The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling

The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling

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by Jeanne Safer

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In the first book of its kind, renowned psychotherapist Jeanne Safer examines the hidden trauma of growing up with an emotionally troubled or physically disabled sibling, and helps adult "normal" siblings resolve their childhood pain.

For too long the therapeutic community has focused on the parent-child relationship as the primary relationship in a child's


In the first book of its kind, renowned psychotherapist Jeanne Safer examines the hidden trauma of growing up with an emotionally troubled or physically disabled sibling, and helps adult "normal" siblings resolve their childhood pain.

For too long the therapeutic community has focused on the parent-child relationship as the primary relationship in a child's life. In The Normal One, Dr. Safer shows that sisters and brothers are just as important as parents, and she illuminates for the first time the experience of being "the normal one."

Drawing on more than sixty interviews with normal, or intact, siblings, Safer explores the daunting challenges they face, and probes the complex feelings that can strain families and damage lives. A “normal” sibling herself, Safer chronicles her own life-shaping experiences with her troubled brother. She examines the double-edged reality of normal ones: how they both compensate for their siblings’ abnormality and feel guilty for their own health and success. With both wisdom and empathy, she delineates the “Caliban Syndrome,” a set of personality traits characteristic of higher-functioning siblings: premature maturity, compulsion to achieve, survivor guilt, and fear of contagion.
Essential reading for normal ones and those who love them, this landmark work offers readers insight, compassion, and tools to help resolve childhood pain. It is a profound and eye-opening examination of a subject that has too long been shrouded in darkness.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
behavior, and even offer relief through medication or therapy. But as Debra Ginsberg explains in Raising Blaze, her memoir of bringing up her own "extraordinary" child, a diagnosis can sometimes create more questions than answers. Blaze, who was choked by his own umbilical cord during delivery, expresses himself with enigmatic figurative phrases; loud noises send him screaming around the room. The doctors' assessment was vague to the point of tautology: "pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified." Ginsberg struggles with the public-school system and its rigorous notions of acceptable behavior, where even happiness is monitored: "I am struck again by how difficult it is to navigate a world where we have to be mindful of when laughter is appropriate."

According to Jeanne Safer, in The Normal One, the families of disabled or difficult children also suffer. Inspired by her own troubled relationship with her brother, Safer sees "normal" siblings as suffering from "Caliban syndrome." Her book tries to peek under the sentimental surface of most representations of disability (such as the TV star who told Us magazine that her mentally retarded sister was "my love, my heart, my angel"). She writes, "Guilt is rarely absent from the thoughts of healthy adults about their damaged siblings because no amount of devotion or care can make the damaged whole or blot out the dark victory of their own normality." Though some draw away, others become martyrs, feeling inextricably bound to care uncritically for their less able brother or sister. And some, like Safer, reject the sibling, then write a book about it.. (Andrea Thompson)

Publishers Weekly
Adults who grew up with a disabled brother or sister may have been labeled the "normal" one. Psychotherapist Jeanne Safer addresses the premature maturity, emotional and intellectual perfectionism and deep guilt about their own health that she says many "normal" siblings experience in The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling. Using interviews with 60 subjects who have disabled siblings and her own experience with an emotionally ill brother, Safer sensitively documents the various challenges that siblings face and offers wise, gentle counsel for dealing with these challenges. Agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh. (Sept.17) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
"The Normal One provides a great service for the siblings of truly damaged individuals, those quiet, self-denying brothers and sisters who, perhaps for the first time in their lives, will recognize in Safer a passionate advocate from the world of psychotherapy, speaking out on their behalf with a deeply intelligent, fully informed, and thoroughly welcome voice."
The New York Times Book Review

" indelible, brave, profoundly sensitive, and deeply personal look at how the ‘normal’ half lives, loves, resents, reconciles, sometimes denies, sometimes transcends, aches for—but never quite trusts—the consolations of family."
O Magazine

"[A] persuasive examination of the considerable effect that...impaired brothers and sisters have upon their ‘normal’ siblings throughout life."
The New York Times Book Review

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Chapter 2

Everybody's an Only Child

Facing how I buried my brother's role in my life has been an ordeal; I now understand why I avoided it for fifty-four years. To broaden my perspective -- both out of professional interest and because studying emotional experience has always been the way I cope with it -- I surveyed psychological studies of siblings. Extensive research turned up practically nothing, even in the psychoanalytic literature, my own specialty, which focuses specifically on what is hidden and expelled from awareness. To my astonishment, I discovered that the resistance and disconnection I battled in myself also pervades my profession; psychoanalysis, the talking cure, is strangely silent about siblings.

