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Siblings in the Unconscious and Psychopathology

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This book examines adults' identifications and internal relationships with their siblings' mental representations. The authors believe that the best way to illustrate clinical formulations and psychoanalytic theoretical concepts is to provide detailed clinical data. The influence of childhood sibling experiences and associated unconscious fantasies, in their own right, in adults' personality characteristics, behaviour patterns, and symptoms are presented from seventeen case reports. Clinicians who have patients with fear of pregnancy, claustrophobia, incestuous fantasies, extreme dependency on or murderous rage against siblings, guilt due to the death of a sister or brother in childhood, replacement child syndrome, history of adoption, certain types of animal phobias and related issues will find this volume most helpful. The authors have made a rare, but needed, psychoanalytic contribution that examines mental representations of sisters and brothers in our daily lives.

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11 Chapters

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1 - Unconscious Fantasies

ePub

Our own experiences make us familiar with conscious fantasies or daydreams: stories in our minds that gratify our narcissistic or object-seeking and sexual or aggressive wishes. In our conscious fantasies we make ourselves princes or princesses, we take revenge on our enemies, or conquer sexually desirable partners. Other conscious fantasies are masochistic in nature; they satisfy unconscious wishes to submit to the demands of harsh superegos. Some conscious fantasies, whether they aim to temporarily increase our self-esteem or devalue or punish ourselves, end with masturbation: a bodily discharge to relieve tensions associated with closeness or distance to objects and to satisfy various aspects of infantile sexuality and infantile aggression. While it is easy to understand and explain conscious fantasies (daydreams) theoretically, the metapsychological formulations about unconscious fantasies have been rather difficult. First of all, patients do not directly report their unconscious fantasies. As Beres (1962) suggested, we surmise the existence of an unconscious fantasy “from the effects it produces, as the physicist surmises the existence of the electrical particles of atoms by the effects they produce” (p. 309). The story lines of unconscious fantasies are not presented in words and sentences. The patient, with the help of the analyst, reconstructs the story lines of unconscious fantasies during analytic treatment.

 

2 - The Intruder

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Child psychoanalyst Parens (1980) describes a mother's pregnancy and sibling's birth as “average, expectable events” (p. 419) which disturb the existing equilibrium for the older child, but do so only temporarily; in a healthy environment a new equilibrium is then established and the experience is not traumatic. Nevertheless the older child begins to experience, to one degree or another, sibling rivalry. Used loosely, the term sibling rivalry, indicating a feeling of competition for the mother's attention, has come to carry a negative connotation (Levy, 1937). This does not mean, however, that Freud and other analysts have not also acknowledged the positive aspects of the mother's pregnancy, sibling birth, and early sibling experience. We, too, have observed both positive and negative consequences of sibling experiences. But since this book focuses on psychopathology, in this chapter we begin to examine the reasons why in some cases “average, expectable events” become traumatic and how their influence appears in adults.

 

3 - Insects, Fish, Birds, and Animals

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In the previous chapters we wrote about the individual's internalized relationship with the representations of siblings. This chapter examines how sibling representations frequently appear in symbolized form. In The Interpretation of Dreams, early in the psychoanalytic movement, Freud (1900) referred to hostility between siblings as playing a primary role in the establishment of psychopathology. Freud illustrated how in “typical dreams” unconscious feelings toward a sibling may appear as the death of someone beloved or as the appearance of the sibling in the form of vermin or a small animal. Freud wrote that in dreams “being plagued with vermin is often a sign of pregnancy” (p. 357), in order to illustrate further how vermin in the unconscious often stand for babies, children, and thus for siblings. It is commonly observed that children (and later, adults) often use insects, fish, and even large animals as displaced objects to receive their unacceptable feelings and thoughts about—and less often their libidinal investments in—the siblings’ representations.

 

4 - Territoriality and Unconscious Womb Fantasies

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We have already alluded to territoriality and unconscious womb fantasies in the previous chapter. Here we examine these two phenomena in some detail and illustrate them with more clinical material. These phenomena clearly relate to a particular symptom: claustrophobia. Claustrophobia can appear in childhood and continue into adulthood. Sometimes this symptom does not exist in childhood but an event that reactivates the sibling experience of childhood in the adult's mind (e.g., the birth of one's baby, the death of one's mother) can lead to the development of claustrophobia in adulthood. Abarbanel (1983) illustrated, for example, that some women's sibling experiences are revived during their second pregnancies, as mother and firstborn await the new arrival. We know of two cases where men's unconscious sibling experiences awakened and then induced symptoms when their wives gave birth to second babies, which unconsciously reminded the husbands of the birth of their own siblings. One of the two is the case of Stewart, which we report in this chapter. In chapter 11 we refer to Harry, whose sibling's wife's giving birth to a child initiated psychopathology.

