September 08, 2011


The Sibling Effect: Brothers,Sisters, and the Bonds that Define Us. By Jeffrey Kluger. Riverhead.$26.95.

      Be prepared to learn everything you wanted to know and probably a lot you did not care about knowing about siblings from Jeffrey Kluger’s book. Kluger, a senior editor and writer at Time magazine, packs it full of research, commentary, opinion, analysis, thought, flippancy, judgments, concepts, conceits and imagination, tossing everything about willy-nilly in an attempt to pin down the importance of the psychological interactions among brothers and sisters.

      Add a second storyline running in parallel with the first — that of Kluger’s own family, which includes his three brothers, a half-brother, a half-sister, and for a time included two stepsisters as well — and you have a book that is part science, part memoir, and part self-indulgence. This is one of those exhaustive treatments of a subject that flops quickly over into exhausting for those not enamored of the material and/or the style in which it is presented. For those who have always wondered about scientific studies of siblings, though, it will be a treat.

      What sort of treat? Well, on some levels Kluger is resoundingly politically correct. He condemns Sir Francis Galton, 19th-century British anthropologist and deviser of the theory of eugenics, after half-heartedly saying Galton should not be blamed for the evil that others later did with his concept. Yet he then talks about “all this hooey” in Galton’s work, and then tells readers, “Hold your nose at Galton if you like — and indeed you should.” Re-traversing long-known paths of condemnation so as to take cheap shots at someone who, bound by the strictures of his society, evolved a theory that, if erroneous, was nevertheless designed to be neutral and scientific, is not a very good use of a reader’s time, or a writer’s. Kluger could have made his point much more quickly by noting that Galton, long condemned because of what others did with his eugenics theory, nevertheless stumbled on the interesting fact that the scientists he studied were much more likely to be firstborns or only children (who are, in effect, firstborns) than to appear elsewhere in a family’s birth order.

      Birth order is only part of what Kluger discusses. Firstborns do tend to be measurably smarter than later children, he explains, with IQs dropping steadily for three or four children and then leveling off (but why accept IQs as valid when they themselves have been judged by some to be politically incorrect sorting tools?). Kluger is equally interested in other sibling matters, although his comments on them tend to be more mundane than the science itself: “The first thing parents need to do when faced with brawling kids is to determine what’s a real fight and what isn’t.” Kluger also discusses siblings during divorce: “Like all litter mates in such a situation, the sibs will switch into a sort of emotional survival mode, turning on one another in order to grab what little nurturing there is to be had.” Well, yes. And it is unexceptionable, but hardly surprising, to read that “children with particular emotional, behavioral, or even health problems do place added strains on a marriage,” but “the parents, as stewards of their own union, bear the sole responsibility for what happens to it.”

      There is so much that seems obvious in The Sibling Effect that the book’s pretenses to in-depth analysis are mostly just that: pretenses. Yet there is something entertaining and intriguing about having so much information about siblings between the covers of a single book. “The experts strongly counsel candor in all things” when a blended family is about to be created, Kluger writes at one point. “Kids who may still be getting over the upheaval of divorce and the loss of a noncustodial parent may not always react well when they’re told that Mom or Dad has found a replacement mate and that a swarm of stranger sibs will be part of the mix. Still, honesty beats secrecy, and as soon as possible, children need to be told what’s ahead.” It is this style, rather than the content, that repeatedly rescues The Sibling Effect from blandness and the occasional temptation to say “so what?” But some of the content is very interesting indeed, such as the reasons siblings are generally not sexually attracted to each other and a sib may not even notice that another one is a “hottie.” The discussion of identical twins is quite something, too: identicals tend to live longer than fraternal twins, who in turn live longer (statistically) than Americans as a whole; but when triplets are born, if they include identical twins plus a fraternal child, that one may always feel somewhat left out for reasons that are literally congenital. Whether the inclusion of so much autobiographical material amid the science, analysis and opinion helps the book or hurts it will be up to each reader to decide — at times, it would be nice to hear more about sibling relationships in Kluger’s own life, but at others, the use of his personal experience seems gratuitous. The Sibling Effect tends to sprawl — as, indeed, do sibling relationships themselves — and if that means it has a tendency to lack coherence, it also means the book itself tends in some ways to mirror the impossible-to-pin-down emotional aspects of siblings’ everyday lives. So deep-seated are some elements of complexity in sibling relationships that they seem even to have reached the book’s subtitle, which is given one way on the title and copyright pages but appears differently on the book jacket — as “What the Bonds among Brothers and Sisters Reveal about Us.” One thing they apparently reveal is the need for more-consistent editing.

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