Family Feud

The Perils of a Famous Family Member

Julia Roberts’s sister killed herself last week and reportedly resented her mega-successful sibling. The problem doesn’t just apply to Hollywood families though.

Glen McCurtayne/Coleman-Rayner

Mare Winnigham snagged an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a world famous singer whose drug addicted younger sister struggles in her shadow in the 1995 film Georgia. The tragic tale seemed eerily similar to real life when it was announced that Julia Roberts’ younger sister Nancy Motes had reportedly taken her own life. Multiple news accounts claimed that Motes, who had allegedly battled addiction, left a suicide note that included references to her strained relationship with her superstar sibling. Motes is not the first sibling of a superstar to struggle and do so publicly. But Motes’s sad story raises a number of uncomfortable questions. Namely, what responsibility does a really successful family member have for his or her relatives?

Family therapist Dr. Rachel Sussman said the responsibility that a famous sibling has to a sibling is the same responsibility all siblings have to one another. Of celebrities she said, “They really don’t have a responsibility other than to be a good sibling,” which includes reminding less famous siblings that they are loved and they are special. But it does not include becoming the less wealthy sibling’s piggy bank. She and other experts explained that money, identity and boundaries are common destructive forces in familial relationships but tend to become more pronounced when a wealthy celebrity is a member of the family.

Dr. Jeff Gardere said that while some families handle the transition of a family member from anonymous to famous with “grace and positivity, if there are other siblings who have esteem issues and feel less important than the star sibling, it can result in severe family dysfunction and personal issues.” He continued, “At times the star sibling becomes a meal ticket. At other times the other siblings become depressed, angry, drug and alcohol dependent as a form of self medication, or very destructive in order to gain attention and sabotage the fame of the star sibling.” To his point, following Motes’ death one news outlet ran the highly controversial allegation that Motes’ death may have been timed to heighten embarrassment for her famous sibling who has been basking in awards season glow thanks to her performance in August: Osage County.

But the Roberts family is certainly not the first to struggle with how to navigate issues like money and envy once a sibling shoots into the stratosphere. There have been countless stories of other siblings blaming more successful siblings for not being more generous, particularly financially after they hit it big. The reality show Fantasia For Real, depicted the R&B singer constantly butting heads with her brother who was incensed at the prospect he might be expected to consider obtaining a regular job when he had a superstar sibling. Despite not having a real career of his own, he made it clear he expected to enjoy the superstar lifestyle too—whether he worked for it or not. (It is worth noting that this entitlement mentality can be seen among longtime friends of celebrities as well. Former professional baseball player Danny Clyburn was killed by a childhood friend. During sentencing recently it was revealed his killer was insulted Clyburn did not pick up the tab after their drinking session. He would summarize what he perceived as Clyburn’s long-running financial stinginess with the line: “Clyburn never did anything for anybody in the ’hood.’”)

“Money is a huge source of fighting in relationships, because money equals power. The one with the money seems to have the control,” said Dr. Gail Saltz. “Unfortunately people usually see their own ‘side’ of the economics. For example, [one might think,] ‘She has so much why can’t she give me a bunch?’ [The other thinks,] ‘I worked hard for what I have and want to pass it to my children while my sibling has not been responsible with money and will likely be just as irresponsible with my money.’”

In recent years Madonna’s brother Anthony Ciccone has repeatedly blasted her in media for not being more supportive of him, telling reporters, that the pop legend “doesn’t give a shit if I’m dead or alive. She lives in her own world.” Adding, “I never loved her in the first place, she never loved me,” and “We never loved each other.” He admitted his alcoholism had cost him a job at the Ciccone family winery. At the time of a recent interview he was homeless. Headlines used this fact to paint Madonna as the villain, with one blaring: “Madonna’s homeless brother Anthony Ciccone: My billionaire sister doesn’t care if I die.” Plenty of commenters weighed in that they would never leave a sibling out in the cold if they were wealthy, regardless of any troubled history.

But of course the full story proved more complicated.

Articles claimed that the Ciccone family, including Madonna, had helped him seek rehab numerous times but he declined subsequent efforts to help him become sober thus resulting in his deterioration and eventual homelessness. Reports allege similar efforts by Julia Roberts to help her sister.

Ultimately, the question becomes at which point does an adult have a right to let go of being responsible for another adult and live her own life, whether she is an accountant living out of the limelight or a famous actress on the cover of magazines?

Dr. Gardere suggested that if a sibling has the financial means, he or she should help a family member in need. But he cautioned, if that “family member is making no effort to help themselves or are involved in a sociopathic behavior or lifestyle, then you are only enabling them by supporting them financially.”

While none of us know whether this accurately describes Roberts’s sister, there is plenty to suggest this is a more complicated story than simply one wealthy sibling willfully turning her back on a sibling in need. Dr. Sussman pointed out that sometimes well-meaning celebrities unintentionally make things worse for a sibling who is struggling to get out of his or her shadow. “When I see celebrities employing their family in some ways that’s dangerous because you’re not encouraging your sister and brother to go out and get their own recognition and build their own life,” Sussman said.

Madonna has employed a number of her siblings. According to reports Roberts helped her sister get a foot in the entertainment industry by securing her a job on the hit series Glee. But Sussman explained that when she is treating patients who feel overshadowed by a more successful family member she will “usually advise them that they’ve got to create a life for themselves that’s very different from their siblings.” She encourages them to find passions, professions or even hobbies in which they excel that is outside of the world in which their siblings excel.

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It is worth noting that despite being incredibly competitive, the famous Emanuel brothers are also incredibly close. No doubt this is at least in part due to the fact that one has made a name for himself in politics (Mayor Rahm), another has made a name for himself in Hollywood, (Ari) and another made a name for himself in medicine (Zeke.)

All of the experts interviewed were adamant about two things. One, parents can play an important role in easing sibling rivalry. Two, airing out family issues in media is a recipe for disaster. Shortly before her death, Motes posted a string of tweets that seemed directed at her sister, including one that read, “So my ‘sister’ said that with all her friends & fans she doesn’t need anymore love. Just so you all know ‘America’s Sweetheart’ is a B—-H!!’” She had also previously given unflattering interviews about Roberts. Madonna’s brother Christopher published a tell-all memoir titled, Life with my sister Madonna. But one of the most notorious celebrity sibling betrayals came from Oprah Winfrey’s sister who sold the story of Winfrey’s childhood pregnancy to a tabloid. Her sister Patricia struggled with addiction, which likely fueled her betrayal. She has since passed away.

But Oprah eventually got a happy ending that few do. In 2011, she learned of a woman who grew up in foster care, believed she was the media mogul’s half sister, and for years never shared her story with media as she tried in vain to contact Winfrey. The star recounted how moved she was by this stranger’s discretion. After it was confirmed the women are in fact siblings Oprah took her under her wing and they have since developed a close relationship. Making the story even more fairytale-like? Her half-sister is also named Patricia.

At a 50th birthday dinner for her sister, Winfrey called her a “remarkable human being.” She then touched upon the insecurities that seem to plague so many celebrity sibling relationships saying of Patricia: “That was a new experience for me, to be in a relationship with somebody who actually didn’t want anything but was just there to be supportive of me. So, it’s been really great. Really great.”