Brothers, by George Howe Colt, is a combination memoir and psychological examination of the relationship between brothers. Colt alternates between an examination of his relationship with his three brothers (from their early childhood into adult life) and a psychological and historical consideration of the relationship between brothers throughout history. He devotes 5 chapters to the complex relationship of 5 sets of brothers: Theo and Vincent Van Gogh, John Wilkes and Edwin Booth, Will and John Kellogg, the Marx Brothers, and John and Henry David Thoreau, while also touching more briefly on other sets of brothers.
Colt’s thesis appears to be that the relationship between brothers is one great emotional intensity, characterized by intense competition and complex conflicts between loyalty and rivalry. In considering his own relationship with his brothers, and those of famous brothers, he offers vivid examples of how brothers’ struggle to manage a sense of loyalty versus the desire to best, or even rid oneself, of one’s brother. Colt discusses David Kaczynski’s loyalty to and eventual decision to turn in his brother, Ted, the Unabomber, and contrast this with how Whitey Bulger’s brother Bill (a successful Massachusetts politician) appeared to turn a blind eye to his criminal brother’s actions, and even possibly help his brother allude capture for many years. Colt also discusses research suggesting that the relationship between brothers is fraught with conflict, often physical at younger ages, while noting that this conflict can continue through adult life. While it may be of comfort to know that conflict is common, it is also disconcerting to acknowledge just how difficult and strained the relationships between brothers can be.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the relationship between brothers, particularly those of you with brothers. The personal memoir provides a window in to the complexities of one’s relationship with one’s brothers, while the historical discussions are both interesting history as well as thought provoking. If there are any shortcomings to this book, and frankly I can think of hardly any, they would be the fact that Colt can only write from his own perspective, a younger brother, and that the role of parents in influencing sibling relationships is not given great attention. However, in the case of parental influence, it may be that parents have less ability to positively influence sibling relationships than we (psychologists and parents) would like to acknowledge.
Brothers, Colt, G.H. Scribner, New York, 2012 .