"Siblings" does not appear in the 404-page index to the twenty-three-volume Standard Edition of Freud -- there are a mere five citations for "brothers and sisters" -- but "Siberia" does. The founder of psychoanalysis symbolically relegated his own seven siblings there and set the precedent for his followers to ignore the influence of their own and their patients' closest kin to this day. The major textbooks in the field followed suit, focusing virtually exclusively on relations between parents and children. No panel on siblings had yet been held at a scientific meeting and only a handful of articles were published in psychoanalytic journals as late as 1980, three generations after Freud first wrote about the power of the unconscious and the centrality of early family experience. Eloise Agger called attention to this omission in her 1983 paper "Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Sibling Relationships," and now another quarter-century has passed with nary a comprehensive study in print; without accumulated data, the occasional articles that do appear reinvent the wheel. Scientific literature outside the psychoanalytic tradition is similarly scant, although siblings are more conspicuous in imaginative literature and biography, where the taboo seems to have less power.

How and why have siblings escaped scrutiny? Everybody, clinicians and theorists included, wants to be an only child. This desire was compelling for Freud and had subtle but major impact on his theoretical formulations. An adored firstborn son, he never got over his guilty triumph that his unwelcome nine-month-old younger brother died when Freud was one and a half years old; later he noted that this experience had left him with "the germ of self-reproach" and had "determined what is neurotic, and also what is intense, in all my friendships." His mother had six more children, all daughters, before his tenth birthday. Hostility among siblings, he wrote, is "far more frequent in childhood than the unseeing eye of adult observers can perceive." Yet it is imperceptible in the Oedipus complex, in which a son's only rival for his mother's love is his father. All younger potential competitors (particularly dead ones of the same sex) are peremptorily disposed of. Despite his own favored position -- his eldest sister's piano was given away because the noise of her playing bothered him -- Freud unwittingly recapitulated sibling rivalry all his life. His tumultuous relationships with friends and colleagues were marred by his need to be the center of attention, his jealousy of potential usurpers, and his sensitivity to betrayal.

Freud's blind spot has been incorporated into the discipline he founded, and his followers, mostly siblings themselves, have been eliminating rivals ever since. As much as it has changed since the early days, psychoanalytic theory still emphasizes parent/child interactions, which leads to training and clinical practice that emphasize parent/child interactions. This vicious cycle keeps every new generation of clinicians blind and deaf to what was originally excluded; even now siblings rarely merit more than informal discussion in case presentations, and it is an unusual analysis in which they receive enough attention. Sibling conflicts of their own prevent most therapists from recognizing the omission and make them collude with their patients to avoid addressing them in depth. They consider it normal, and fail to inquire, if patients never mention a sibling by name or at all or act as though the person were an extra rather than a costar in the drama of their lives. My own treatment is typical; in fifteen years of intensive work, I spent no more than fifteen minutes discussing my brother, and my analyst, whom I later learned had a borderline sister herself, never noticed. Her own efforts to differentiate herself from this sister must have made her consider my attitude as a natural, reasonable fact of life rather than an anxiously constructed and precariously maintained compulsion. The process is insidious and almost undetectable: you find what you look for and ignore what you do not want to see, and you can only help others know what you can recognize in yourself. In professions as in families, avoidance begets avoidance. This is why the psychology of siblings remains terra incognita.

