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Psychoanalysis, siblings and the social group.


This paper is first and foremost a plea that we make space for an analytical understanding of lateral relations along a horizontal axis not instead of, but in addition to, the vertical whose perspective is almost synonymous with so many of our disciplines. I start with sisters and brothers--'siblings'--because they bear what anthropologists designate the 'minimal difference from each other' and can be considered from a psychoanalytical point of view (though this is contended) to be the symbolic source of those that follow or succeed them: cousins, wives, husbands, friends and foes. I believe that this 'minimal difference' is crucial also in psychoanalytical theory and therapy.

I speak as a psychoanalyst, but the questions I bring to psychoanalysis always include thinking about gender in whatever field we are looking at. So, for instance, we can ask: does analysing siblings tell us something important about the gendering of war, or psychological illness, or social behaviour or creativity? A British sociologist, Melanie Mauthner, in her empirical study in the United Kingdom of what she calls 'sistering' (2002), claims to have found that a girl's femininity is constructed as much or more from her sister-sister relations as from her mother-daughter identification. If that is so, here, as elsewhere, where would I map it onto any of the related disciplines?

I have four linked concerns: we need a place for our observations of siblings within our theory, our metapsychology. I suggest that what I am calling 'the sibling trauma' might occupy at least a part of that place. If so, this will have an effect on how we understand 'gender'. This circles back to suggest we look at the place where siblings and their gender feature within our understanding of our clinical practice. We need to track the sibling, but I am also interested in the place which siblings occupy whether or not they are actually there. This involves, here very briefly, consideration of the impact of the 'minimal difference' between siblings and the horizontal axis of the social world (as opposed to the family world) as its consequence or resolution.

Siblings in psychoanalytic theory

When I stumbled upon sisters and brothers, 'siblings', I had an experience common to many researchers in the field: one moment I hadn't noticed them, the next they were everywhere. Why this surprise, why this sense of revelation of the obvious? This 'then you didn't see them, now you do' is reflected in the way they are regularly presented as first found and only then to have been missing--like property you didn't know you had lost. Looking back through the annals of psychoanalytic writings, they seem to have come up periodically, been excitedly noticed with pleas for more exploration and gone underground again. The good work has been dropped and picked up again rather than developed. Is it that the vertical has rendered the horizontal invisible? Or is it also that the problem is in some way intrinsic to the sibling situation? I shall come to the second possibility later; an interesting instance suggesting the first is a debate between Bronislav Malinowski (1927; 1929) and the British psychoanalyst, Ernest Jones (1925), in the nineteen twenties over Malinowki's ethnography in the Trobriand Islands.

The main incest taboo in Trobriand matrilineage (with its strong group culture) was an extreme prohibition on sister-brother relations. However, Jones and Malinowski conducted a lively, indeed somewhat acrimonious, debate over whether or not there was none or more Oedipus complexes as a result of the insignificance of the biological father. They ignored the siblings and stressed only the paternal role of the so-called 'mother's-brother' in Trobriand culture. I say 'so-called' because the mother is also the brother's sister and this sibling relationship variously, but always, gives her entitlement whether or not she is a mother. I would argue that wherever we are situated, this sister demands our attention.

Freud (1893; 1905a; 1925) was fond of quoting his early mentor, Jean-Marie Charcot, to the effect that 'theory is good; but it doesn't prevent things from existing' (1893, p.13), thus privileging empirical observation over theory. However, Freud's work was also a notable example of the importance of theory in the way that other 'natural' scientists have regarded it. Addressing the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science the astrophysicist, Sir Arthur Eddington, declared: 'I hope it will not shock experimental physicists too much if I say that we do not accept their observations unless they are confirmed by theory' (in Kaempffert, New York Times, 13 September 1933, p.13). One can, after all, observe different things from one week to the next without being able to make a generalization that will stand.

Here I want to argue that the effective absence of siblings in the theory is why the many observations of them go uncounted. When they are re-observed it is as though they were a new discovery because there has been no theoretical place where they could have been held. And this, I suggest, for psychoanalysis, but also perhaps more generally, takes us to the heart of the matter: the obstacle to thinking about sisters and brothers is not in the observation but in the theory.

The Oedipus complex with its vertical 'before and after' (the pre-oedipal mother and the father of the castration complex) is the shibboleth around which the theory revolves. Thus Freud will write: 'the great event of Hans' life was the birth of his sister when he was exactly three and a half (1909, p. 10) and then from this observation about a sister, Freud proceeds to develop his emerging theory of the (very) vertical castration complex--not without reason, but without self-consciousness of what might be a distinct meaning of the little sister, the object of Hans' agonizing jealousy and the threat to his sense of his own existence.

