Liz tells with brutal candour how she hated her brother

One of the happiest days of my life was when I heard that my brother had died.  Suddenly, a long dark shadow that had blighted my entire existence was lifted.

I know this sounds a terrible thing to say. We are supposed to love our brothers and sisters and in fact the word’ brother’ is synonymous in many languages with the highest, purest kind of love. 

But going against everything we are supposed to feel for our siblings, I hated my brother and he hated me, to the point of pathology.

Why? How did such hatred set in so that for the last 20 years of his life we were only communicating, angrily, through lawyers?

The story goes back to my parents’ marriage.  My mother, in common with many women at the time, had made a hasty wartime marriage to a man she soon discovered had severe personality and addiction problems.  She very much wanted a child but intended to have only one.

As the marriage gradually deteriorated, I was born and from the start, seemed to be a bright, normal child. I was totally adored by my parents and grandparents, bathed in love. My mother was shocked and horrified when she became pregnant again while still breastfeeding.  She did not want this new baby and tried everything to abort it.

But setting up what was to be a lifetime’s pattern before birth, he was not so easily got rid of and was born 18 months after me, a very different proposition.  For whereas I was bright and a quick learner, my bother, Richard, was slow and stupid.  Today, he would probably be diagnosed with mild learning difficulties or possibly autism.

At the time, he was just considered thick, and nobody liked him, including his parents.  As time went on, I was routinely at the top of the class and passed the eleven-plus to go to grammar school. Richard, meanwhile, sank to the bottom and stayed there and the teachers despaired of him.  He seemed to be good at nothing, and his behaviour, on his school reports, was labelled ‘inexplicable’.  He got into fights, was rude to the teachers, destructive and impossible to control at home.

But worse, from his earliest years, he nursed an implacable hatred of me, his only sister. This became ever more extreme with time and was, I’m afraid, reciprocated.  We hated each other with a passion that could not be mitigated by any means. He either refused to speak to me at all, or started hitting out at me for no apparent reason and I felt myself to be completely superior to him in every way.

Nobody knew what to do with Richard. Everything was tried; cubs, scouts, Sunday School, even dancing lessons and at every one, he was asked to leave as he was so disruptive.

None of this was helped by the fact that I was the firm favourite of both parents and by contrast, an insufferable goody goody. The question, ‘Why can’t you be more like your sister?” was often asked and of course, this deepened his hatred still further.

It seemed impossible that Richard would ever pass any exams and so he left school at 15 without any qualifications to work at a petrol station.  There was no question of him having a career; nobody thought he would even be able to hold down a simple job.  And so it proved. He drifted from one low-grade job to another until my mother decided to take him into her business.

Soon after the war, she had opened a flower shop in St Neots, the small East Anglian town where we lived, and it became very successful. A talented florist and astute businesswoman, she had become the breadwinner while my father drifted into irreversible alcoholism.

By this time I was away at university, and on the path to having a graduate career.  Now something strange happened. Our father died and our mother’s allegiance changed. Instead of me, Richard became the favourite, indulged in adulthood in a way that had never happened when he was a child.

Richard did no work at the shop, often did not turn up at all, took money out of the till and endless time off, knowing he would never get the sack. He had made a very early marriage and quickly had two children, which meant that before long, our mother’s business was having to provide for three more people.  Richard started having many grand ideas, including opening a chain of shops, none of which ever came to anything.  His wife, wanting to better him, tried to encourage him to go to evening classes but they didn’t last either.

Meanwhile, he was acquiring a reputation as something of a Jack the Lad in the locality, somebody who could hold forth impressively in pubs with a lot of big talk. 

Although he had been taken into the business and eventually made a partner, this did not remove or reduce the chip on his shoulder as regards me.  It was too late and the hatred kept increasing. He set out systematically not only to deprive me of any element of inheritance, but to turn our mother against me.  By now, he never spoke to me at all, and even if he happened to be there when I went to visit our mother, he would just ignore me.

His first marriage had broken up and he somehow persuaded another susceptible woman to marry him. His first wife eventually ran screaming from him, as did the second.

As our mother grew older and frailer, she became pathetically dependent on Richard and championed him at every turn as he bullied her into changing her will to exclude myself and my two sons, Tom and Will. He gained power of attorney, after which he started emptying her bank accounts.

I only knew about this when, one day, my ex-husband happened to call in on my mother, and she said to him, “Richard’s got all my money.” Of course, Neville related this to me and I started to investigate.  Whatever could it mean? This is where the lawyers came in as I did not trust myself to write a rational letter to him, and I discovered the truth. I rang my mother to ask what it was all about and her last words ever to me were, ‘I want Richard to have everything. I don’t want any more to do with you.  Richard is seeing to everything, thanks very much.’