If feelings about even normal siblings are buried, feelings about abnormal ones are buried much more deeply. Therefore I believe that the disproportionate number of people with damaged siblings who become psychotherapists exacerbates the problem. An informal survey of my acquaintances in the field revealed a plethora of hitherto unmentioned dysfunctional sisters and brothers; my colleagues and I are motivated as much by the unconscious need to demonstrate how sane, intact, and different from our siblings we are as by the more conscious vocation to help others.

Personal resistance is not the only factor preventing siblings from getting proper attention. The asymmetrical nature and hierarchical structure of the classical psychoanalytic situation itself (as well as most of its therapeutic siblings), in which the analyst is the authority figure and strives to be a blank screen onto which the patient unilaterally projects internal conflicts, naturally tends to elicit more feelings about parents. As this model shifts to a more egalitarian exchange to which both participants contribute -- a development gathering force in the field -- siblings may return from their long Siberian sojourn.

Now that my own experience has sensitized me to hidden sibling themes, I am struck by how frequently and unexpectedly they appear and how powerfully they affect my patients' relationships with others and with me. Jeremy Mitchell, a young English professor in therapy with me, could not forgive himself for leaving his girlfriend of five years. Though their separation was well considered and civil, he was convinced that he had ruined her prospects and destroyed her self-esteem forever. Visions of her anguished face haunted his dreams. Although she was in fact successful, charming, and independently wealthy, he imagined her living in a trailer park, destitute and alone. He felt he had forfeited his right to visit their familiar haunts, and he avoided streets where she might see him with the new woman in his life. He even contemplated ending his new relationship and returning to the old one to assuage his unbearable guilt and his tormented conviction that he did not deserve to have his own life if it came at another's expense. For months we struggled to understand the inordinate intensity of these feelings, but they did not abate. Only when I began writing this book did I suddenly realize that his crushing sense of responsibility for his girlfriend exactly mirrored his experience with his older sister, who had been anorectic, seriously depressed, and isolated throughout his childhood. His mother had constantly admonished him to keep his sister company and interpreted his natural desire to have an independent life as selfish and destructive -- feelings he had internalized and applied to the other woman he felt he had abandoned.

For no apparent reason my patient Mark Monroe impulsively married and instantly conceived a child. My newly developed sibling antennae allowed me to recognize and point out that these events immediately followed the engagement of his preferred, academically successful, but socially inept younger brother whom he had once referred to as "a tough act to precede."

I also became aware that patients can feel like damaged siblings with me. On New Year's Eve Kathy Emerson, an unmarried lawyer about my age, told me how miserable she felt that once again she had no date and would be celebrating with her younger sister and her husband. She always dreaded weekends, staying home because she felt she had no right even to walk on the street alone in a world full of couples. Since she knew I was married, it occurred to me that she must feel envious of me as well. Her distress and implicit envy made me feel terribly uncomfortable, because I knew it was justified; surely she had noticed that in many ways my life was better than hers had ever been. I was luckier than she was; was it not presumptuous and hurtful of me to point this out? My hesitation, I realized, came from guilt masquerading as tact; I sidestepped the topic not because I wanted to spare her but because I wanted to spare myself from her justified wrath; here was another unseemly and undeserved triumph that I dared not enjoy or reveal -- much like my earlier, seemingly effortless triumph over my own brother. Then I heard myself asking her a question that seemed almost sacrilegious and that I had never dared to put so baldly before: "How does it feel to know that I have more than you do?" She was profoundly relieved to be granted permission to admit her envy and to describe how shameful, self-hating, and unlovable it made her feel, how it corroded her relationship with her actual sister and with other women. This exchange allowed her to claim more for herself -- including, ultimately, a husband of her own.

If, as Joyce's Stephen Daedalus said, "a brother is as easy to lose as an umbrella," why isn't a parent? Try as we might to eliminate them, parents are engraved on our psyches in a way that makes negating their importance far more difficult. They loom so large because they are the first and most prominent figures in every child's life, and we need them to survive. For this reason no therapist would fail to notice if a patient never mentioned a parent or would accept the explanation that a mother's or father's influence was insignificant. Siblings become essential only in extreme situations like death, divorce, or natural disaster when parents are unavailable, and then they are unlikely to be ignored.

