By ALISON GOPNIK and ADAM GOPNIK, The New York Times,September 23, 2011
Scribbling Younger Brother:
When a preacher or a politician calls out “brothers and sisters!” with an exclamation mark attached, surely it means they think we’re part of a movement, a common cause — a calling, not a crowd. Yet as we live now, our brothers and sisters are likely to be more absent or at least distant than our friends and fellows. For the last 40 years, the six Gopnik siblings have been scattered across two continents, and you and I, despite many common pursuits and pleasures, have never lived less than a thousand miles apart.
Still the case is made that it is those brothers and sisters — our place among them, our rivalry with them — who make us who we are. It was put forward, for instance, by your Berkeley colleague Frank Sulloway, who claimed in his 1996 book “Born to Rebel”that birth order was the crucial molder of intellectual attitude. And now it is made, at length, by the writer Jeffrey Kluger in “The Sibling Effect: Brothers, Sisters, and the Bonds That Define Us.” Kluger offers a kind of pousse-café of anecdote, data, research, confession, gossip and then more anecdote, about sibling order, family hatred and, occasionally, brotherly and sisterly love.
We — or I, anyway — learn a lot. Older siblings are, we are told, those most likely to succeed, but younger brothers and sisters have a measurably quicker grasp of other minds, a writerly ability to intuit the thoughts and desires of others. Kluger suggests that even small differences, encouraged by parents, create “cascading” effects; he compares the apparently small edge of older over younger to the edge that the older Peyton Manning’s one inch of additional stature gives to his game over his brother Eli’s. The extra psychological inch of older-sibling bossiness (sorry, Ally) in the huddle may make even more difference.
But did you share my sense that Kluger mostly cares about the confessional material, and that the scientific stuff is wrapped around it to turn a wound into a book? His own sibling history is movingly recounted and largely sad, or at least complicated, including a brief second marriage of his mother’s that lasted scarcely a year and gave him, and then took away, two stepsisters. Much of the research he reports is also sad, or even grim. Observational studies show that siblings fight approximately once every 17 minutes when they are children, though surprisingly, or perhaps not, they may still love each other deeply when they grow up. One psychologist asked children in blended families of once-divorced parents and stepchildren to draw their relations. The children put themselves at the center and then space the genetic and half-genetic siblings out in an almost perfect pattern, with the biologicals close and the halves farther away — however close the halves may be in daily intimacy — seeming to know instinctively who shares genes, and who just jeans.
But is there, can there be, does any of this add up to a science of siblings? Kluger passes from anecdote (“My mother matched my father’s negative bias toward Bruce with a fiercely protective positive one”) to analysis and back again sinuously but without much sequential point. We are told that Youngers are more agreeable but also that, like little baby brother Voltaire, they can watch from their end of the table and emerge as scathing satirists. Rebellious and diplomatic, charming and contentious — though being a parent’s favorite is, unsurprisingly, a big plus, there seem to be bewilderingly plural paths to becoming a favorite. As Kluger himself notes, “The father-son bond is the stuff of legend — unless it’s the father-daughter one that’s the rule in your family.” We are told that it is significant that Warren Beatty liked every girl who reminded him of his sister, Shirley MacLaine, though the companion truth, not mentioned, that he also liked every girl whodidn’t remind him of his sister surely complicates the picture.
And then do the researchers really search so deeply? Kluger tells us that one scientist discovered that less-favored siblings were “more likely to develop anxiety, low self-esteem and depression”; another, that children of divorce were likely to be unhappier than children of the happily married. Certainly there need be no sages in white coats come down from the lab to tell us this?
Scientific Older Sister: Don’t forget we also learn that older siblings have a small, consistent three-point edge in I.Q. over those sensitive Youngers. I think you are dissatisfied with the scientific part of the book because Kluger reflects a common misunderstanding about psychology, particularly developmental psychology. He thinks psychologists will answer the kinds of questions we ask in a memoir: Who am I? How did I get that way?
