For most of Tom's life, he lived in the shadow of his older brother Daniel. Despite being only a year and a half apart in age, Daniel overshadowed his little brother in everything—in flashbacks, Tom describes Daniel as bigger, handsomer, and more attractive to girls. However, in the aftermath of the accident, Tom is forced to look closely at his relationship with his brother and the way in which Daniel's supposed superiority caused Tom to suppress his own desires and cater to Daniel's every whim. While all the characters in the novel must redefine their identities in the aftermath of the accident, Tom in particular finds that he can only truly come into his own when he discovers who he is as an individual, rather than someone who only exists in relation to his brother.
Though Daniel did overshadow Tom before the accident, the brothers were nonetheless extremely close. They spent hours every day working on their ball handling skills and while there are moments that point to the fact that Daniel has a mean streak that didn't spare his brother, Daniel also dedicated a great deal of time to both Tom and to rugby. In fact, the two spent so much time playing rugby together that the local Mumbilli paper followed Tom and Daniel's sports career through "The Legend of the Brennan Brothers," an ongoing feature that reinforced for everyone—Tom, Daniel, and the rest of the town—that the two could and should only be considered as a unit rather than as individuals. In some ways, this habit of others grouping the Brennans together as a single entity extended even beyond Tom and Daniel to Mum and Dad as well, given how entrenched both of them were in social life and sports in Mumbilli.
On a darker note, denying the individuality of the Brennan family also contributes to every member being ostracized following the trial in which the judge sentences Daniel to five years in prison. Their home becomes a target for offensive graffiti, which causes Dad to decide that the best thing to do is move his family six hours away to the much larger city of Coghill—where, he believes, the Brennans will be able to live in relative anonymity and escape the abuse. Yet the violent tenor of the abuse is why, even after the move to Coghill, Tom is anxious about others finding out about what happened in Mumbilli: because he's never been given the space to think of who he is as an individual, he's afraid that his new peers will shun him after they find out what Daniel did. In other words, Tom continues to think of his identity as being intrinsically and irreversibly linked to Daniel's, even as he recognizes that this is no longer a good thing.
This fear seeps into everything Tom does and, for much of the novel, keeps him from recognizing that for most people in Coghill, Tom does actually exist separately from his older brother. Most people simply know Tom as a star rugby player, and though some are aware that he and Daniel were once an unstoppable team (or even mistake Tom for Daniel), most in Coghill are simply thrilled to have Tom in town to play for them. This doesn't become clear to Tom, however, until after Kylie gives a poorly-thought-out speech in one of her classes, in which she shares the story of what happened in Mumbilli. Tom is understandably terrified that this will mean that his entire family is going to once again become the target of abuse because of Daniel's actions. But when nothing particularly bad happens following Kylie's speech, Tom is forced to accept that Coghill actually will offer him the opportunity to extricate himself from Daniel and go on to figure out who he is as a person in his own right.
Once Tom realizes that he doesn't need to fear punishment for being Daniel's brother anymore, he is able to let go of some of his anxiety, throw himself into his new life in Coghill, and create a new identity for himself completely separate from the identity he once shared with Daniel. It is worth keeping in mind that the success of this is, to a degree, dependent on where Tom is and who he's with—during the rugby match with St. John's, a former teammate does yell "killer" at Tom in reference to Daniel's actions, for instance, which indicates that this process of discovering his own identity isn't necessarily a clean and linear process by any means. However, the fact that Tom ends the novel feeling whole for the first time and happy with the person he's become suggests that for him, his ability to come of age was linked entirely to his ability to engage with himself as an individual and to discover a sense of independence from Daniel and the rest of his family.
Identity and Independence ThemeTracker
Identity and Independence Quotes in The Story of Tom Brennan
Suddenly I was sucked deeper into that long black tunnel, the memories of Fin and Daniel and how we once were, and the worst thing, the knowing. Knowing more than anything I'd ever know that things would never be the same.
Somewhere in the bush, hard to say how far away, I could hear the painful sound of groaning, retching sobs. It was Daniel but I couldn't go to him. Part of me wanted to, the other part didn't. I knew I had to stay with Fin, stay with the mess Daniel had made. Yet a voice inside of me was screaming, "He's alive, he's alive. Daniel's alive."
Brendan didn't want to say how bad Fin really was because it'd upset Dad and it wasn't his fault. But then Dad couldn't tell Brendan, or probably anyone for that matter, what state Daniel was in because the general consensus was that Daniel deserved what he got.
I mean, it was bad—it was all bad—but even after the worst visits, there was still hope when you left him, some hope in the realization that one day Daniel'd be getting out of there, a free man.
But Fin would never be free, and that was too enormous to swallow.
Once, probably not that long ago, I'm not sure I could've gone back at all. But here I was sliding the drawer open.
"You could have told me. Do you think I couldn't see you fading away those first few weeks? Living on cereal, my goodness, you silly thing."
My breath panted at the back of my throat. He knew? Jimmy knew?
"We're your mates, Tom, " Rory started. "We're part of a..."
Bennie's just wasn't the same. Everyone got along, and there was no one person you'd call an arsehole, and they had team unity—you couldn't deny them that. But what they didn't have was technique, and that's what put them on the outer next to teams like St. John's that could play the game in their sleep.
"But we can't undo what's done. Bennie's is giving you a chance and, as pathetic as it may seem to you, it's still a chance." Again I heard his swallow, loud and dry. "No one's above anyone, surely you know that by now."
"The best thing about playing in the firsts at St. John's was playing with you, Dan." As I said it I realized that towards the end it had become the worst thing too—trying to carry him as his game slipped and he stopped caring about us, the Brennan brothers.
"We were fighting all the time. The new young players were shit-scared. If you had a bad game you were dead meat. It wasn't about us, it was all about the Wattle Shield. We stopped looking out for each other."
Before, Brendan had been someone who was just always around. Someone I never really thought about. Mum's little brother. My uncle, that was about as far as it went. But that's when life was simpler.
Now Brendan wanted me to see him. See who he really was. This was probably the way Daniel saw him and now I did too.
I hadn't enjoyed the last season at St. John's, that I knew now. It hadn't mattered how good my game was, the pressure, the disgruntlement, the unpredictability of Daniel just didn't add up to good footy. It added up to frustration and division.
Now I knew differently. Bennie's first fifteen had taught me plenty. When I'd needed it most, Bennie's had reminded me that the game was better when a team was united and loving it.
We were. The three of us, like brothers.
Now it was hard to believe that. Blood's thicker than water, so what's the difference between your brother and your cousin? I didn't know. I'd never know.