Not long after this conversation, which took place with Richard lurking in the background, feeding her the lines, she went into a nursing home as she was by now too frail to look after herself.  He sold her house and pocketed all the money, without informing or consulting me.  As her attorney, he could apparently legally do this.

Then 10 or so years later, in 2003, she died and this time I had a phone call from Richard informing me brusquely of the fact and breaking a decades-long silence by saying,  ‘I don’t expect you will want to come to the funeral.’

I didn’t, and I never heard from him again. Needless to say, there was nothing whatever left in the estate.

Then, in May 2007, I got an email out of the blue from Richard’s daughter Samantha, now aged about 40, to say that Richard had gone into hospital for a minor operation and died there of a heart attack.  I had not seen or heard anything of Sam since she was about 10 years old, when her parents had separated.  She had not spoken to her father either for about 20 years but said they had been reconciled just before his death.  As expected, Sam told me he had died in profound debt, but not before he had made a third marriage to yet another poor unsuspecting female.

After he died, an old friend who had known him, said bluntly: ‘He is somebody who should never have been born.’  She did not know about the unwanted pregnancy and the abortion attempts, but she hit the nail on the head.  Another friend, commenting on his marriages, said: ‘The only explanation is that all those women must all have had a death wish.’

When he was alive, I had not feltcomfortable visitin my home town, for fear of bumping into him. But after hearing the news, some sort of release happened. I booked myself into a nearby hotel and reconnected with my birthplace, discovering that all my negative feelings about it had vanished. The town was, of course, pretty much unrecognizable and a sign of the times was that my mother’s long-established flower shop had become a tanning salon.

So, a tragic tale, but could the childhood hatred ever have been reversed?  Could there ever have been any hope of reconciliation?

Apparently not. For years, I had kept my shameful secret to myself. All I would say to others is, ‘we don’t get on’ and leave it at that. But after Richard’s death I could finally face and acknowledge the extent of the mutual hatred.  And according to American psychoanalyst Jeanne Safer, sibling hatred at this deep level is by no means uncommon, but is such a taboo it is rarely acknowledged.

Safer has recently written a book, Cain’s Legacy, which explores the phenomenon, and which is possibly the first to face this reality. Safer’s book is all the more powerful because it is written from her own experience of being estranged from her brother from birth, and from being the favoured sibling herself.

She believes the level of bitter hatred that both she and I experienced sets in before we can speak and as such, goes way beyond the normal. Yes, all siblings fall out, feel jealous and fight and quarrel, but often they are able to patch up their differences and remain reasonably fond of each other.  But when parents favour one child over another, says Safer, ‘this sets you up for a lifetime of strife.  People don’t want to talk about it, and yet it accompanies us throughout life, getting worse all the time.

‘You can never quite sever a bond with a hated sibling in the way you can with a former marriage partner or business partner for instance, and then when parents age, you have to deal again with unresolved issues which have festered and deepened over the years.

‘The matter of money or inheritance brings up all the ancient hurts and slights, and the animosity does not end with death.’ Safer reckons that at least one-third of American families experience bitter sibling rivalry.

She says that she took being the favoured child totally as her due, as I did myself, and she imagines all favoured siblings do the same. Like me, Safer was bright and academic and her brother was, again like mine, a ne’er do well dullard. Of course my brother was also a cheat and a liar and eventually, arch-manipulator of a vulnerable old lady.

Safer says this kind of rivalry can never be addressed with rationality and intelligence and indeed, highly gifted, thoughtful people may suffer just as badly as the uneducated and unintelligent.  Writer Margaret Drabble, for instance, has spoken of her long estrangement from her novelist sister, Booker prizewinner A.S Byatt.

Here are two successful, high-achieving women and it seems they hate each other. Their feud, which also started at birth, is, according to Drabble, unresolvable and completely beyond repair.  Again, it came about because Margaret, the younger one, was their mother’s favoured child.

Pathological, irrational sibling rivalry, according to Jeanne Safer, always stems from one child being favoured over another by parents, rather than whether one is more gifted or talented than another. It is something parents need to take on board, as the hurt can never be healed or overcome.

Literature and myth abounds with such tales, such as the Bible stories of Cain murdering his brother Abel, and Joseph’s jealous brothers hating him so much they sold him into slavery.  Many powerful plays, novels and films hinge on implacable sibling hatred, one of the most famous film treatments being Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. 

These stories hit home because they are so often, tragically, mirrored in real life yet until now this has been the hate that dare not speak its name. 




Daily Mail - July 2012