2006 Feb 28
By Katy Butler
FROM INFANCY UNTIL HE reached the threshold of manhood, the beatings Daniel W. Smith received at his older brother’s hands were qualitatively different from routine sibling rivalry. Rarely did he and his brother just shove each other in the back of the family car over who was crowding whom, or wrestle over a toy fire truck.
Instead, Mr. Smith said in an interview, his brother, Sean, would grip him in a headlock or stranglehold and punch him repeatedly.
“Fighting back just made it worse, so I’d just take it and wait for it to be over,” said Mr. Smith, who was 18 months younger than his brother. “What was I going to do? Where was I going to go? I was 10 years old.”
To speak only of helplessness and intimidation, however, is to oversimplify a complex bond. “We played kickball with neighborhood kids, and we’d go off exploring in the woods together as if he were any other friend,” said Mr. Smith, who is now 34 and a writing instructor at San Francisco State University. (Sean died of a heart attack three years ago.)
“But there was always tension,” he said, “because at any moment things could go sour.”
Siblings have been trading blows since God first played favorites with Cain and Abel. Nearly murderous sibling fights — over possessions, privacy, pecking orders and parental love — are woven through biblical stories, folktales, fiction and family legends.
In Genesis, Joseph’s jealous older brothers strip him of his coat of many colors and throw him into a pit in the wilderness. Brutal brother-on-brother violence dominates an opening section of John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” and in Annie Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain,” the cowboy Ennis del Mar describes an older brother who “slugged me silly ever’ day.”
This casual, intimate violence can be as mild as a shoving match and as savage as an attack with a baseball bat. It is so common that it is almost invisible. Parents often ignore it as long as nobody gets killed; researchers rarely study it; and many psychotherapists consider its softer forms a normal part of growing up.
But there is growing evidence that in a minority of cases, sibling warfare becomes a form of repeated, inescapable and emotionally damaging abuse, as was the case for Mr. Smith.
In a study published last year in the journal Child Maltreatment, a group of sociologists found that 35 percent of children had been “hit or attacked” by a sibling in the previous year. The study was based on phone interviews with a representative national sample of 2,030 children or those who take care of them.
Although some of the attacks may have been fleeting and harmless, more than a third were troubling on their face.
According to a preliminary analysis of unpublished data from the study, 14 percent of the children were repeatedly attacked by a sibling; 4.55 percent were hit hard enough to sustain injuries like bruises, cuts, chipped teeth and an occasional broken bone; and 2 percent were hit by brothers or sisters wielding rocks, toys, broom handles, shovels and even knives.
Children ages 2 to 9 who were repeatedly attacked were twice as likely as others their age to show severe symptoms of trauma, anxiety and depression, like sleeplessness, crying spells, thoughts of suicide and fears of the dark, further unpublished data from the same study suggest.
“There are very serious forms of, and reactions to, sibling victimization,” said David Finkelhor, a sociologist at the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, the study’s lead author, who suggests it is often minimized.
“If I were to hit my wife, no one would have trouble seeing that as an assault or a criminal act,” Dr. Finkelhor said. “When a child does the same thing to a sibling, the exact same act will be construed as a squabble, a fight or an altercation.”
The sibling attacks in Dr. Finkelhor’s study were equally frequent among children of all races and socioeconomic groups; they were most frequent on children 6 to 12, slightly more frequent on boys than on girls, and tapered off gradually as children entered adolescence.
As violent as sibling conflicts are among humans, they are seldom fatal, as they can be among birds and a smattering of other animals.
Siblicide is common among birds of prey, including tawny eagles, brown pelicans and kittiwakes. A Pacific Ocean seabird known as the blue-footed booby pecks at its siblings and pushes them out of the nest to die of starvation while the parents stand idly by. A baby black-crowned night heron in Minnesota was twice observed swallowing the entire head of a younger nestmate until it went limp and looked close to death. Embryonic sand tiger sharks eat one another while they’re still in the womb.
Piglets are born with a special set of temporary “needle teeth” to attack their littermates in the struggle for the mother’s prodigal frontal teats; the runts kicked back to the hind teat sometimes starve on its thin milk.
On the Serengeti Plain of Tanzania, spotted hyena pups, who are usually born in pairs, bite and shake each other almost from the moment they leave the womb. When the mother’s milk is thin, the struggles often end with the death of one pup from wounds or malnutrition — especially, curiously enough, if the pups are the same sex.
Baby animals, researchers theorize, fight mainly to establish dominance and to compete for scarce food. Human children, on the other hand, fight not only over who got the bigger bowl of ice cream but also over who decides what game to play, who controls the remote, who is supposed to do the dishes, who started it and who is loved most.
Few experts agree on how extensive sibling abuse is, or where sibling conflict ends and abuse begins. It is rarely studied: only two major national studies, a handful of academic papers and a few specialized books have looked at it in the last quarter-century. And it is as easy to over-dramatize as it is to underestimate.
In 1980, when the sociologist Murray Straus of the University of New Hampshire published “Behind Closed Doors,” a groundbreaking national study of family violence, he concluded that the sibling relationship was the most violent of human bonds. Judged strictly by counting blows, he was right: Dr. Straus and his colleagues found that 74 percent of a representative sample of children had pushed or shoved a sibling within the year and 42 percent had kicked, bitten or punched a brother or sister. (Only 3 percent of parents had attacked a child that violently, and only 3 percent of husbands had physically attacked their wives.)
