Saturday 20 December 2014

A childhood war: 'I hated my younger brother as a child '

Joanna Briscoe was nearly two when her brother was born - his birth triggered in her an intense, abiding rage and jealousy. She recalls their childhood war of attrition

Joanna Briscoe

Published 08/08/2014 | 02:30

Joanna Briscoe and brother
Joanna Briscoe
Joanna Briscoe and brother

This is an age old story of those who are meant to love each other but hate with a passion equally earth-shaking.

My brother and I were enemies from his birth, which occurred almost two years after mine, the arrival of a boy child perceived - both globally and within my family - as a cause for particular celebration in an era of pre-feminist awareness. The male was elevated, simply the desirable sex, and this was clear from the outset. A rage of jealousy descended upon me. He was, literally, the blue-eyed boy to the brown-eyed try-hard; the prince to the civilian.

You know what? We needed those 1970s feminists. So it had been for my mother before me, academically accomplished yet brought up to miss school to iron the shirts of seven brothers; made to take a secretarial course instead of going to college. That revolution wrought changes and we need it to continue.

Once an injustice between my brother and me was established - who sat nearer the sugar bowl, for instance; who could whistle with more parent-alerting powers upside down - it had to be endlessly recalibrated, magnified to weeping significance.

A glimpse of parental bias turned the crying to derangement. From shortly after toddlerhood, we had separate arsenals: fists versus intellect, aggression versus strategy. He had his muscles; I had my fury. It barely let up. Our poor parents, I now realise, having to handle their resident Cain and Abel. The perfect family: rural setting; two parents; two children: one of each. But those children hated each other.

Sibling enmity can be breathtakingly nasty and it's only by forcing myself into deeper memories, and catching the odd suppressed smile of triumph in my own children, that I can dredge up the flavour of the almost revolting sense of powerlessness that a child can experience at the hands of a sibling. Soon I was lashing him with words and he was beating me to the ground. I'd mock; he'd kick.

"Siblings fight because one has displaced another," says psychotherapist Philip Hodson. "Both become aware that Charles Darwin was right. They have entered an evolutionary struggle for the milk supply (also known as the love supply) and a contest for endorsement. Underneath all this is the fear of being rejected or abandoned by their parents so that the most desperate youngsters remain relentlessly hostile - and a nightmare to live with."

I had absolutely no idea our parents were compensating my brother, protecting him in the face of my supposed verbal and academic abilities: there was no way of telling, in early primary years, that I did better than him at school. I remained miserably unaware.

He could make cartoons, owl noises, and "hilarious" faces. I could look anxious. To me, he was the princeling on his throne who expected to be fed, praised, adored, whereas I grafted like a combination of a skivvy and a bluestocking in the shadow of his apparent genius. There was clapping every time he sneezed. What a vicious little campaign we ran. When we both wanted the remaining biscuit, television channel or intact sleeping bag, he had only to raise his fist in threat and I'd choose defeat over the physical pain he could and would inflict. Though younger, he was stockier and stronger than the weedy specimen he so loathed.

In revenge, I'd swot up on "his" subject - birds - with the semi-photographic memory of youth, now long gone, then casually suggest a quiz; whereupon I'd thrash him with hastily absorbed knowledge of kori bustards and lapwings. Before he knew what had hit him, I was rapping out questions on "my" subject - cats - and waiting blank faced as he failed to spot a tabby. Oh, the nasty, nasty pleasure.

Calf mouth slack, he muttered excuses, while a glistening to his eyes would inspire in me satisfaction of an unhealthy intensity. This would be followed by a battering that would wind, bruise and terrify me.

According to Karen Doherty, co-author of Sibling Rivalry, such behaviour is virtually the rule, not the exception. "Four out of five siblings will torment, kick, punch, fight and annoy one another at some point during childhood," she says. At some point, though, is sadly different from day 
and night for 14 years.

So, to me, my brother's main characteristics were:

Athleticism This amounted to Chopper wheelies, skateboard handstands and brutal bullying, but my few 
sappy somersaults could
not compare.

Thickness He couldn't accrue gold stars, understand game rules or reel off French numbers at possessed speed, and this, to my mind, made him thrillingly dim.

I now realise he is quite the opposite, but as a boy he simply didn't rate academia and had little to prove, unlike his Matilda Wormwood of a sister.

Beauty was particularly problematic. Girls were meant to have a chance at prettiness, but in this case the pulchritude resided in the dirty-faced, don't-care male of the species with his fathoms of hair and vast azure orbs, while his runty sister had a few strands 
of cotton that flattened 
to baldness in the 
swimming pool and 
worried, muddy eyes.

In a never-to-be-forgotten incident, an old friend of the family who was just about to meet the godlet in question said, "Isn't he meant to be very beautiful?" Already wilting with the burden of plainness, I died a death.

Favoured status But of course I thought that. How I wanted to obliterate that milk-fed Fauntleroy on a skateboard. Which brings us neatly to murder.

There seemed to be no way out. I was stuck in a country cottage with a favoured sibling who was beating me to a pulp when our prison wardens weren't watching, only to be punished myself once he bleated.

How about a spot of fratricide? An electric prod, at the very least, for the suckling calf?

In truth, I never actually went as far as thinking of full-blown death then, but I've noticed over time that furious and even murderous children have appeared in my novels, more than once - an undertow of murky sibling rivalry at play.

The hidden ways of the psyche are disturbing and I've realised that mine is darker than I ever knew, tapped only in writing. What we think has gone forever lurks there.

Siblings must establish who they are to form an identity in the microcosm in which they live and this means being different from each other: what the doctor and psychologist Alfred Adler termed "striving 
for significance" within 
the family.

Looking back with objectivity - let us note my maturity here, readers - I see how hard it must have been for a younger child with an older sibling racing ahead, observing his every foible, wounding him with verbal jabs while she stored up fresh contempt.

Only children often long for siblings. They escape the hatred that warps, distorts a childhood with fury, yet despite this, I, and most others, would not later wish to have been the over-scrutinised sole child, and sibling rivalry can even inspire us to achieve.

By the time my brother and I were in our teens, some unspoken ceasefire occurred and we simply ignored each other. For a decade or two.

It is only now, perceiving his intelligence, his creativity, his integrity, that I think with amazement that really we were living separate existences, thrust together. We might have liked each other then if the huge great mummy-love battle hadn't been raging.

I wish to apologise. But he has to say it first.

Touched by Joanna Briscoe is out now

Irish Independent

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