The trouble is that those questions aren’t the ones a scientist can answer, or even the ones she wants to answer. The journalist asks, “How does being an older sister, younger brother, favorite or runt, explain who I am?” His reader thinks (more anxiously), “And how will it explain who my child becomes?” How did Bruce and Garry and the rest create Jeffrey Kluger?
But scientists want to identify the causal forces that interact to make individual lives, and that means abstracting away from those lives themselves. In Frank Sulloway’s work, for example, what we call the “effect sizes” are very small (those three I.Q. points), so that you have to study hundreds of people and do sophisticated statistical analyses to detect them at all. That’s fine for science — causes are causes — but is apt to disappoint the memoirist in search of a scientific explanation.
Kluger is surprised that siblings, who loom so large in our lives, haven’t been at the center of more psychological study. There’s a good reason: siblings are so important precisely because they affect us in so many varied, complicated, dynamic and unpredictable ways. In science we try to isolate and understand one effect at a time. We might be able to design experiments to test exactly how the sibling power dynamic influences a 4-year-old’s understanding of other minds (Napoleon pointed out that the valet always knows more about the master’s mind than vice versa, and this may apply to watchful little brothers, too). But the question of whether my (O.K., I admit it) bossiness helped turn you into a writer is not one we can answer.
It’s like climate science. Geophysicists know a great deal about the forces of wind and sun, air and water, and carbon emissions. But none of this lets them say for sure that a particular event — say, Hurricane Katrina — was the result of too much carbon. Imagine if Katrina were to write a science-based memoir for her fellow hurricanes: “The Carbon Effect.” (It would probably be a best seller like all those other celebrity memoirs whose authors blame their early experiences for the trail of devastation they leave behind.) “All that science, and yet why am I no closer to knowing just how what happened that warm day in the mid-Atlantic led me to such a tumultuous conclusion? Was it climate change or just bad luck?”
And even the weather is less complex than the web of interacting forces — genetic, neurological and social — that shapes each developing human mind.
These failures of individual prediction and explanation lead some to question whether there are any “effects” of siblings or even parents; they say it must all be either genes or chance. But that’s how it is in climate science, too. We discover causes and make predictions either in rigorously controlled experimental settings or across very large statistical populations. Neither one can answer the memoirist’s question.
SYB: So you’re saying a science of siblings really, in the end, is something like a science of laundry stains — one where the samples are so shaped by the singular circumstance of their making that studying them systematically gets you no closer to understanding, or clean clothes, than we were already? In that case, what should we do to understand how you and I shaped each other’s lives?
SOS: Well, Ad, I think actually that’s your business. For that you need to turn to literature. Literature is the equivalent of the climate scientist’s computer simulations: set up some new starting conditions, run the whole complicated process and see what happens.
SYB: Yes — though stories may not contain neat conclusions, they do, as you say, contain a kind of data, in the dramatic form that literature offers it. Surely there’s no better portrait of the entangling nature of sibling love than Franny and Zooey’s instant, almost unwilling understanding of family codes and jokes. And then, among memorably instructive sibling groups, the movies give us the Corleones, for whom, as much as the root tragedy of the royal family of Thebes was the unspeakable act of incest, the root tragedy is the unspeakable crime of the usurpation of birth order: “I’m your older brother, Mike, and I was stepped over! … It ain’t the way I wanted it!” cries the ill-equipped Fredo. And, weirdly or instinctively, the audience feels for him rather than against him. Respect for birth-order privilege seems deeply imprinted.