John V. Caffaro, a clinical psychologist and family therapist in private practice in the San Diego suburb Del Mar, defines sibling abuse as a pattern of repeated violence and intimidation.
In an interview, Dr. Caffaro, a co-author of “Sibling Abuse Trauma,” said abuse was most often determined by a combination of disengaged upbringing by parents, testosterone and family demographics. It occurs most often in large families composed entirely of closely spaced boys, and least frequently among pairs of sisters, he said.
“A kid can hit a sibling once and it can look pretty bad, but that’s not what we consider abuse,” he said. “We’re looking for a repeated pattern and when that happens, somebody — a parent — has got to be out to lunch.”
Abuse occurs most frequently, he said, when a parent is emotionally absent as a result of divorce, long working hours, extensive business travel, alcoholism, preoccupation with his or her own problems or other factors. “One or both parents aren’t really around much to do their jobs. It’s almost a given,” Dr. Caffaro said, adding that “peripheral” fathers are particularly problematic.
“Things are chaotic, boundaries are blurred, and supervision is minimal,” he said, noting that those families do not always look chaotic from the outside.
“Sometimes the father is just basically extensively out of town for business and Mom is not a good limit-setter,” he said.
In other cases, he added, parents escalate conflicts by playing favorites, ignoring obvious victimization, intervening only to shut the kids up or blaming older children without understanding how younger children helped provoke them.
Dr. Caffaro said that in his experience sibling violence could rarely be attributed simply to an extraordinarily aggressive or psychotic child.
In nearly 15 years of working with more than a hundred families and adult survivors of sibling abuse, he said he could remember only a handful of such cases, one involving a girl repeatedly beaten up by a brother with schizophrenia. Although some children have poor impulse control, he said, violence only becomes repeated abuse when parents fail to nip it in the bud.
Several adults, contacted through a classified advertisement posted online on Craigslist and through a Web site for survivors of sibling abuse, said that their parents had ignored their siblings’ intimidation.
“My parents tended to lessen the significance of the abuse, telling me that my brother loved me, really, and that he really was a nice person,” wrote Kasun J., 21, an Australian university student, in a posting on the Web site he started under the pen name Mandragora.
Kasun J., who did not want to be further identified for fear of family repercussions, said in an interview that he still kept his distance from an older brother who once threw a clock and a set of nail clippers at his head.
Daniel Smith said that his parents rarely intervened when he and his brother fought, figuring that “boys will be boys.”
When he was in sixth grade, he said, a school counselor, concerned about a violent short story he had written, asked him about possible abuse at home, and he felt relieved and hopeful. But as soon as he told her that it was his brother, not his parents, who was hitting him, the counselor dropped the subject.
“I remember thinking that she was sort of a fraud,” Mr. Smith said.
Other people interviewed said they were still haunted by memories of older brothers — and an occasional sister — who dumped them out of bassinets, hit them with mop handles, sat on their chests until they feared suffocation, punched them in the mouth or stabbed them in the hands with a nutpick or compass point.
Several said they were second-born children, and they theorized that their abusive siblings had resented being displaced. None wanted to be further identified out of concerns about family privacy.
Many people said the effects of the early abuse had lingered into adulthood. Mr. Smith, for instance, said that he still fights a tendency to avoid confrontations, especially with aggressive people who remind him of his brother. Another man, an academic in his 50’s who did not want to be further identified out of privacy concerns, ascribed what he called his “constant wariness” to his physical intimidation in childhood by an older sister.
“I have a high need for solitude when I work,” said the professor, who added that the unwelcome shoving and wrestling started when he was a toddler and was one of the defining influences of his early emotional life.
“I’m attentive to noise,” he said. “If somebody’s around, a lot of my brain immediately turns to: Who is it? What’s up? Are they going to bother me or sabotage me in some way?”
Several people said that the abuse continued until they reached early adolescence and became strong enough to defend themselves. In Mr. Smith’s family, however, the fights became even more violent when he reached his late teens, because he took up tae kwon do, began lifting weights and eventually struck back.
One afternoon in the family kitchen when he was 19, in the course of a routine argument, his brother half-heartedly slapped him. This time, for the first time, it was Daniel who got his brother in a crushing headlock, and Daniel who pressed a forearm against his brother’s nose until it bled.
Knowing he could hold the position forever, Mr. Smith let his brother up. When Sean tried to restart the fighting, Mr. Smith, much to his surprise, burst into long, jagged sobs.
“I remember feeling like I should have been triumphant and I did feel some of that, but I also felt scared and confused,” he said. “It was a rite of passage for me. I’d accomplished something and become my own person.”
The brothers never fought again, never spoke about the violence and were not close for most of their lives. Sean Smith went on to a difficult adult life, and had only recently freed himself from addiction to alcohol and methamphetamines when he died three years ago, Daniel Smith said.
Only then, he said, did he realize the unspoken depth and complexity of their connection. When asked whether he had forgiven his brother, Mr. Smith hesitated.
“Once he died, I realized that we had a pretty strong bond that I didn’t understand or even knew existed,” he said. “I can tell you I outcried everybody else at the funeral.”
©2006 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.