 

5 - The Secret Restaurant

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In the previous chapters we presented brief clinical vignettes to illustrate specific aspects of sibling experiences and adults’ internalized interactions or identifications with the representations of siblings. We also focused on unconscious womb fantasies pertaining to pregnant mothers and the representations of younger siblings. In order to provide further and more convincing clinical proof of the existence of such unconscious fantasies, in this chapter we focus in some detail on the case of a young college student named Lisa, providing material from a one-year period of her analysis. It was during this time that her case clearly illustrated all of the concepts regarding younger siblings that we examined in the previous chapters: new sibling represented as intruder, animal symbolism, Christmas “neurosis,” territoriality, murderous rage, unconscious womb fantasies, and claustrophobia. Lisa's case also demonstrates the centrality of analysing unconscious sibling experiences during the treatments of certain patients. Without learning how Lisa's sibling experiences had “settled in” her adult mind, without recognizing the nature of her unconscious fantasies, and without resolving her transference neurosis and the conflicts associated with these fantasies, the analysis of her oedipal and other psychosexual and developmental issues would have been impossible.

 

6 - To Kill or To Repair

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This chapter examines what happens to the older child, in adulthood, when the intruder, the new sibling, has a birth defect or physical or emotional illness. Lisa's brothers Joe and Mark (see previous chapter) were physically healthy individuals. Dr. Albert's brother (see chapter 2) was ill. Both Lisa and Dr. Albert reacted strongly to their respective younger siblings. Interactions with mental representations of her brothers preoccupied Lisa's adult life while Dr. Albert identified disruptively with the representation of his brother. Here we ask the following question: If the new sibling is handicapped, how does this influence the way the sibling experience “settles in” to the adult mind?

The case of Mira, which we present in some detail in this chapter, demonstrates how an older sibling's disturbing symptoms and character traits related directly to her experience of having a mongoloid younger brother. In Mira we also see attempts at sublimations. If her sublimations had prevailed, Mira's adult internalized relationship with her brother's representation might have led to a positive outcome. So, to begin to answer our question we must focus on what an individual does, in adulthood, with the mental representation of a handicapped younger sibling. As Lisa's case illustrated, one does not need to have a handicapped younger sibling in order to have disturbing symptoms and character traits. The older child's projections of murderous and other negative impulses in fact, psychologically speaking, can make the younger sibling “defective” even if in reality this sibling is healthy. However, if the younger sibling really has a handicap there occurs a “fit” between the older child's projections and the actual deformity in the younger child. Working through and resolving the effects of projection, then, can become difficult. In the case of an actually handicapped sibling, the sibling's representation may play a key role in the analysis of the adult older sibling. We might refine our original question to ask: What kind of mental representation does the healthy child create for his or her “damaged” sibling, what unconscious fantasies accompany the healthy child's interaction with such a mental representation, and how do such unconscious experiences settle in to the adult mind?

 

7 - Deposited Representations

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So far in this book we have focused on the older sibling's reactions to a new sister or brother and how these reactions appear in the older siblings’ internal worlds when they are adults. Occasionally similar reactions may occur in the minds of the younger children; for example, a younger child may be influenced by the experience of having a defective or ill older sibling. Is there a condition which affects the “intruder,” the new sibling, more usually than it affects the older child? Volkan's (1981, 1987) concept of “deposited representations” explains an interesting phenomenon that more often than not happens to the younger rather than the older child, “settling in” to his mind as this child slowly becomes an adult. This concept refers to a type of transgenerational transmission, where a parent or other important individual deposits into a child's developing self representation a preformed self or object representation that comes from the older individual's mind.

There are various types of deposited representations. For example, an individual experiences a traumatic event in which he suffers drastic losses, such as the death of loved ones or the loss of land. At the same time he feels helpless, ashamed, and humiliated. Because the person is traumatized and the losses are great, he cannot effectively mourn the loss and move on. Furthermore, he cannot reverse the feelings of helplessness, shame, and humiliation. Individuals differ in their ways of handling traumatic situations; some predominantly use externalization as a defense mechanism. One of Dr. Ast's patients, a young man, was traumatized by two surgeries on his penis at the ages of 5 and 10 respectively. After his first surgery his father implied that now he had a castrated son. The patient was extremely humiliated, and even though his penis was now functional, in his mind's eye he perceived himself as less than a man. When he became an adult he worked in an orthopedic hospital as an orderly. His analysis revealed that the “crippled” persons in this hospital represented the patient's “castrated” self. The patient, in a sense, “enveloped” and externalized his unwanted part onto others. Now, however, he was doomed to look after his externalized self and control it. Thus, his work as an orderly in the orthopedic hospital was not a choice, it was a compulsion.

