Out of Order

Frank Sulloway says firstborns are conformists. Our visionaries beg to differ


| January-February 1997



Terry Tempest Williams
Author of several books on the environment, including An Unspoken Hunger (Vintage, 1995).

BIRTH ORDER: oldest child—and only female—in a family of four siblings.

“My two brothers have been in a more oppositional position to our parents than I am, and especially my next-youngest brother, who is by far the most conservative. There were in many ways more expectations on him, as the firstborn son, than on me, particularly because of our family pipeline-construction business, which he was expected to take over. Not much was expected of women, so I was given more freedom. The most interesting thing to me about Sulloway’s book is his discussion of biology. We are animals; we forget that.”

Sulloway: “Because Williams was not expected to occupy a certain niche—namely, the successor to the family business—it would be reasonable to argue that niche structure was a little different in that family. And her point about biology is well taken. Part of the argument behind Born to Rebel is that we do the kinds of things that would be expected from our animal relatives—including sibling competition for parental love, affection, and resources as a mechanism for getting out of childhood alive. It’s a mechanism that is no longer needed in most modern societies, because we’re all going to make it out of childhood alive. But prior to a century ago, half of all children did not survive childhood.”

 

Stephen Mitchell
Celebrated translator of religious texts such as the Book of Job and the Tao Te Ching.