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On Siblings by Juliet Mitchell, Polity Press, 2003.

An Opinion
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 
abided by?
        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
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