Sibling Relationships

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For this volume, Prophecy Coles has brought together a group of distinguished writers to explore a wide range of issues affecting sibling relationships. This exciting collection of papers addresses a long neglected subject in psychoanalytic thinking. Since Sigmund Freud, psychoanalytic attention has focused firmly on the Oedipal triangle and as a consequence sibling relationships have languished in virtual oblivion. In recent years the importance of siblings has started to be investigated but we are still at the beginning of formulating theory on this subject. This book raises fascinating issues for therapists who are forging new forms of thought on the interplay of sibling relationships.Contributors:Leonore Davidoff; R.D. Hinshelwood; Vivienne Lewin; Juliet Mitchell; Elspeth Morley; Estelle Roith; Margaret Rustin; Michael Rustin; Jennifer Silverstone; Harriet Thistlethwaite; and Gary Winship.

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CHAPTER ONE. The sibling relationship and sibling incest in historical context

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Leonore Davidoff

“The sibling is the beginning of the stranger”

(Japanese Proverb quoted in Sylvia Yanagisako, Transforming the Past: Tradition and Kinship among Japanese Americans, Stanford University Press, 1985, p. 193)

That tender union, all combin’d
Of Nature’s holiest sympathies
‘Tis Friendship in its loveliest dress
‘Tis Love’s most perfect tenderness

(Mary Ann Hedge, “Brother and Sister”, 1832)

From the thundering majesty of Greek tragedy to the brutal Icelandic sagas, to the sentimentality of such Victorian verses as the above, the relationship of brother and sister has haunted our cultural heritage. And in everyday lives some of the most powerful emotional bonds, as well as practical human interactions, still remain between brothers and sisters.1 In the rare cases where historians have noticed sibling relationships, their importance has been evident. Sisters and brothers have acted as surrogate parents (and children), informal teachers, adult co-residents, friends, and even, on occasion, lovers.

 

CHAPTER TWO. Ishmael and Isaac: an enduring conflict

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Estelle Roith

“Mankind never lives entirely in the present. The past, the tradition of the race and of the people, lives on in the ideologies of the super-ego, and yields only slowly to the influences of the present …”

(Sigmund Freud, “New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis, 1933a, p. 67)

“Very deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?”

(Thomas Mann, Joseph and his Brothers, 1933, p. 3)

Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thou into the land of Moriah; and offer him there T for a burnt offering” (Genesis 22: 2).1 The words of Genesis, echoing down the millennia, herald the supreme trial of Abraham’s faith. Often described as the defining moment for Judaism, the words stand at the crossroads of all three monotheistic faiths. In this paper, whose theme is the story of two half-brothers, Ishmael and Isaac, the sons of Abraham, I am going to look at the event known to Judaism and Christianity as the “Binding of Isaac” (in Hebrew, the Akedah), and to Islam as the “sacrifice of Ishmael”, the founding myth of the saga of monotheism whose heirs today are so deeply troubled.

 

CHAPTER THREE. Orestes and democracy

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R. D. Hinshelwood and Gary Winship

Democracy is a political notion, and is often used simplisti-cally in political debate. But what are its emotional and psychological roots in the individual? And do they support the simplicity of the political ideal? The story of Electra and Orestes as told by Aeschylus is a fascinating study in sibling relations. Aeschylus used the family dynamics in the House of Agamemnon as a basis for political observations about democracy in Ancient Greece. Locating the political concept of democracy within the family is an idea that is no less resonant today with the resurgence of neo-conservative appeals to family values. From a psychoanalytic viewpoint, the notion of democracy is problematic, and we trace the development of democratic ideals as an internal psychic process that is influenced by, and in turn influences, familial, social, and political dynamics.

Democracy was often dramatized in the works of the Greek playwrights, where matters of civil concern such as war and government were compressed into family dramas, such as that played out in the Oresteia by Aeschylus. The relations between mother and father (Agamemnon and Clytemnestra) and the sibling dynamics between Orestes and Electra were mirrored with dramatic effect in the ebb and flow between traditional authority and experiments in democracy in the ancient world. Aeschylus was highly critical of these political experiments, as were other ancient scholars and playwrights. Those debates contrast with the modern espousal of democracy as unthinkingly good.

 

CHAPTER FOUR. The siblings of Measure for Measure and Twelfth Night

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Margaret Rustin and Michael Rustin

Since its origins in ancient Greece, classical theatre has created great symbolic spaces in which the dilemmas of primary family relationships can be explored. There are many parallels between the investigations by psychoanalysts of the unconscious dynamics of families, and those of the great dramatists, from Aeschylus onwards.1 Freud, of course, named the Oedipus Complex from Sophocles’ great drama, Oedipus Rex, and seemed to identify himself with its hero’s search for unacceptable but nevertheless necessary truths. In our book Mirror to Nature: Drama, Psychoanalysis and Society (2002), we explored many parallels between the discoveries of psychoanalysis and the representations of classical western theatre. What is so striking is how central issues of parenthood and marriage are to so many of the greatest plays of this tradition, in whatever period one considers.2 Primary family connections are usually the prism through which dramatists explore the experiences of living in particular human societies.

 

CHAPTER FIVE. The replacement child as writer

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Harriet Thistlethwaite

“Do not return. If you can bear to, stay
dead with the dead. The dead have their own tasks.
But help me, if you can without distraction,
As what is farthest sometimes helps: in me.”

