like a tangled fishing line," she writes (I'm cribbing from the review, btw.) "We are defined by each other and against each other."

It's Carl's diagnosis with cancer that compells her to understand who they are as siblings better. As far as I can tell, she never comes to a conclusion. (Obviously, I need to read the book.) The review does mention the paucity of sibling research to help her understand. Brenner, and the reviewer, are right--there is a dearth of sibling research. But there was one bit of research, by Robert Plomin, PhD, a psychologist with expertise in behavior genetics, that speaks to the point of how siblings can be so different.

Plomin's take is that, though siblings do share many genes in common, they grow up in different environments--their parents are different, by dint of a few years experience, their school experiences are separate, their friends separate, their social lives different. All of these externals provoke differences in personality.

Jerry Rothman, a pscychologist who'd lost a sibling growing up and later realized it had a huge impact on who he was, explained it to me this way: "When I was growing up, my favorite meal was chicken," he said. "But my sister's was steak." The difference, he says, reflects the family's differing socioeconomic circumstances as time passed, i.e., in his early childhood, steak was too expensive to be an option. By the time his sister arrived, they family was experiencing better times. I thought it was kind of a lovely example.

(Rothman, incidentally, started one of the first centers for sibling loss, designed to help sibling mourners cope. I don't know if it still was in Chicago. Rothman, sadly, has since died.)

There was another researcher I came across, Francis Schachter, I believe her name was, who wrote a paper on sibling differentiation. Her take was that siblings become different as a survival technique--they look to fulfill different roles in the family. There's another slightly nutty researcher..oh, what is his name?...who has a similar, Darwinian, take.

At any rate, this isn't to say that there IS a ton of sibling research out there. There isn't. But there are some who have given thought to the same question that interests Brenner, and it's interesting to see what they've come up with. I really should look into what's been going on in the field lately. Meanwhile, I think I might pick up Apples and Oranges. I'm sure it'll be thought provoking......

At the least, it appears to be yet another book in the genre of sibling loss memoir--a HUGE, unrecognized, genre--albeit one with a more sharply defined angle than most. The reviewer makes mention of Carl's ashes in the last paragraph. I'm guessing he didn't make it.


Margaret Diehl said...

I wonder what the difference is between those who lose an only sibling and those who lose one of several? I've found that as I get older, my remaining siblings become more precious while Jimmy, dead so long now, is fading.

Elizabeth said...

i don't know. i wondered about this a lot both before and while writing my book. my assumption, before, was always that people with "extras" were so lucky...when i talked to people, there were so many who found that their relationships with surviving siblings didn't change, or were further estranged, that it just didn't seem so cut and dry. still a mystery to me.