email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Intimate" Violence against Women3 NBS of Julian DrewA Little PregnantA Natural History of RapeA Parent's Guide to Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning AutismA Stir of BonesAbout a BoyAdult Children of Emotionally Immature ParentsAgainst MarriageAgainst MarriageAlmost a PsychopathAlone TogetherAnatomy of LoveAngelsAnother CountryAnxious ParentsApples and OrangesBe Honest--You're Not That Into Him EitherBeing the Other OneBetrayed as BoysBeyond AddictionBipolar DisorderBoys Will Put You on a Pedestal (So They Can Look Up Your Skirt)Breaking ApartBrief Adolescent Therapy Homework PlannerBringing Up ParentsBut I Love HimCaring for a Child with AutismCaring in Remembered WaysCherishmentChildren of the Aging Self-AbsorbedChildren of the Self-AbsorbedChildren, Families, and Health Care Decision MakingClawsCloserCold HitCoping With Difficult PeopleCouple SkillsCruddyDancing in My NuddypantsDivorce PoisonDoing ItDone With The CryingEcstasyEmotional ClaustrophobiaEmotional Fitness for IntimacyEmotional Intelligence at WorkEntwined LivesErotic PassionsEssentials of Premarital CounselingEvery Pot Has a CoverFacts About ADHD ChildrenFamilies Like MineFamilyFamily BoundFamily FirstFear of IntimacyFinal JeopardyFind MeFlashpointFor Lesbian ParentsForgive Your Parents, Heal YourselfGandhi's WayGeorgia Under WaterGetting over Getting MadGetting the Love You WantGetting the Love You Want Audio CompanionGirl in the MirrorGirl StuffGoing Home without Going CrazyHandbook of AttachmentHandbook of Counseling and Psychotherapy with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual ClientsHappiness Sold SeparatelyHard to GetHe's Just Not That Into YouHealing ConversationsHollow KidsHot ButtonsHot Chocolate for the Mystical LoverHow Families Still MatterHow to Create Chemistry with AnyoneHow to Give Her Absolute PleasureHow to Handle a Hard-To-Handle KidHow to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do If You Can'tI am Not Sick I Don't Need Help!I Don't Know How She Does ItI Hate You-Don't Leave MeI Only Say This Because I Love YouI'm OK, You're My ParentsIn the Mood, AgainInside the American CoupleIntrusive ParentingIt's Called a Breakup Because It's BrokenIt's Love We Don't UnderstandJakarta MissingKeeping Passion AliveKeeping Your Child in MindLet's Get This StraightLiberation's ChildrenLife's WorkLikely to DieLove JunkieLove SickLove Times ThreeLove Works Like ThisLoving Someone With Bipolar DisorderLoving Someone with Borderline Personality DisorderLust in TranslationMaking the RunMaking the RunManic DepressionMars and Venus - Starting Over.Mating in CaptivityMom, Dad, I'm Gay.MotherstylesMurder in the InnMysterious CreaturesNecessary NoiseOdd Girl OutOpenOpening to Love 365 Days a YearOphelia's MomOrgasmsOur Journey Through High Functioning Autism and Asperger SyndromeOut of the DustOvercoming Your Difficult FamilyParenting and the Child's WorldParenting on the GoParenting Your Out-Of-Control TeenagerParents and Digital TechnologyParents Do Make a DifferencePassionate MarriagePlanet JanetPreventing Misbehavior in ChildrenProblem Child or Quirky Kid?Raising AmericaRaising ElijahRaising Kids in an Age of TerrorRaising Kids in the 21st CenturyRaising Resilient ChildrenRay's a LaughRelationship RescueRelax, It's Just SexRespect-Me RulesRomantic IntelligenceRoom For JSecrets of a Passionate MarriageSelf-NurtureSelfish, Shallow, and Self-AbsorbedSex Addiction: The Partner's PerspectiveShidduch CrisisSickenedSingleSlut!Socrates in LoveSomeone Like YouSong for EloiseSpecial SiblingsSpiritually Healing the Indigo Children (and Adult Indigos, Too!)Staying Connected to Your TeenagerStaying Sane When Your Family Comes to VisitStop Arguing with Your KidsStop SignsStop Walking on EggshellsStop Walking on EggshellsStrong, Smart, & BoldSummer of the SkunksSurviving a Borderline ParentTaking Charge of AngerTelling SecretsThank You for Being Such a PainThe Anti-Romantic ChildThe AwakeningThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe Birth of PleasureThe Brief Couples Therapy Homework Planner with DiskThe Bully Action GuideThe Burden of SympathyThe Commercialization of Intimate LifeThe CorrectionsThe Couples Psychotherapy Treatment PlannerThe DisappearanceThe Dream BearerThe Educated ParentThe Emotional RevolutionThe Employee Assistance Treatment PlannerThe EpidemicThe Ethics of ParenthoodThe Ethics of the FamilyThe Gay Baby BoomThe Good DivorceThe Guide for International Intercultural Couples and Families Intercultural MarriageThe Healing Journey for CouplesThe Hostile HospitalThe Husbands and Wives ClubThe Inside Story on Teen GirlsThe Introvert AdvantageThe Little FriendThe Love HexagonThe Moral Intelligence of ChildrenThe Neuroscience of Human RelationshipsThe New I DoThe Normal OneThe Nurture AssumptionThe OASIS Guide to Asperger SyndromeThe Other ParentThe Philosophical ParentThe Psychology of Parental ControlThe Real Rules for GirlsThe Reflective ParentThe Right to Be ParentsThe Secret Lives of WivesThe Spider and the BeeThe State of AffairsThe StepsThe Story of My FatherThe Velveteen FatherThe Virgin BlueThe Visitation HandbookThe Whole ChildTo Have and To Hurt:Two Is EnoughUnderstanding MarriageUnderstanding the Borderline MotherUnhitchedUntrue Up in FlamesWe've Got IssuesWhat about the KidsWhat Goes UpWhat Is Secular Humanism?What It Means to Love YouWhat Our Children Teach UsWhen a Parent is DepressedWhen Mars Women DateWhen Someone You Love Is BipolarWhen Someone You Love Is DepressedWhy Are You So Sad?Will You, Won't You?WomanWorking With Emotional IntelligenceWorried All the TimeYes, Your Teen Is Crazy!