When I began research on this book, I discovered that problem siblings are no more popular to talk about than to write about or think about; even the most forthcoming, self-aware people become disturbed, dense, and defensive. I had no trouble finding interview subjects for my two previous books, on choosing not to have children and on resolving intimate betrayal, both topics that can make people anxious and uncomfortable. This time, though, half the people I approached refused, and their explanations made no sense. "It was so long ago that I hardly think of him now. We were five years apart, so I was much more affected by my sister, because she was only a year older," said a woman who had moved three thousand miles away from her autistic brother and left his care to this sister. A man who had frankly described the devastating aftermath of his mother's suicide to me previously pronounced his relationship with his manic-depressive sister "too painful to talk about." Of those who agreed to be interviewed, there was also a dismaying 50 percent dropout rate. A California teacher had eagerly agreed to discuss her troubled, chronically unemployed brother as long as I promised not to identify her family. She sought this reassurance although I had indicated in advance that names and details would be changed. After failing to answer the phone for our interview appointment on three separate occasions, she wrote me a note:

I realize it was presumptuous of me to be willing to label my brother "dysfunctional." His journey has simply been rich in "dreams deferred." I don't want to demean him or assume that I have prevailed and he hasn't. The last thing I want to do is cause more harm.

Labeling her brother dysfunctional is not presumptuous but objectively accurate, and asserting that she prevailed where he failed is not an assumption but a fact. How will telling the truth that both of them know all too well without naming him cause more harm to her brother? Guilt -- for doing better and being glad she did -- compels her to euphemize and to protest her good intentions.

"I can't talk about him because he's not here to defend himself," explained a singer whose schizophrenic brother had been missing and presumed dead since 1985. Although she had previously appeared on television to say that fear of passing on her brother's mental illness had made her decide not to have children, to discuss the details of their relationship as siblings even anonymously felt to her like a wantonly aggressive act. It was acceptable to acknowledge their shared genes but not their shared life. She too had a fantasy that to express what she actually thought of him would destroy her brother all over again.

Why are so many people convinced that to tell the story of their siblings is to betray or damage them further? Some are over-identified; sharing a paranoid view of the world is one way to maintain some connection and to avoid grasping the strangeness,sadness, and severity of a brother's or sister's pathology. Since it would be exceedingly unlikely for any sibling to recognize the disguised source in a book, the normal ones' worries also conceal their wishes; they fear that even changing names would fail to protect the guilty.

Although a small number of people welcomed an opportunity to discuss their families and felt gratified that someone was finally paying attention to them after years of invisibility, distress was a much more common reaction. Many of the brave souls who showed up confessed that the prospect of the interview had caused sleepless nights and anxiety attacks. More than one said that only their sense of responsibility, desire to be helpful, or devotion to me prevented them from canceling; their early experiences as dutiful, mature helpers made them face their fears. A fifty-year-old journalist who had spent years in therapy but had not spoken to his embittered, underachieving sister for a decade explained, "I've attained a kind of resolution and insulated myself from my family. I finally have a text for my life, but the spaces between the words are wider than they ought to be, and that's where she is. If I went in there, the text is going to get disorganized, and I would have to look at what I never let myself notice. It would involve a radical revision of my sense of self. She's the door that never gets opened. I don't dread very much, but I dreaded thinking about this." Metaphors involving perilous portals were common; a systems analyst said, "I'm afraid if I crack open that door, I'll never be able to shut it." No wonder it stays double-bolted for most of us.

A writer who had chronicled extensively her paranoid sister's devastating impact on her life and had even performed a one-woman show in which she spoke in her sister's voice ("It's so much in my head that it's easy to do," she told me) confessed that the prospect of being interviewed about their relationship was more than she could handle, although why perplexed her. She realized that she was too frightened about what might come out of her mouth and how it might make her feel, when she could not control the content in advance.

