'The Normal One' -- the Caliban Syndrome


The Normal One: Life With a Difficult or Damaged Sibling, by Jeanne Safer. Free Press. 224 pages. $24 .

The most dismaying revelation in Jeanne Safer's The Normal One is that no amount of psychologizing can diminish her childhood bitterness. Safer describes the lifelong damage inflicted by her brother Steven, underscoring it with testimony from others whose siblings had problems like schizophrenia, Down syndrome or cerebral palsy. Although Steven was merely overweight and obnoxious, Safer claims equivalent trauma. Her "tragedy" is that her parents' (and her) utter rejection of Steven elevated her to family darling, a "crushing obligation."

"The normal ones are marked like Cain," she intones, "doomed by sibling thought-murders to roam the world without respite." Worst of all, she became an overachiever "whose footing is forever perilous" as she successfully practices psychoanalysis, writes books and appears regularly on TV.

Surely growing up with disability can be horrific, but it's disingenuous to equate the impact of a paralyzed sibling with one who's hostile and socially inept.

Safer insists that all normal siblings develop her "Caliban Syndrome": premature maturity, survivor guilt, compulsion to achieve and fear of contagion. The "groundbreaking blueprint" for "reclaiming" oneself from Shakespeare's monstrosity, promised in the book's publicity, turns out to be simple acknowledgment of these symptoms.

True, many analysts give such redemptive power to insight that naming one's suffering is tantamount to ending it. But given the self-pity that drenches this book, even inventing her own syndrome hasn't done the job for Safer.

She deprecates the unevolved whose religious or cultural traditions facilitate calm acceptance of their caretaking role -- clearly in denial, they harbor "unresolved emotional conflicts" -- but reserves her sharpest contempt for "the myth of the saintly sibling" with its "treacly sentimentality."

According to Safer, the media's "relentless tone of moral uplift" forces normals into supportive roles they all secretly hate.

Safer announces that normals try to fulfill parental needs "no matter what the cost in self-estrangement," as if this dynamic were exclusive to these families.

She also alleges that "practically nothing has been written" about this before, ignoring about 20 books in the '90s with titles like Burdened Children and It's Not Fair.

While Safer acknowledges her profound lack of childhood empathy, she prefers to blame her parents for it: "Family dynamics kept us apart."

Somehow, her repugnant Caliban eventually maintained his own dance band and radio show, secured a wife and friends, and won the presidency of his temple brotherhood; outside of his unforgiving family, he managed a life. But for all Safer's alleged trauma, Steven rated only 15 minutes of discussion in her 15 years of therapy. This book is her belated attempt to wrestle their relationship to the ground: Straining to normalize her disappointment and shame, she stretches them into universals.

Finally, Safer maintains that every normal sibling must "forge an identity in which the damaged one is peripheral." She has achieved total estrangement, if not release. Her real tragedy is that, furious at Steven's existence and afraid of resembling him, she spent half a century negating him -- and now grieves the loss.

Safer's endless, sour resentment of her non-idyllic childhood permeates every page, undermining the credibility of her solutions.

Judith Schlesinger is a psychologist, jazz critic, educator and author. Her last book was a biography of Humphrey Bogart, and she is now working on Dangerous Joy: The Mad Musician and Other Creative Myths. She has a PhD in psychology.

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