The effect of the illness, impairment, and difficult behavior of one person on his or her family is starting to gain more recognition. Some have suggested that when one family member is disabled, then the whole family can often become disabled, especially when there is little social support and the family is left on its own to cope. For example, in his excellent memoir Imagining Robert, Jay Neugeboren recounts his experiences growing up with his brother who had major mental illness, the feelings that he went through, and the battles he has had to fight on his brother’s behalf with doctors and administrators. In her wonderful memoir Daughter of the Queen of Sheba, Jackie Lyden explains what it was like to grow up and contend with her mother’s manic depression. There’s no doubt that living with a family member who has more than his or her fair share of difficulties can have many knock on effects for the rest of the family, especially other children. This is the topic of psychoanalyst Jeanne Safer’s The Normal One. Unfortunately, it is a problematic and flawed treatment of this important issue.
We can start with the title, The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling. Safer assumes a clear distinction between who is normal and who is difficult or damaged. All through the book, she uses words such as abnormal, dysfunctional, and disturbed, to refer to siblings with problems, and often applies adjectives to them such as whiny, inept, and retarded, psychopathic, drug-addicted, and borderline. She bring up the same people in different cases, and will refer back to them by the description of the sibling’s most unpleasant behavior; for example, she talks about a lawyer “whose paranoid schizophrenic brother broke down her office door and gave her daughters the penis-shaped nutcracker” (p.171). In the Introduction, Safer explains that she uses “the terms normal, abnormal, intact, and damaged not to make value judgments but to reflect more accurately the point of view of higher-functioning siblings” (p. xvii). This claim is not well supported by her quotations from interviewees. Furthermore, the cumulative effect of Safer’s language is to express a strong sense of disdain and even anger. Safer says she takes issue with the politically correct euphemism of “special needs” children, and she seems to be making a point in using plain language. But she does not make a strong case that such language is called for, and it will strike many readers as insensitive and even offensive.
A related problem concerns the scope of the book. The kinds of “damage” she considers include severe mental illness, brain injuries, attention deficit and hyperactivity, learning disorders, and tendencies toward criminal behavior including sexual abuse and murder. Sometimes the “difficult” behavior of siblings amounts to little more than dropping out of college or having unstable personal lives, while in other cases the siblings have chronically disabling diseases. It’s hard to believe that there are simple generalizations about the families with such diverse members. Yet Safer makes many sweeping claims, such as “Every intact sibling secretly wonders, ‘Why didn’t it happen to me—or when will it’” (p. 63), “Normal siblings are inundated daily with behavior that is not only noxious but also frightening, incomprehensible, and wretchedly sad” (p. 73) or “Relationships with damaged siblings reverberate through many generations” (p.133). At other times, Safer is vague, suggesting that having a damaged sibling tends to cause certain psychological reactions, but making no absolute claim.
Indeed, the whole of the book seems to largely consist of Safer’s personal opinion and generalizations from her experience with her own brother, her patients, and interviewees. There is a short bibliography that lists mostly articles from psychoanalytic journals, and of course the evidential basis of psychoanalytic theory is very questionable. Safer uses many examples of dreams to illustrate the repressed fantasies of people with damaged siblings, but her interpretation of those dreams is entirely subjective, lacking even the sort of methodology proposed by Freud. At most, Safer collects some interesting ideas about the psychodynamics within families with troubled or impaired children, that may provide some suggestions for further research.
Maybe the most disappointing feature of The Normal One is its lack of suggestions for how to improve the unhappy relationships between siblings when one of them has significant physical or mental problems. She does say that it can be helpful for people to understand that many people in similar circumstances share their repressed fantasies and that it is important to recognize frequent patterns within such families. She discusses what she calls the “Caliban Syndrome” which “affects every normal child” with a damaged sibling (p. 159). This has four symptoms, which “affect everyone differently, but no one escapes” (p. 160): premature maturity, survivor guilt, compulsion to achieve, and fear of contagion. Normal siblings try to make themselves as different as possible from their damaged relatives, according to Safer. Safer assumes that understanding one’s irrational reactions to one’s sibling should reduce the symptoms of the Caliban Syndrome. But Safer does not promise much improvement. Indeed, she says that her relationship with her own brother is still not good, although she is now much more ready to admit her brother’s existence and to acknowledge the dysfunctional ways that her family responded to her brother’s troubles.
In short, The Normal One is sensationalist, unconvincing in its general claims, and is unlikely to be helpful to people with troubled or impaired siblings. Safer’s claims don’t fit very well with the pictures of families of people with illness or disability presented in many memoirs. There are some obvious gaps in her treatment of sibling relationships. She says little about how one child in a family can take on the role of the needy or sick person, giving others in the family the role of caretakers or allowing them to feel good about themselves in comparison. She does not address at any length the fact that some families can be the cause of a child’s problems. She does not discuss the way that the gender of the “healthy” sibling makes a difference to his or her experience. Those seeking a thoughtful discussion of relationships between a troubled or impaired people and their more successful siblings should look elsewhere. © 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.
Comment on this review