 

8 - Twinning

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As in the situation of deposited representation described in the previous chapter, in a clinical condition called “twinning” a child is preoccupied with the representation of another sibling, but usually a living one. We apply the term twinning to a particular and pathological self and object relationship between siblings. This relationship manifests itself in interpersonal interactions, but we use the term to focus on intrapsychic processes with their associated unconscious fantasies.

On the interpersonal level we may notice the pairing of two siblings. The siblings may or may not be biological twins; biological twinship is not a necessary condition for twinning. The pair, however, speak of themselves as “twins” or “blood siblings.” Sometimes they have ritually bonded themselves together by pricking their fingers and mixing their blood. The twinning siblings consider themselves as one functional unit. They may, for example, describe their relationship using the analogy of a “three-legged team” (such as one finds at children's outings and competitions) to describe how they function together. In childhood they exhibit a need for daily physical contact and closeness and they may engage in mutual masturbation. They usually share daydreams in which both are “actors” or “actresses” involved in joint adventures which result in their remaining a pair forever.

 

9 - Dead Sibling Representations

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Twinning with a sibling's representation may continue even after the “twin” sibling dies. To illustrate this, in the next chapter we will describe the internal world of a woman, Gisela, in her early forties. Her case exhibits many aspects of an adult's unconscious sibling experience initiated by the death of a sibling. Before giving details of Gisela's internal world, however, we focus on aspects of internal responses to losing a sibling, whether the sibling is older or younger. The question we want to answer is this: What does an adult do with the representation of a sibling who dies during the former's childhood and what kind of psychopathology may result from internal interactions with such a representation?

Observable reactions of children to the death of an important other, including a sibling, have been published abundantly in the psychoanalytic, psychiatric, and psychological literature. Since these findings are commonly known by the clinical practitioner and are too extensive to summarize here, we have decided not to make a list of them. Instead, we will discuss the metapsychology of childhood mourning and focus on the fate of the mental representation in an adult's mind of a dead sibling by providing the case of Carol.

 

10 - Charon and Herakles: Living with a Dead Brother

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In Greek mythology the river Styx encircles the underworld where the dead “live.” It divides the place of the dead from the place of the living—or links them, depending upon how one looks at it. Hades is the ruler of the underworld; and Cerberus, his vicious dog, guards its gates. The dog is usually described as having three heads, but sometimes as having fifty heads and a snake for a tail. Cerberus welcomes those eligible to enter the underworld, but he prohibits those who do not belong there from entering, and he devours those who try to escape. Charon ferries the dead across the Styx to the underworld. He works under the injunction never to take a living person to the underworld.

Herakles, Greek mythology tells us, had as the last of his twelve tasks to achieve immortality (i.e., to become a god), to catch Cerberus. He demanded that Charon take him in his ferry to the underworld. Frightened by Herakles’ look, Charon gave in and took him across the Styx, where Herakles captured Cerberus, the gatekeeper. He took Cerberus with him, up to the land of the living. Later he returned him to the underworld—or the dog escaped, according to another version. To punish him for disobeying his rules, Hades chained Charon to the ferry for one year, giving him only one oar to navigate from one bank of the Styx to the other.

 

11 - Diagnosis

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Up until now our book may seem to suggest that having siblings is not good for one's mental health! This is, of course, far from the truth. Once more, we would like to remind our readers that our aim in this book is to provide a systematic study of the psychopathological residues, in adults, of internalized childhood sibling experiences. The psychoanalytic literature has reported on the benefits of the sibling experience for the individual, across the life span. From the writings of early Freud to the writings of contemporary psychoanalysts, the psychoanalytic literature reflects psychologically or socially adaptive processes that siblings and their representations initiate. For example, Freud (1900) mentioned the help a sibling birth could give to a girl in increasing her “maternal instinct” (p. 252) if the girl is at the right age to respond this way to the birth of a sibling. Freud (1914, 1916-1917, 1921) also mentioned how sibling experiences could initiate learning a sense of fairness and social justice, enhance group feelings, and help the child to connect to a wider world. More recently growth promoting outcomes of childhood sibling experiences have been examined by Parens (1980, 1988), Neubauer (1982), Bank and Kahn (1982), Kris and Ritvo (1983), Provence and Solnit (1983), and Boer and Dunne (1992); and this is by no means a comprehensive list. Abend (1984) and Graham (1988) focus on adult object choice which is based on childhood sibling love. Works such as those presented by Leichtman (1985), Graham (1988), and Sharpe and Rosenblatt (1994) which deal with the siblings’ role in the child's developmental struggles, for example, going through separation-individuation or the oedipal phase of the psychosexual development, have opened the door for a new focus on the role of the sibling experience in child development. Reiss (1989) states: “Sibling relationships may be an excellent vehicle for maintaining continuity in social roles and relationships from early childhood through adulthood” (p. 220).

 

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