Surely the ultimate expression of siblinghood, in writing and psychology alike, must be the Jameses, William and Henry (and Alice). William, you’d agree, is a typical Older: commanding lecturer, seemingly confident leader, great stylist. But do we not sense, in his over-bright vision, his too accepting, almost too sunny view of the psyche, the darker depths that we know were there in his own soul? Even when we are in the late, dank novels, doesn’t Henry give more insight, even testable insight, into why people act as oddly as they do? In Henry’s novel “What Maisie Knew,” isn’t the young Maisie closer to the children you study than the children William presents? Would you buy this ultimate sibling paradox: that William is, at times, the better writer, and Henry the better (in some ways the more scientific) psychologist? And if you do — if science can, as you suggest, tell us of climates but can’t describe a cloud — what good is that research for writers like Kluger, or the rest of us, trying so hard to make sense of his own history? To borrow a phrase from William J. himself: What’s the cash value of psychology if it can’t tell us why we feel the way we do and what made us what we are? Why have William at all? Why not just read Henry?
SOS: I think you can answer that question by looking to a very different kind of developmental science. The best and most interesting developmental psychology, especially recently, is not about how children turn out as adults. It’s about what we adults were like as children. We’re like the natural historians who want to know about birds for their own sake — not because they may eventually become chicken dinners. Most developmental psychologists simply want to describe and explain this wonderfully weird, unexpected and gloriously human phenomenon we call childhood.
The influences that make particular children into particular adults are, as you say, largely either obvious or irremediably obscure. It’s much more interesting to explain childhood itself — a period that is much longer for humans than for any other animals. What Maisie knew, or what Henry knew for her, is that childhood is a fascinating mix of innocence and cruelty, brilliant intelligence and painful ignorance, expanded consciousness and narrow experience. And not just your childhood or mine but childhood in general. That is the sort of large, impersonal fact we can start to understand and explain scientifically.
From that perspective, the memoirist’s question takes on a different character. Childhood makes us what we are in a way that is not so much causal as logical. My childhood, for better or worse, is, by definition, part of me. Just as the “I” writing this paragraph includes me at this moment and me next week and me 20 years from now, it also includes the self-confident 5-year-old girl sharing just about everything with her sensitive 4-year-old brother.
SYB: So what we share with brothers and sisters is, in every sense, our DNA: not just elements of the real, physical double helix, but also the more metaphoric helix, the twisted-together nucleus of references, humiliations, ambitions, smells and sources of light that form what used to be called a soul. Ours is a bookish family, but even if the referents are tire swings and swimming holes and ponds more than the first time I met Daisy Buchanan or felt sorry for Pnin, still it is that panoply of reference that shapes my thoughts and feelings. (Our rivalry, at its not infrequent best, took the form of division: London, Nabokov, science and Billie Holiday for you; Paris, Auden, writing and Sinatra for me. I hadn’t read“Pale Fire” until last summer, when I realized that I thought I had because you had read it so intently when we were young.) We know each other better than anyone else, and at the same time know less than many others about how the day works — have intimate knowledge of the foundations, even of what’s at the bottom of the bird cage, though we may live in complete ignorance of the patterns and rituals of the day.
SOS: Yes, and from that perspective siblings loom doubly large. For if parents are the fixed stars in the child’s universe, the vaguely understood, distant but constant celestial spheres, siblings are the dazzling, sometimes scorching comets whizzing nearby. And while parents can participate in childhood in an anxious, vicarious way, siblings are there fully, as fellow children. Siblings are the guarantors that the private childhood world — so unlike the adult world that scientists are only just beginning to understand it — is a fully shared and objective one.
That is why even the scattered, separated six Gopnik sibs or their Kluger counterparts, gathering occasionally at weddings and births and funerals, have an unshakable common ground. Our most beloved and intimate partners, and certainly our own parents and children, will never quite appreciate it the way our siblings do. It’s not just that we all experienced the glorious Christmas when we watched the sparklers light up the dark back hallway, or, in Kluger’s grimmer case, that he and his brothers shared the day when they hid the baby in a fuse cabinet, away from their threatening father. It’s that we experienced those events with the same vision, both exalted and skewed, the sometimes almost hallucinatory vision of childhood.