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The Importance of Sibling Relationships in Psychoanalysis

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'Coles' book starts from the claim that traditionally psychoanalysis, in stressing the relations of conflict between children and parents, has tended to overlook and displace the co-operative relations between siblings. This is a claim clearly worth investigating.' - Professor Richard Wollheim

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Chapter One - The Sibling Transference

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CHAPTER ONE

The sibling transference

It is rare to find a psychoanalytic book on theory or technique in which siblings play a part in the way the internal world is conceived. There are a few publications, (Agger, 1988; Bank & Kahn, 1997; Colonna & Newman, 1983; Mitchell, 2000; Sharpe & Rosenblatt, 1994) in which, with the exception of Mitchell, the work has been centred in the U.S. There is little reference to the concept of a sibling transference in the analytic journals and when it is mentioned, it is analysed as a displaced oedipal transference.

I first began to wonder about a sibling transference and the role of siblings in our internal world, when I had become stuck for a very long time in a therapy with a female patient, Mrs K. She would repeat an endless litany of her sins and I could make no inroads into her impacted superego. One day she mentioned her elder sister in a way that helped me to grasp that we had been locked into a transference enactment, in which I was this hated sister. It was a striking moment when I took up the sibling transference with her, for it allowed us to unlock a ruthless venom that had been hidden away in one of the harshest superegos I have encountered. For years she had lain on the couch, bottling up her revengeful hatred of me and, instead, had torn herself to shreds. She had experienced me in much the same way as she had experienced her bossy elder sister, and I had not been aware of this possibility (Coles, 1998).

 

Chapter Two - Freud and Siblings

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CHAPTER TWO

Freud and siblings

“As a rule there is only one person an English girl hates more than she hates her eldest sister; and that's her mother”

Shaw, 1903

“As a rule there is only one person an English girl hates more than she hates her mother; and that's her elder sister”

Freud, 1916–1917, p. 205

Freud's misquotation from Shaw, was highlighted by Penelope Farmer (2000) in her anthology on sisters, and it serves as a nice illustration of Freud's “Freudian slip” (p. 190) in his thinking about siblings. He did not much care for them, his own or those of anyone else, and there are only passing references to them in his theoretical work, (1900a, 1905d, 1910a, 1914f, 1916–1917, 1931b), and no reference to them in his intellectual autobiography (1935a) despite the fact that he had five sisters and one brother. One result of Freud's comparative neglect of the place of siblings in emotional development, has been that there is almost no mention of siblings in psychoanalytic theory or practice and it is assumed that siblings play little part in people's health or mental distress, with the exception of Mitchell (2000).

 

Chapter Three - Freud's Early Years

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CHAPTER THREE

Freud's early years

Freud's father Jakob was forty when, in 1855, he married Freud's mother, Amalia Nathansohn, who was only twenty. Jakob brought with him two sons, Emanuel and Philipp, from an earlier marriage. Emanuel, in his early twenties, was himself married with a son, John, this same John who became Freud's “inseparable companion” (Freud, 1900a). Philipp would have been nineteen or twenty-one (Jones, 1953; Raphael-Leff, 1990). Emanuel and Philipp probably lived next door to Jakob and Amalia. Indeed “the half-brother Emanuel's family lived so near and was so intimate that the two families might be regarded as one” (Jones, 1953, p. 6).

In May 1856 Freud was born. His grandfather, Jakob's father, had just died, (Raphael-Leff, 1990, p. 324), and his parents were squashed into “a single rented room in a modest house…(in) Freiberg” (Gay, 1988, p. 7). The circumstances surrounding Freud's early years were to prove most complicated and quite unpropitious. It is not clear, from either Jones or Gay, whether the family continued to live in this “single rented room” until they left Freiberg in 1859, but equally there is no evidence that they moved before leaving Freiberg (Anzieu, 1986). It is my suspicion, as I shall argue in the next chapter, that indeed they did remain in that one room for the first three years of Freud's life, and that this experience was fundamental to Freud's analytic theories, as well as his treatment of the Wolfman.

 

Chapter Four - “The Wolfman”

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CHAPTER FOUR

“The Wolfman”

I ended the last chapter by suggesting that Freud's neglect of the role of siblings in emotional development might be linked to the centrality he gives to the Oedipus complex. In this chapter, I shall be considering what Freud was to call, “a modification of the Oedipus complex” (1939a, p. 79), that is to say the central importance Freud gives to the trauma of seeing and hearing the primal scene. I think we see the result of Freud's belief in the trauma of witnessing the primal scene, in the way he treated “The Wolfman” (1918b). More importantly, for my argument, the consequence of this belief pushes the effect of sibling relationships to the periphery of the psyche.

“The Wolfman” went into analysis with Freud in 1910, when he was twenty-four, following a long period in a German sanatorium where he had been diagnosed as suffering from “manic depressive insanity” (1918b, p. 8). Freud asserts that this depression had been brought on as a consequence of a gonorrhoeal infection when he was eighteen. At the age of eighty-three, “The Wolfman” gave a different account in his Recollections of My Childhood (1973). He believed that it was the suicide of his sister Anna, four years earlier in 1906, that had precipitated his depression.

 

Chapter Five - Klein and Siblings

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CHAPTER FIVE

Klein and siblings

“The feminine!—Perhaps it is dawning on you how deeply I have drunk from this cup and drowned myself in it in order to reap my pleasure from its gay and foamy brim. Only one other person knows about [it], and what he knows is wrong, for he had treacherously expelled it from me with his own loving ways”

Grosskurth, 1985, p. 24

I ended the previous chapter with a suggestion that Freud had turned his back upon “The Wolfman's” attachment to his sister, for it came into conflict with his emerging drive theory and the centrality he was to place on the Oedipus complex. The result has been that psychoanalytic theory has relegated siblings to an insignificant place in the internal world. It was with great surprise I discovered that Klein, in early writings, holds a very challenging view on siblings and their importance in psychic development. I say surprise, because if my understanding of these ideas about sibling relationships is correct, it seems that, in 1926, Klein is theoretically repositioning herself with the early Freud, of 1895, before he had developed his drive theory and the Oedipus complex. It also needs to be noted that, though I am in agreement with some of the ideas Klein has about siblings and their emotional significance to each other, Klein's later model of the mind is not one that I use in my clinical practice.

