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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » My Brother’s Keeper: The Reality of Filial Affection

My Brother’s Keeper: The Reality of Filial Affection

JFK and His Mother: Strong Family Ties - US Federal Government
Brotherly love is often used as justification for all sorts of loyalties, sacrifices, pressures and decisions, but is blood thicker than water in the end?

Ed Miliband grabbed the leadership of the British Labour Party in September 2010 from under the nose of his older brother, David. He was not predicted to win, but did by a wafer-thin margin. It excited the media, made people wonder about ambition and brothers and exposed family divisions to public gaze.

Trades Union members traditionally call each other ‘brothers’, as an equalizing, left-wing address, so no one is of higher importance than another. A joke runs that they hug and pat each others’ backs only to find the best spot to put the dagger in.

In Christianity, ‘brothers and sisters in Christ’ speaks to the belief that all men/women are created equal before God. In monastic culture, monks have been called ‘Brothers’, while ‘brothers in arms’ refers to fellow soldiers who are fighters/defenders.

Biblical Brothers

According to New World Encyclopedia, Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, were recorded: ‘in the Torah and the Bible at Genesis 4, and Qur’an at 5:27-32, telling of the first human murder when Cain killed Abel. Many religious faiths view this as the prototypical murder and paradigm for conflict and violence. While some see this as a story of the origin of humanity, and others as justification of murder, it’s generally interpreted as a tragedy in human relationships. Cain and Abel often represent different personality types or social positions. Cain, the firstborn, sinful, worldly, privileged, a farmer, a city-builder and bad son; Abel, the junior, faithful, spiritual, herdsman, and good son.

Another brother story recounted in the Bible, is of twins Esau and Jacob born after their mother was told that her older son would serve the younger. This was unusual in those times, as elder brothers inherited wealth and power. Esau was born first, covered with red hair, and when Jacob followed, his hand was holding Esau’s heel.

Later, Esau sold his birthright to his sibling for a bowl of food, and Jacob tricked his aged father into blessing him instead of Esau. After that, Esau vowed to kill his upstart brother, so the mother sent the younger away to live with a relative. Both men prospered, but in the New Testament passage of Hebrews 12:16, Esau is described as immoral and unreligious. Romans 9:10-13 indicates God chose Jacob as heir to the promises that he’d made to his grandfather, Abraham.

Brothers in Politics

The Milibands are but the latest brotherly pair to hit the news and the political stage. For generations, the Kennedy family has been a dominant force in US national and local politics. Who2? described the entire ‘Clan Kennedy’, stating that when John F Kennedy became President in 1961, ‘he also became leader of America’s top political clan. The Kennedys have been called America’s “royal family” as JFK’s brothers, sisters, children, nieces and nephews took major roles in American public life’. It points out that some view the Bush family as more significant, but there were far more Kennedys in influential positions.

John F Kennedy, assassinated in 1963, had two younger brothers. Robert, his 1960 campaign manager, served as Attorney General, was a senator and ran for the Presidency himself before being assassinated in 1968. Edward ‘Ted’ was a senator and stayed till he died in 2009. His career was frequently troubled by controversy, but with other members of the family by birth or marriage involved in community politics, (Patrick, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Arnold Schwarzenegger), their place in US history as an iconic family is assured.

On the one hand, a touching magazine photo of the President playing with his 3 year old daughter Carolineinspired the naming of the famous UK 1960s’ pirate radio ship; and on the other, the ‘Kennedy curse’ of death by accident and murder make filial love enduringly fascinating.

The closeness of the family was undeniable; loyalties profound. David Talbot, in his book Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years (2007) interviewed 1250 people involved with the Kennedy Presidency to forward a theory that Bobby Kennedy was convinced that a Mafia/CIA/Cuban exiles conspiracy killed his brother.

Brothers in Fiction

The Corleones in The Godfather (novel 1969; movies 1972 onwards) epitomised both the family bonds, traditions and loyalties of the (fictional) mafia, and how brotherly love may not be enough to ensure survival. Michael Corleone had two older brothers, the hot-headed Sonny who was gunned down by rivals, and Freddie, the less able, more easily (mis)led one. After their father had passed away, Michael had Freddie shot while out fishing on the family lake as he had betrayed the family in a previous assassination attempt on the old man. It tortured him for the rest of his life, that he killed his own brother.

The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky (novel 1879/80; film 1958) is described by Online Literature as exploring ‘the big questions of life through the story of a highly dysfunctional “family”: three sons basically neglected and abandoned by their father Fyodor’. Other pieces of fiction featuring brotherly tensions include Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (2010), a family saga about twin brothers, doctors and patients, exile and home set in Africa and America.

Nora Roberts’ Quinn Brothers trilogy was described by Publishers Weekly as ‘a trio of strapping, lusty guys in a comfortable home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore’. It called Roberts ‘one of the great propagandists for family values, home, hearth and children, making them goals that are rewarding and desirable’.

Library Thing lists dozens of brotherly novels, including: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman: East of Eden by John Steinbeck; The Client by John Grisham; Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River; White Night by Jim Butcher, The Beach House by James Patterson and Harlan Coben’s Gone for Good.

There is Tangerine by Edward Bloor and Ordinary People by Judith Guest; Fudge-a-Mania and Double Fudge by Judy Blume; No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod, The Apocalypse Watch and The Gemini Contenders by Robert Ludlum and The Closed Circle by Jonathan Coe. Thomas Hardy did The Trumpet-Major, Wilbur Smith did Monsoon and Jeffrey Archer offered Sons of Fortune.

He also wrote Kane and Abel, a variation on the Biblical epic of Cain and Abel. In pop music, brothers frequently work together (Ray and Dave Davies in The Kinks; the Gallagher boys in Oasis). Other groups liked to cash in on the cosy image of siblings in harmony, such as the 1960s Walker Brothers, 3 men who were not related to each other.

Either way, many people like to claim a brother or two. As the old Scott-Russell song went: He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother’.

First published on Suite 101, 29 September 2010.

Photo: JFK and His Mother: Strong Family Ties – US Federal Government

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