Even when reticence is conquered, insight is surprisingly hard to come by. Many people simply recite catalogs of outrageous conduct by siblings that parents had failed to control, behavior they felt subjected to but that seemed to have nothing to do with them. Trouble with their siblings was an external event, something to endure or to flee, that had little effect on their internal reality or sense of themselves. Asked whether he had anything in common with his psychopathic sister, a seventy-year-old executive said, "Absolutely nothing -- it's a black and white situation." Sometimes the connections hid in plain sight; an otherwise refreshingly frank and forthcoming therapist whom I interviewed about her paranoid schizophrenic brother noted that her first husband turned out to be paranoid "just like my father." Until I pointed out the similarity, she had never connected him with the brother whose suspiciousness and hostility permeated her life; to do so would have been too close for comfort.

When a relationship deteriorates, even positive memories can be obliterated. A teacher told me that as a young girl she had admired her older half-sister who later behaved hatefully and had a disastrous marriage. Her sister's collection of cashmere sweaters was an image of success, and she used to fantasize that one day she too would own a beautiful blue sweater. She had no idea that she was wearing just such a sweater to our meeting.

Copyright © 2002 by Jeanne Safer

Meet the Author

Jeanne Safer, Ph.D., has been practicing psychotherapy for twenty-seven years. A supervisor and faculty member at the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health and the National Institute for Psychotherapies, Dr. Safer is the author of Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life Without Children, a finalist for the Books for a Better Life Award; and Forgiving and Not Forgiving. Dr. Safer lives in New York City.

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The Normal One 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an intriguing and thought-provoking book for anyone who has ever lived with a "damaged" person. I have a young son with a neurologic disorder and a bright, beautiful pre-teen daughter. I bought the book mainly to help her learn to deal with being his sister. On the plus side, I actually learned a lot about dealing with how I feel about being Michael's dad. On the minus side, I found little about helping my daughter make it to adulthood as unschathed as possible. The book seems aimed primarily at helping affected adults heal rather than help those who are still children. The book is fairly technical but well-written. It assumes the reader knows at least some common psychological terms (ie, "splitting"), but is not loaded with psychiatric jargon. It would be a "self-help" book only for an intelligent - probably professional - reader. Despite these limitations the book is a must read because it is unique. As the author points out, no one has addressed the needs of normal children with damaged siblings. (And no normal child with a damaged sibling escapes significant trauma.) This work is long overdue. I hope other therapists and researchers will take up where Dr. Safer has left off. I hope someone will also address the question of what parents can do to protect their normal children in this difficult, painful situation.
Guest More than 1 year ago
At last, a healthcare professional acknowledges that siblings of the disabled suffer a distinct set of pathologies. This book, because of its uniqueness (this has been a taboo, PC, subject) can only begin to scratch the surface of this type of family dymanic. The controversial premise of this book is that this "Caliban" syndrome surfaces in siblings that have grown up with siblings who are "difficult" as well as those officially diagnosed with mental illnes or disability. Because the parents decide how much accommodation and attention the "special" one will get, and deprivations or obligations the "normal" sibling will suffer, it is not the severity of the disability that determines the normal one's place, but the parents attitude toward the "special"one. The fact that anyone in the psychology field has suggested that families are pressured into behaving this way as a result of our culture's sentimentalizing life with a disabled child is a revelation. Everyone in a disabled child's family suffers - emotionally, socially and financially - but, they are told they should be grateful and uplifted. Thank heaven someone pulled back the curtain to reveal what life is really like in that situation. I would like less of her Freudian analysis of THE TEMPEST and more resources where families can get counseling and legal and finacial advice. Many families think their only options are the horrible institutions that Geraldo Rivera exposed in the 70's and that they will be impoverished by any quality custodial care. But when families learn that there are humane options and legal protections, they may breath a sigh of relief - once they are given permission to admit they may not like the burden that has been handed to them. After years of denial that life with a disabled sibling isn't the spiritual uplift popular culture keeps saying it is, Jeanne Safer looks at the scars left by the pain and deprivations no one wants to talk about. Thank you!
Guest More than 1 year ago
It is about time that someone had the courage and will to address this long-time unaddressed situation of siblings and how they are affected by a difficult sibling. This book gives a good look at how these dynamics work and how to shrug of the cloud of these types of family dynamics and still go on down the road of health. Thank you Dr. Safer from a non-professional and Mom.