“East of Eden” and the Harbaugh Bowl

Rubens, "Cain Slaying Abel" (1608)

Rubens, “Cain Slaying Abel” (1608)

Sports Saturday

The unprecedented event of having two brothers coach against each other in the Super Bowl had me searching for books about sibling rivalry. John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize-winning East of Eden came to mind.

There are actually two sets of brothers in the novel, not to mention a discussion of the Cain and Abel story. I’ll just apply the first one to John and Jim Harbaugh.

Adam Trask is the older brother and like the older Harbaugh brother John, coach of the Baltimore Ravens, seems to be quieter and more stable. His younger half brother Charles, by contrast, is prone to going ballistic, which is also true of the young Harbaugh brother. The sight of Jim losing it on the San Francisco sidelines has become fairly common. Most memorably we saw him berating officials after they failed to call an interference penalty on a fourth-and-goal pass in the final minute of the game, allowing the Ravens to hold on to their lead.

Where the game departed from the book is that the elder brother, not the younger one, won the Super Bowl, but the game had all the ferocity of their fights. One further senses that, even though he won, John Harbaugh is more like Adam Trask. Immediately after the game he sounded genuinely conflicted about beating his brother:

I am totally devastated for my brother. It’s strange — I don’t really feel emotion right now. No tears. I never thought you could feel 100 percent elation and 100 percent devastation at the same time. But I learned tonight you can.

The description of the two brothers in the novel doesn’t entirely match the Harbaugh brothers since, needless to say, they are both fiercely competitive. But one senses, by watching them, that the contrast is similar:

Young Adam was always an obedient child. Something in him shrank from violence, from contention, from the silent shrieking tensions that can rip at a house. He contributed to the quiet he wished for by offering no violence, no contention, and to do this he had to retire into secretness, since there is some violence in everyone. He covered his life with a veil of vagueness, while behind his quiet eyes a rich full life went on. This did not protect him from assault but it allowed him an immunity.

His half-brother Charles, only a little over a year younger, grew up with his father’s assertiveness. Charles was a natural athlete, with instinctive timing and coordination and the competitor’s will to win over others, which makes for success in the world.

Like Charles, Jim Harbaugh had early success, playing football, whereas John had to work himself up the coaching ranks. And like Charles, who has no remorse about beating up Adam, one senses that Jim Harbaugh would have had fewer mixed feelings than John about emerging victorious.

One other thing. In the novel there is an extended disquisition on the Cain and Abel story by Adam’s Chinese-American servant. One wonders if any of the fiery competitiveness of either of the Harbaugh brothers can be tracked back to the underlying motivation that Lee identifies, which is a fear of parental rejection:

The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt—and there is the story of mankind. I think that if rejection could be amputated the human would not be what he is. Maybe there would be fewer crazy people. I am sure in myself there would not be many jails. It is all there—the start, the beginning. One child, refused the love he craves, kicks the cat and hides his secret guilt; and another steals so that money will make him loved; and a third conquers the world—and always the guilt and revenge and more guilt.

Those with more acquaintance of the Harbaughs’ psychological history can say whether any of their fierce desire to win stems from a desperate desire for parental approval. The theory certainly would account for those sideline meltdowns.

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