(Rilke, from “Requiem for a friend”)

When a sibling dies, the parents and any other child or children in the family will have a devastating loss to contend with, and will in all likelihood have problems with mourning. What happens to an infant who is born into a family where an older sibling has already died and not been mourned? All normal use of projective identification with the family around will bring the infant into contact with the inner dead one, and this is likely to become a source of considerable confusion and difficulty in healthy living. For a newborn infant the effect in relation to the grieving mother is particularly devastating.

The term “replacement child” has been coined to denote a child born after a short time: conceived within six months of the miscarriage or death of the previous infant (Rowe et al., 1978). The essential factor is that there has not been sufficient time for the dead child to be mourned, by the mother in particular, so that an unconscious confusion is likely to arise in her mind between the dead and the live child who follows. Moreover, she will be unlikely to be able to provide containment for her infant.

 

CHAPTER SIX. Sibling trauma: a theoretical consideration

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Juliet Mitchell

In 1928, introducing the topic of psychoanalysis and siblings to the American Psychiatric Association, Oberndorf claimed:

The very presence of the second sibling, irrespective of age or sex, creates an entirely different and determining environment and one finds it not infrequent that the one sibling so centres his interest upon the other that this relationship almost literally represents all the world to him … In the very early years of child life, the sibling relationships may quite overshadow anything else in the environment. [Oberndorf 1928, pp. 1013, 1019]

One colleague, a Dr Gregory, raised a question to open the discussion. He asked for an opinion on a patient with murderous hatred of her mother. The President-Chairman questioned the relevance to the siblings. Dr Gregory could not discover the relevance and Dr Oberndorf was left describing the hatred that succeeds fantasies of maternal incest—the Oedipus complex. There was no other discussion; siblings, as far as one can tell from the report, were not mentioned.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN. The idealization of the twin relationship

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Vivienne Lewin

Siblings have an important place in our inner world. Twins are siblings of a distinctive kind and, while their relationship is at least as important as those of other siblings, the twin relationship also poses problems for the developing twins, difficulties that are unique to twins. The early dyadic and triadic relationships of the infant with its parents are disrupted by the presence of a twin. For all parties, the presence of two infants of the same age complicates the dynamics by creating an extra set of relationships to negotiate. Twin infants have to negotiate the triangular relationship between infant, mother, and father; and also the relationship with the other twin and the awareness of the other twin’s relationship with mother, father, and with itself. For twins the early dyadic stage is essentially another triangle from the start.

Twins seem to fascinate us and I hope to explore the reasons for this. I have found it interesting that on many occasions, as soon as I have mentioned in conversation that I was writing about twins, the person I was talking to seemed to feel compelled to tell me an anecdote or story about twins, excited by some aspect of the twin relationship. Most often this interest has related to the uncanniness of two people who look so similar, or to the extraordinary, even apparently telepathic, communication between twins. Rank (1971) has written about our sense of the uncanny when we see two people who look the same. He explores the significance of “the double” in mirrors, shadows, and phantasies. He suggests that the concept of the double is linked with death—that by duplicating oneself we hope to avoid the inevitability of death. Fanthorpe (2000) refers to “the strangeness of the other who looks the same”.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT. The influence of sibling relationships on couple choice and development

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Elspeth Morley

Introduction

Two recent books (Coles, 2003; Mitchell 2003) have generated excitement in the field of psychotherapy in drawing to our attention the extraordinary absence of focus in the psychoanalytic literature on the lateral relationships of siblings/peers compared with the cornucopia of concentration on vertical parent-child relationships. Excitement and, indeed, controversy. Are there universal principles governing the lateral which can take their place alongside the vertical? Are they the same principles in a lateral context or, if not, how do they differ from the vertical? In the individual’s psychic development do they precede or follow? Are they chronologically simultaneous, or does one displace the other? Or, at our most iconoclastic, are we to see all psychoanalytic theory as autobiographical, with the focus of both the writing and clinical practice of the giant creators of psychoanalysis emanating from their inter- and intrapsychic struggles, each locked in his or her own autonomous world, giving virgin birth to faithful followers who can never leave their progenitors?

 

CHAPTER NINE. Siblings

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Jennifer Silverstone

Introduction

This paper is about siblings, how siblings find each other, use each other, and sustain each other.1 I am going to suggest that siblings can hold the family narrative for each other, and become the containers for each other of a history of their childhood. This is particularly true in the cases where there has been a lack of the capacity for maternal ambivalence, by which I mean acknowledgment that mothering contains love and hate as a healthy state of affairs, and where there is a lack of the ability of the mother to keep her child in mind. Siblings can also play an important role where there is an idealization or denigration of a child, or a negative view of the child, or where for other reasons there is an absence of mind in the mother.2

In other cases, where the family carries a trauma, siblings can become central to the internal world. I shall take a brief look at the passing on of trauma through families and into the next generation of siblings. This will include taking note of the whole family, its structure, and a consideration of the role of maternal function, for I believe that part of the maternal function is in creating and re-creating the narrative of a child’s life. We shall see that in the face of early failures of containment of various kinds, and where siblings have had to become caretakers, the sibling transference can become central in the therapeutic work. When these states of mind are revealed the focus of work usually shifts away from the Oedipal constellation. I shall also make some reference to the only child.

 

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