I grew up convinced that my older brother, Jim, hated me. For as far back as I could remember, he had heaped scorn and ridicule upon me. His favorite method was sarcasm, and he was really good at it. I was the butt of many jokes and the victim of nicknames that were in no way kind.
Jim was over five years older than me and therefore verbally more advanced. I had no defense against him, so I coped by staying to myself as much as possible.
Things never really improved until both of us left home to find our ways in the world. On those rare occasions when we found ourselves together at family gatherings, he was more cordial as time went on, though he still could not resist the urge to lob the occasional zinger my way.
My wife had come late to the Jim dynamic, and while she found him charming, as many did, she perceived that there was something going on between Jim and me. She wanted to know more, so with some reluctance, I unlocked the psychological vault wherein all my grievances I keep and told her more of the Jim story.
She was surprised — and curious. She put her analytical skills to work and came up with a likely explanation: It was mostly about birth order.
I was the last of four kids in the family, the other three being fairly evenly spaced in the birth order. When I arrived, I replaced Jim as the youngest and received the added attention that had previously been given to him. And so it was not so much that Jim hated me; he hated the idea of me. But once a toxic behavior pattern is established, it’s a tough chain to break. I doubt that Jim realized at the height of his animosity toward me the impact he was having on the tender psyche of his little brother.
It’s strange how the brain processes things sometimes. The Jim memories came back to me as I watched Ken Burns’ documentary about country music. I was never much of a fan, but the film did a good job of telling the story of the music and the times in which it had developed. A major focal point was Johnny Cash, who was rightfully portrayed as an icon of the genre.
Johnny Cash was one of the few country performers I liked. His “I Walk the Line” was such a huge hit that it had crossed over to the pop charts. I heard it as a teenager on Chicago radio, and I loved it. There was an authenticity behind his voice, which stood out in sharp contrast to the work of other country singers who seemed products of a cookie-cutter Nashville assembly line. They wore the garish cowboy outfits, they sang about strong emotions, but I never believed most of them. Johnny Cash, I always believed.
Burns told Cash’s back story, and it was enlightening. Like me, Johnny Cash was a younger brother who had experienced difficulties at home. But for Johnny, it was not his older brother Jack who was his nemesis; it was his father. For whatever reason, the father doted on Jack, and let Johnny know in no uncertain terms how inferior he found his younger son.
When Jack was killed at a young age, the father turned his grief into rage against Johnny. His verbal abuse continued and reached its apex when he told Johnny that it would have been better if Johnny had been the one killed, rather than the sainted Jack.
I don’t know how you recover from something like that. In Cash’s case, he fled home and joined the Air Force, and after that threw himself into his music. The rest of his story is well known — his battles with drug addiction, his tendency to lash out in anger, but also his amazing career.
It is safe to say that both he and I carried chips on our shoulders as a result of these childhood stresses, but mine is a mere pebble compared to the one on Johnny Cash. His was a boulder.
I am aware that much has been written on the subject of birth order — experts telling us what traits to expect with each perch on the pecking order. I am not sure, however, that it is good to generalize about such things.
Sometimes I wonder if I would have been any better if the roles had been reversed. Would I have treated a little brother better than Jim had? I just don’t know.
Jim, by the way, turned out just fine — a beloved family man, a success in his work and popular with a slew of friends. And in his last years, there had been a sea change, a mellowing. That’s the Jim I prefer to remember.