Marie Brenner’s Advice for Estranged Siblings: Make the Call, Get on a Plane, Just Go

Editor’s Note: Marie Brenner, author of Apples and Oranges: My Brother and Me, Lost and Found, is also contributing editor at Vanity Fair, author of Great Dames: What I Learned from Older Women and a close friend.

LESLEY: You’ve written a powerful, emotional book, Apples and Oranges, about what it’s like when you don’t get along with your sibling. There’s guilt, there’s longing … and almost uncontrolled anger. First off, tell us why you and your older brother Carl, your only sibling, were at odds.

MARIE: That’s a mystery. And it’s the mystery of so many brothers and sisters. A subject that for some reason is rarely talked about. How do two children grow up so close in a family and then become foreigners in adult life?

There were the obvious differences from childhood. I was the younger sister playing my Joan Baez records to annoy him and he was probably the only one in our elementary school who was a Republican at 10. He was also an early member of the National Rifle Association!

So, we fought all the time. Our mother called us apples and oranges. We were different.

LESLEY: As I recall from the book, he was “red state” to your “blue state,” you the NYC sophisticate. You disagreed on religion too. All the hot spots. Did you agree on anything?

MARIE: At first, I thought absolutely nothing. I was wrong. I thought we were polar opposites. I was wrong about that too. He was a control freak, an obsessive, who would take a look at my messy desk and say, “How can you ever get anything done?” He posted signs up: A Failure to Plan is a Plan to Fail. When he was young he used to polish his shoes and line up his shirts just so. And secretive? Let’s not go there.

I was the noisy younger sister. When we would get into battles over politics, he would lose it and say, “You and your friends, the New York libs.” I mean, really.

LESLEY: I always thought sibling relationships were far more formative and important in how we develop than anyone talks about. The book is both a riveting story, and an examination of sibling rivalries that never stop. You went to conferences, interviewed experts. What did you learn about the brother/sister or sister/sister wars?

I learned a lot. A recent study suggests that our relationships with our brothers and sisters is the dark matter that defines us. For years, psychiatrists and family therapists more or less ignored this. Imagine that.

By age ll, you’ve spent more time with your siblings than your parents or friends. Forty percent of us have relationships with our siblings that are distant and/or infuriating. Many of us are like moose with our antlers locked together.

There is no question that the closer you are with your siblings the more you feel content in your life. There are studies about that too. So, for me, the question that became my obsession was: How to make this better? How to reframe?

LESLEY: Before I ask you specifically about you and Carl, I’ve heard you talk about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as siblings. Explain that.

MARIE: This fascinates me. Think of this as the iceberg of all sibling relationships. That is a term therapists use. Icebergs. Many of us have them. I wonder, watching Hillary and Obama as they battle each other, whether they are trying to cope with their own sibling issues. Are there icebergs here?

Hillary is a classic firstborn, bossy and determined. She had two bratty younger brothers she both protected and stomped on. She still does with Tony and Hugh. Those smarmy presidential pardons, what was that about except sibling stuff? Is that connected to Hillary and the piece of her with Bill Clinton that reminds many of Bonnie and Clyde? Look at that gleam in her eye when she debates Obama. It is like she’s in a big-sister devil cult, swatting a swarming fly.

And then there’s Obama. He was raised more or less like a golden-child-only prince. Yes, he has siblings, halves and steps, but they are much younger — or older. And a continent away. He had siblings on demand. This gives him lots of confidence, but he is not so good at the parry and thrust and wit you get in the sibling romper room. In this way, he is no JFK.

LESLEY: Wow! That’s so interesting, and telling. I guess we never leave that relationship behind. But if we’re lucky, we get past the rivalry part. You were the younger sister, the interloper. But Carl never outgrew the competition.

MARIE: But he did. That was what the last years were about. We fought and fought and then, something happened. I went to visit him in his world. It was glorious. I’d never imagined how great it was and is. The apple country of America. Have you ever been? My brother, Johnny Appleseed. I worked with him in the orchards and learned about the apple. That caused him to relax — somewhat. Anyway, it gave us something new to talk about. I learned something huge: to try to see him as he was. And I realized I loved who he was — however maddening he could be. He might say a version of this too. We were finally able to be a brother and sister, not two only children in the same family. LESLEY: Just for the record, I knew Carl Brenner, and like and admired him. And was surprised by many things you had to say about him in the book. But mostly I was blown over by your honesty. I know you didn’t write this as a self-help book, but I think it can help someone who wants to reconcile with their sister or brother. Because what you’ve done is say: part of this is MY FAULT. You show that we have to turn inward and realize that we’re part of what’s perpetuating the bad blood.

There are times you make yourself look bad when you write about your own mean, little digs at Carl that kept the fire flaming.

MARIE: That was the hardest part. It nearly did me in. I had to hold the mirror up to myself. Not easy. I couldn’t run away from the facts: I was responsible for so much of what happened between us. I worried a lot about that. That got me nowhere. Only I had the power to change the relationship. I really really wanted and needed to do that. For me. Guess what? So did he.

The brother sister swamp had us both bogged down. It was a big hole in both our lives. Both of us wanted to change it. We were stuck in a lifetime of role playing. Getting unstuck was almost impossible. We finally did it. And it was huge. We became a team.

LESLEY: I know a woman in her 80s, a friend of my mother’s, who hadn’t talked to her sister in decades. She assumed if she called her, the sister would slam down the phone. But the ache of the lost years pulled so tight, this woman finally picked up the phone … and of course the sister, also in her 80s, was thrilled. And they’ve become friends. If you were to talk directly to someone who gets to be 40 or 50 or more, and still hasn’t resolved the issues with their sister or brother, what would you tell them to do?

MARIE: Make the call. Get on a plane. Don’t ask for permission. Just go. Nothing changes unless you stop asking permission. There’s an expression that people use: I wish, I will.

It’s not easy. There is a word I like to use: abundance. You have to hang in — sometimes in a flak jacket. Hang in there. It’s worth it. No one could have been more furious and shut down than my brother. I was convinced that he thought of me as the human flaw. But underneath all that anger and drama was something else: yearning. We are all so needy. He was. I was. I never thought I could write or talk about this.

LESLEY: The book is so many things. It’s a real drama, a great family saga. It’s one of the best written books, close to poetry. And it’s a fly-on-the-wall psychotherapy session. I’m not going to tell what happens in the end of the book, but I will say that you and Carl do come to a warm reconciliation. I guess my final question is: How much did that healing change you?

MARIE: I’m not sure if I can answer that. I do know that I feel differently — less certain — about a lot of things. I don’t need to understand everything. I’m just trying to let life be what it is. I know changing my relationship with my brother has a big role in this. To give up years of a perception that my brother was like this or like that … what a relief. I was so lucky that he let me in — that I began to see how much I learned from him. Gurus come in unlikely disguises. Now I think about advice he gave me almost every day. He said something that I carry with me: Go forward. He was determined never to waste a moment in his life. To see his life as a series of possibilities — new apples to breed. He said, any day that you get up and are not told to get your affairs in order is a great day. He was right about that too. We were different and that was okay. All of this has been a total astonishment. I learned that I was in awe of my older brother.

LESLEY: Thank you Marie. The book is Apples and Oranges. It is magnificent.

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