Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy
On Siblings by Juliet Mitchell, Polity Press, 2003.
by Jean Hantman
"I was struck that the father was not credited with any role in the
aetiology of Sarah's illness."
The psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell's book "Siblings" is
certainly a valuable expansion to psychoanalytic literature. Mitchell
makes a good case for considering that the core event in many
people's lives is the sibling relationship. If we are rating powerful
influences on children's lives, though, the power of siblings
continues to come in second to parental power because parents set the
tone for peace, violence and discussion in the childhood home. (Third
most influential in psychic development is community and culture,
friends and teachers.). One is left to wonder why the parents (the
adults) are protected from being realistically appraised as the root
of all that goes on in the house where their children are raised. The
distinction between 'all that goes on' and 'the root of all that goes
on' must be made.
Certainly parents aren't everything that influences a child's
development. They set the tone for the manner in which all other
influences are navigated.
When my second son was born, a neighbour told me that
bringing a new baby into the house has the same effect on your older
child as telling your husband, "Honey, I'm bringing another husband
home to live with us. You have to share me from now on, for the rest
of our lives." If we, the adults, allow the displaced child to
verbally communicate her rage, betrayal, disbelief, shock and sadness
at this catastrophic emotional event, the home will be characterized
by harmonious (i.e., authentically ambivalent) relationships.
If we, the adults, force the older child to suppress his dark
feelings, as most people do, the home will be characterized by sneaky
violence and lying, unspoken resentment, repression and enactments in
Parent A's Home: "My brother was born when I was three. I
told my mother I wished he was dead. She said, 'Don't ever say that,
that's naughty, you shouldn't feel that way'."
Parent B's Home: "My brother was born when I was three and
I told my mother I wished he was dead. My mother handed the annoying
intruder over to my father (or grandmother or aunt). She held me in
her lap and asked me to tell her everything I was feeling. I never
had to pretend that their happiness was mine. My brother became one
of my best friends."
Mitchell herself writes: "Western psychiatrists and
psychotherapists confirm that sibling incest occurs most frequently
in the context of an absence of vertical--usually, that is
parental--care. Although the context will change the implications
considerably, the child feels this neglect very acutely... the
absence of adult protection is present in all cases" (italics mine).
What then could the reason be for shifting etiology from
the vertical (parental) to the lateral (sibling)?
Mitchell makes the same omission that Freud does with the
Oedipus myth, the circumstances of Oedipus' birth and infancy: his
parents abandoned him when he was born. Both Freud and Mitchell (like
most other Oedipists) skip to the patricide and incest part of the
story, afflicted by the Freudian amnesia concerning Oedipus'
abandonment at birth by his parents. Later on, when writing about
patients' childhood experiences, the same amnesia and omission is
repeated. Focus on incestuous fantasies and activities and ignore the
historical abandonment, the 'absence of adult protection'. All of us
in practice repeatedly hear about bad things happening to our
patients in childhood, cruel brothers and sisters, evil teachers at
school, molester neighbours and for some reason we collude with them
by not asking the obvious questions: Well, where were your parents?
And because we (parents) can't be protecting the children every
minute of the day, the equally important questions: What happened
after? Could you tell your parents about it? Did they help you
Why not? Most of my patients have horror stories to
tell about unpleasant or unspeakable experiences they had with their
siblings over time. I inwardly wonder and sometimes I ask, "Where
were your parents when this was going on?"
Obviously parents can't be physically present every
second of their children's time in a home. But how could parents let
violence in their home occur without intervening the same day? So
that the violent child knew that the parents are unconflicted about
creating a home in which the difference between verbal anger
(murderous wishes) and physical assault (murderous actions) is
discussed constantly, discussed again and again, understood and
And in those (hopefully) rare situations when a responsible
adult wasn't where he were supposed to be, protecting young children
from their violent impulses, why isn't discussion generated
afterwards about the difference between impulse and action, until
they learned to put their wishes into words (i.e., civilization),
rather than beatings, or repression resulting in hysteria and other
defences against rage?
This is not to discount the pain (and the pleasures) and the
influence lived by people who experienced sibling violence and
deprivation and unfulfilled longing (and camaraderie and company in
the face of parental brutality and distraction). But I continue to
disagree that these experiences are core rather than secondary to
parents who look the other way, allowing their older children to
brutalize the younger. Calling sibling violence the core issue,
rather than secondary to the emotional consequences of parents who
turn their heads away, is another way of protecting the bad object:
loyalty to the royalty.
Who is behind the secrecy that siblings share and
suffer from? Are babies born learning to keep secrets from the people
who are supposed to be protecting them from danger, or are they
taught to silence themselves, and by whom? Where are the parents?
We apparently are determined to protect parents from
acknowledging their responsibility for the way in which the
aggressive phantasies of children are played out in the home.
Mitchell's book is at the same time a more descriptive account of
sibling influence than we have had before and an addition to that
particular literature that protects the bad object by drawing
attention away from the source of those who set the emotional tone of
the childhood home.
Jean Hantman, Ph.D.
8025 Wetherill Road
Cheltenham, PA 19012
Worldwide at jeanshighwire.com/children.html
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