'The Normal One': The Siblings of 'Damaged' Children
By REEVE LINDBERGH
In ''The Normal One,'' Jeanne Safer has given us a disturbing and
persuasive examination of the considerable effect that ''damaged'' --
handicapped, troubled or otherwise impaired -- brothers and sisters have
upon their ''normal'' siblings throughout life. According to Safer, this is
an area of study all but ignored in her own profession, with its intense
focus upon parent-child relationships. ''Psychoanalysis, the talking cure,
is strangely silent about siblings,'' and yet ''having siblings is one of
the defining experiences of childhood, with lifelong reverberations.''
In a chapter acutely titled ''Everybody's an Only Child,'' Safer, a
psychotherapist for close to 30 years, attributes this long neglect in part
to Freud himself, a favored eldest son in a family whose only other boy, a
mere nine months younger, died when Sigmund was a year and a half old -- an
experience she characterizes as a ''guilty triumph'' and that he himself
said left him with ''the germ of self-reproach.'' Though Safer sees some
evidence of change in the profession today, the ''vicious cycle'' of neglect
in psychoanalytic theory dictating neglect in psychoanalytic practice
''keeps every new generation of clinicians blind and deaf to what was
Her analysis of the ''Caliban syndrome,'' as she calls the psychological
condition affecting normal siblings in families with damaged children, is
supported with some 60 interviews with siblings of impaired family members.
The syndrome, named for the Miranda-Caliban relationship in ''The Tempest,''
has four distinct elements: ''premature maturity,'' ''survivor guilt,''
''compulsion to achieve'' and ''fear of contagion.'' Normal siblings are
characterized this way:
''Cheerful caretakers, mature before their time, they are supposed to
consider themselves lucky to be normal. They feel tormented by the
compulsion to compensate for their parents' disappointments by having no
problems and making no demands, and they are often unaware of the massive
external and internal pressure to pretend that nothing is amiss.''
In case after case, the trials of normal siblings are documented: the young
woman who could not persuade her parents to protect her from an autistic
brother attempting to strangle her; the sister whose bed was made up with a
damaged sibling's urine-soaked sheets so that ''the maid wouldn't think
badly'' of the 14-year-old bed-wetter; the man whose retarded brother kept
the family awake playing loud music all night long. Daily sacrifices and
disastrous family gatherings are standard fare, as are stories of parents
routinely missing school graduations and performances in order to stay home
with an impaired child.
''Home life is a series of little murders of privacy, pleasure, peace of
mind,'' Safer writes. ''Beloved possessions get ruined without
repercussions -- the carefully constructed train display wrecked, the prom
dress bought with a hard-earned paycheck hung back in the closet besmirched
with pizza. Either because they could not understand or are exempted by
parents, the culprits are rarely punished.''
Safer makes a strong plea for recognizing honestly and working skillfully
with the profoundly difficult circumstances affecting siblings in families
with damaged children. She is wary of the tendency in our culture to
sugarcoat the experience of living with a handicapped family member as ''a
blessing,'' no matter how severe the impairment or how traumatic the impact
upon the family. Though she does not deny the genuine devotion felt, and
practiced, by many of these families, Safer worries about the damage that
can be done by false scenarios parents invent, consciously or unconsciously,
to cope with the presence of difficult children. ''Contrary to
appearances,'' she argues, ''parents' emotional needs, not their children's,
determine whether a Caliban (or a she-Caliban) is designated as central or
peripheral in a family.''
Another, subtler issue emerges in this book, one that clearly merits further
attention. In an unnerving but compelling first chapter, Safer reveals that
she had, and still has, a brother most people in her life have never heard
about, whom none of her friends have met. Her brother, Steven, ''was the
classic problem child: obese, truculent, picked on by his peers and
troublesome to his teachers.'' Steven, she states baldly, was an
embarrassment to the family, an impediment and a burden. She, on the other
hand, was her parents' darling and delight.
As the reader becomes increasingly uneasy, wondering what, if anything, was
''wrong'' with Steven, and who, if anyone, was ''normal'' in the Safer
family, the story gets worse. We learn that only a handful of childhood
photographs was ever taken of Safer's ''difficult'' brother, that he fought
constantly with his parents and got terrible grades in school, for no
apparent reason in either case. At the age of 11, and for five years
thereafter, Steven was sent off to sleep in the attic, separated from his
sister and his parents in their ground-floor apartment by another apartment
on the second floor. All of this, amazingly, occurred in the absence of
diagnosis. In fact, there was no hard evidence, Safer says, that Steven was
ever truly ''impaired'' at all.
Ultimately, years too late to establish a real bond with him, Safer came to
know her estranged, now adult, brother differently. She saw him as a
talented musician, a man with friends and work of his own, someone she is
sorry not to know better. She realizes that in spite of the trouble in his
childhood, Steven ''gets along fine with people outside his immediate
family; how can the problem have been all his?'' How indeed?
Because of her own experience, Safer seriously, if incompletely, addresses
the impact that parental and sibling behavior can have in establishing the
Caliban syndrome in families where impairment plays a far less central role.
A fuller exploration of this phenomenon, one hopes, will come in time.
Meanwhile, ''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
Reeve Lindbergh's latest books are ''No More Words: A Journal of My Mother,
Anne Morrow Lindbergh'' and ''On Morning Wings,'' an adaptation of the 139th
Psalm for children.