 

Chapter Six - Sibling Sexual Relationships

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CHAPTER SIX

Sibling sexual relationships

“12th November 1599.

There is much talk of the tragical death of Mistress Ratcliffe, the Maid of Honour, who ever since the death of Sir Alexander her brother hath pined in such strange manner as voluntarily she hath gone about to starve herself, and by the two days together hath received not sustenance, which meeting with extreme grief had made an end of her maiden modest days at Richmond yesterday. Her Majesty commanded her body to be opened, and it was found well and sound, saving certain strings striped all over her heart”

G. B. Harrison, 1955, ii, 49/50

Mistress Ratcliffe was one of Elizabeth I's Maids of Honour. She was buried in Westminster Cathedral, and it was said that her death was much talked about in Shakespeare's London (Harrison, 1955). The question people asked was: what was the nature of the relationship she had with her brother?

I ended the previous chapter with a suggestion that early Klein reinstates siblings into the inner world and redresses a balance that gets lost if the Oedipus complex is seen as the exclusive foundation for adult desire. The more difficult question is her claim that sexual relations between children “may influence the child's general development favourably” (Klein, 1932, p. 118).

 

Chapter Seven - Brotherly Love

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CHAPTER SEVEN

Brotherly love

In this chapter, I am going to explore the idea that there can be non-incestuous love between siblings that gives to each a support that alters their whole way of relating to others in adult life, and that we impoverish our understanding of this “primal passionate store” (Eliot, 1896) if we dismiss it as pathological or a mere “second edition” of an earlier love of child and parent (Colonna & Newman, 1983).

A concept that is absent from the psychoanalytic literature is the idea of “brotherly love”. Brotherly love is associated with the idea of brotherhood: that is to say, a group of men who come together through a shared interest. A shared trauma, such as war, brings out the idea of brotherly love most strongly.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother. [Shakespeare, Henry V, iv, iii]

It seems that to be called someone's brother, in this context, is high praise. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines “brotherliness” as a “friendly alliance…community of feeling uniting man and man”, and “brotherly” as a “characteristic of a brother, kind, affectionate, hence brotherliness”. What becomes clear from these quotations is that brothers are assumed to love each other and that to attribute “brotherly love” to people, who are not related, is to give their relationship a special importance. I think it is also assumed that “brotherly love” is a non-sexual love.

 

Chapter Eight - The Sibling Experience

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CHAPTER EIGHT

The sibling experience

“The nature and quality of the human child's relations to people of his own and the opposite sex have already been laid down in the first six years of his life…The people to whom he is in this way fixed are his parents and brothers and sisters”

Freud, 1914f, p. 243

In the last chapter, on brotherly love, I suggested that sibling/peer relationships need to be brought into sharper focus in our thinking about the development of the self. In this chapter, I shall be looking at writers who share my view that relationships between siblings and peers are to be distinguished from those between parent and child and that they hold a particular and important place in the inner world.

It may seem that the quotation above, from Freud's short paper, “Some reflections on schoolboy psychology”, is an acknowledgment of the importance of sibling relationships. We have already seen how, in 1900a, he had noted his early relationship with his nephew John was “unalterably fixed” (p. 483) in his unconscious, and that his way of relating to his contemporaries in later life was determined by this experience. However, my argument throughout this book is that Freud's belief in the importance of these early experiences with siblings and peers drops out of his clinical theory and practice and remains at the stage of intuitive insight. I have already suggested, in Chapter Two, that Freud's complicated family background may give some understanding of his emotional conflict surrounding early attachment to siblings and peers. I have also argued that Freud's discovery of the Oedipus complex contributed to the abandonment of the theoretical problem of sibling attachments.

 

Chapter Nine - Conclusion

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CHAPTER NINE

Conclusion

“What do we know ourselves, how do we remember, and what is it we find in the end?”

Sebald, 2001, p. 287

The central question I have been asking throughout this book is, why have siblings been relegated to a peripheral place in the psychoanalytic inner world? One answer to the question lies in the prominent position that psychoanalytic theory has placed upon Freud's Oedipus complex. As I pursued the question further, I became aware of the personal way in which siblings were thought about, by such theorists as Freud and Klein. This led me to suggest that the Freudian proposal, of the universality of the rivalrous nature of sibling relationships, should be tempered with the idea that psychoanalysis might be conceived of as the theorization of autobiography.

I ended the last chapter with the argument that if we believe that the primary emotion siblings have towards each other is one of murderous wishes, we are forced into thinking that any other emotions they might have towards each other are displaced or “second editions” (Colonna & Newman, 1983). Mitchell's Mad Men & Medusa (2000) re-addresses the powerful impact that siblings have upon emotional development, but I find her view is too restricting. I argued that her deeply held Freudian beliefs lead her back to the essentialist position, in which siblings are again reduced to hated rivals. I agree that the birth of a sibling can herald a catastrophic and murderous reaction, but it does not follow that the intrinsic nature of sibling relationships is predicated upon displacement. For instance, a second child comes into a very different world to a first child. In the examples of George Eliot, Melanie Klein, the war-orphaned children from Theresienstadt, and my work with some of my patients, they express loving feelings towards their siblings/peers, and these feelings play a significant part in the structure of the psyche.

 

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