When are Difficult Sibling Relationships Worth the Struggle?
We were brothers (and sisters).
Posted Oct 12, 2015
Parents are given advice on how to insure that their children will get along, or at the very least, tolerate one another. Suggestions include acknowledging how your child is feeling and giving that feeling a name, be it frustration, jealousy, or anger when a brother or sister invades her space, takes her possession, or is simply annoying. Parents make rules about what is acceptable and what isn't when it comes to how siblings treat each other and have consequences when the boundaries are crossed—sometimes to no avail.
Some sibling disagreement is healthy even as it taxes parents’ patience, but some can be enduringly divisive no matter how hard a parent works to ensure brothers and sisters are friends for life. Such is the case in Barry Moser’s “We Were Brothers,” a memoir about two brothers growing up in a small Tennessee town in a family steeped in the racism and anti-Semitism of the 1950s and ‘60s.
Siblings at Odds
Unlike the sibling pairs we all hope to be or raise, Barry and his brother Tommy were at odds their entire lives. Constant insults, split lips and perpetual disharmony were the norm. They had brutal fights, one so intense and disruptive as teenagers that their mother called the police.
Their division and animosity went beyond the usual sibling rivalry and attempts to get a parent’s attention. From an early age, their perspectives about racism, money, even food took separate paths. In the segregated south of the 1950s, their seemingly liberal mother allowed them to play with a child they called “the other Tommy,” but that Tommy was not allowed in the house. Their mother’s best friend, an African American woman she had grown up with, was prohibited from using the front door. If others were around, she had to speak and act as if she were a servant.
Older brother Tommy adopted racist southern attitudes and had a brutal temper that Barry went to great lengths to avoid. He says, “I was afraid of Tommy when he got mad,” and snippets throughout describe that fear: “When Tommy got really mad his eyes changed color, from the hazel color we shared, to a sour, yellow-brown not unlike the color of the Beech-Nut tobacco juice Daddy spat.”
You get the full flavor of Tommy’s teenage rage and prejudice at the conclusion of a bus ride home from a Saturday matinee. Barry took a seat at the back of the bus under a sign that read, “This part of the car for the colored race” and nestled himself between two black women. When they got off the bus, the beating depicts just one instance of Tommy’s savage temper and prejudicial thinking. The name-calling Tommy adopted by age 13 was standard in the deep south of that period.
What stands out in the brothers’ relationship is a total lack of affection or a hint of siblings trying to support or protect each other. Like many siblings, Moser notes, “Though our personalities were like oil and water, I loved my brother and he loved me. It just took too long to understand it…Only near the end of his life—and after forty years of living a thousand miles apart, both geographically and emotionally…—did the rancor genuinely abate. We were both in our sixties.”
It is heartbreaking for a parent to witness discord and intense sibling battles, but complete hostility, the cutting off of a sibling or estrangement often as a form of self-protection for one sibling that lasts for decades can be agonizing as it was for the Moser brothers.
Righting a Relationship After Decades of Strife
For Barry Moser reconnecting with his brother via letters helped him better understand his brother and their extreme differences. “We Were Brothers” tells us that as long as a sibling is alive, there is hope to connect on better terms.
Yet many wonder if the abuse and pain inflicted by a brother or sister, whether a remnant of childhood or a constant as adults, warrants maintaining—or rekindling—the connection.
Copyright @2015, 2019 Susan Newman
Moser, Barry. (2015). We Were Brothers: A Memoir. North Carolina: Algonquin
Book cover illustration by the author and artist, Barry Moser.