Jeff Kluger: The Hidden Power of Siblings at TEDxAsheville (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Time Magazine’s senior writer Jeff Kluger’s TEDx Talk presentation: The Hidden Power of Siblings at TEDxAsheville conference. Jeff Kluger is the author of Apollo 13, upon which the 1995 movie was based. His newest book is Apollo 8 which will be published in May 2017. To learn more about the speaker, read the full bio here.

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Jeff Kluger – Senior writer at Time Magazine

Thank you. Thank you very much. It is bright.

Well, TED has already persuaded me to change my life in one small way by persuading me to change the opening of my speech. I love this idea of engagement. So, when you leave here today, I’m going to ask you to engage or re-engage with some of the most important people in your lives: your brothers and sisters. It can be a profoundly life-affirming thing to do, even if it isn’t always easy.

This is a man named Elliot for whom things were very difficult. Elliot was a drunk. He spent most of his life battling alcoholism, depression, morphine addiction and that life ended when he was just 34 years old. What made things harder for Elliot is that his last name was Roosevelt. And he could never quite get past the comparisons with his big brother Teddy for whom things always seemed to come a little bit easier.

It wasn’t easy being Bobby, either. He was also the sibling of a president. But he adored his brother Jack. He fought for him, he worked for him. And when Jack died, he bled for him too.

In the years that followed, Bobby would smile, but it seemed labored. He’d lose himself in his work, but it seemed tortured. Bobby’s own death, so similar to John’s, seems somehow fitting. John Kennedy was robbed of his young life. Bobby seemed almost to have been relieved of his.

There may be no relationship that affects us more profoundly, that’s closer, finer, harder, sweeter, happier, sadder, more filled with joy or fraught with wow than the relationship we have with our brothers and sisters. There is power in the sibling bond. There is pageantry. There is petulance too. As when Neil Bush, sibling of both a president and a governor, famously griped “I’ve lost patience for being compared to my older brothers.” As if Jeb and George W. Bush were somehow responsible for the savings and loan scandal and the messy divorce that marked Neil in the public eye.

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But more important than all of these things, the sibling bond can be a thing of abiding love. Our parents leave us too early, our spouse and our children come along too late. Our siblings are the only ones who are with us for the entire ride.

Over the arc of decades, there may be nothing that defines us and forms us more powerfully than our relationships with our sisters and brothers. It was true for me, it’s true for your children and if you have siblings it’s true for you, too.

This picture was taken when Steve, on the left, was eight years old. I was six, our brother Gary was five and my brother Bruce was four. I will not say what year it was taken, it was not this year.

I opened my new book, The Sibling Effect, on a Saturday morning, not long before this picture was taken. When the three older brothers decided that it might be a very good idea to lock the younger brother in a fuse cabinet in our playroom. We were, believe it or not, trying to keep him safe.

Our father was a hot-headed man, somebody who didn’t take kindly to being disturbed on Saturday mornings, I don’t know what he thought his life would be like on Saturday mornings when he had four sons, ages four years older younger when the youngest one was born but they weren’t quiet. He did not take to that well. And he would react to being disturbed on a Saturday morning by stalking into the playroom and administer in a very freewheeling form of a corporal punishment, lashing out at whoever was within his arms’ reach. We were by no means battered children but we did get hit and we found it terrifying.

So we devised this sort of scatter and hide drill. As soon as we saw or heard the footsteps coming, Steve the oldest, would wriggle under the couch, I would dive into the closet in the playroom, Gary would dive into a window seat toy chest, but not before we closed Bruce inside the fuse box. We told him it was Alan Shepard’s space capsule, and that somehow made it work better.

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I dare say my father was never fooled by these rules. And it was only in later years that I began to think “Perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to squeeze a four year old up against a panel of old style unscrewed high voltage fuses.”

But my brothers and I, even through those unhappy times came through them, with something that was clear and hard and fine. A primal appreciation for the bond we shared. We were a unit; a loud, messy brawling, loyal, loving, lasting unit. We felt much stronger that way than we ever could as individuals. And we knew that as our lives went on we could always be able to call on that strength.

We’re not alone. Until 15 years ago, scientists didn’t really pay much attention to the sibling bond. And with good reason — you have just one mother, you have just one father if you do marriage right, you have one spouse for life. Siblings can claim none of that uniqueness. They’re interchangeable, fungible, a kind of household commodity. Parents set up shop and begin stocking their shelves with inventory. The only limitation would be in sperm, egg and economics. As long as you can keep breathing, you may as well keep stocking.

Now, nature is perfectly happy with that arrangement because our primal directive here is to get as many of our genes as possible into the next generation. Animals wrestle with these same issues, too. But they have a more straightforward way of dealing with things. A crested penguin that has laid two eggs will take a good look at them and boot the smaller one out of the nest. The better to focus her attentions on the presumably hardier chick in the bigger shell. A black eagle will allow all of her chicks to hatch and then stand back while the bigger ones fight it out with the little ones typically ripping them to ribbons and then settling back to grow up in peace. Piglets, cute as they are, are born with a strange little outward set of pointing teeth, that they use to jab at one another as they compete for the choices for the nursing spots.