So, although it is commonly said, particularly by those interested in sibling relationships, that siblings are completely missing from individual psychoanalysis, this is not at all accurate. Siblings are omnipresent in the observational material of psychoanalysis, particularly in child analysis. Where they are missing is in the theory, in the metapsychological superstructure. Even here, they do partially have a place, but it is one that is mostly rejected as fanciful; it is certainly unexplored. Brothers can be found in the mythological explanation first offered by Freud in Totem and Taboo (1913) and favourably repeated by him at the end of his life in Moses & Monotheism (1939); indeed although psychoanalysts have not liked it much, Totem and Taboo is said to have remained Freud's favourite book. In this reconstructed mythology, Freud argues that having ganged up to kill the tyrannical first or Ur father, the brothers realised they must make a contract among themselves, to not kill each other and to share out the women among themselves. Freud is insistent that this fraternal alliance is the first social relationship. (I want to emphasize this as in my view the social is what is crucial if we are to theorize a horizontal axis).

From a gender perspective, first and foremost we should note that the emphasis of the social is on the contract among brothers; nothing is said of the relationship between the 'contracted' sisters. Even if this is in some way a correct contention (as analysing the castration complex was correct for Little Hans), it clearly must be a partial picture. The absence of women from the position of making the contract has to be as significant as the presence of brothers in making it. That they are the objects of exchange is clearly crucial (Mitchell, 1974/2000).

Omitting the horizontal axis also limits our understanding of the vertical. The vertical affects the horizontal but, so too, the horizontal inflects the vertical. So for instance, crucial to my thesis is a transposition of the vertical so-called 'pre-Oedipal mother' into a different vertical position occasioned by her role in socializing siblings; in a teasing reference to Jacques Lacan's (1981) 'Law of the Father', I call this 'the Law of the Mother', a law which emanates from a position rather than a person: one which, above all, acts on and between siblings. (Perhaps with the reaction formations of latency in mind, 'Rule of the Mother' might be a better designation). But also, as with brothers in Freud's (1913) myth Totem and Taboo, siblings can act and adjudicate between themselves without vertical interference as is demonstrated by Anna Freud and Sophie Dann's (1951) path-breaking account of a quasi-sibling group of concentration camp children (The Lord of the Flies is its negative).

In Freud's theoretical superstructure, sisters and brothers are placed in the same category as mothers and fathers and this amalgamation of parents and siblings is usually followed uncritically. This is extremely problematic: it is true that sometimes sisters and mothers, brothers and fathers do stand in the same place--but not always. Being made to when they do not can lead to contortions as in this example from Melanie Klein:

[Gunther] vented his sadistic impulses towards the 'bad' penis upon his brother, with whom he had also had sexual relations in early childhood, and at the same time he regarded him as the dangerous mother in whom were contained his father's penises. His brothers, it will be seen, were substitutes for both parents, to be more precise for the phantastic parent-imagos and it was towards them that he activated his relations to those imagos; for whereas he was devoted to his mother in real life and loved her much more than his father, he was possessed in phantasy, as we know, by imagos of the magical 'good' penis (his father) and of the terrifying mother (Klein, 1932/1975, p. 268).

Further on Klein adds that

An analysis of the phantasies accompanying the acts showed that they not only represented destructive onslaughts upon his younger brother but that the latter stood for Gunther's father and mother joined in sexual intercourse. Thus his behaviour was in a sense an actual enactment, though in a mitigated form, of his sadistic masturbatory phantasies against his parents (Klein, 1932/1975, p. 113).

What we see here in Melanie Klein's account is a transposition from astute clinical observation into a theory which does not fit it or which ignores the most obvious element. Or again:

I now made a venture and told Ruth that the balls in the tumbler, the coins in the purse and the contents of the bag all meant children in her Mummy's inside, and that she wanted to keep them safely shut up so as not to have any more brothers and sisters. The effect of my interpretation was astonishing. For the first time Ruth turned her attention to me and began to play in a different, less constrained, way (Klein, 1932/1975, p. 27).

Klein offers a successful interpretation directed towards phantasised brothers and sisters. If analysing something is effective in therapy, it demands a place in the theory.

A theory can come from outside as mathematics did for physics--Bion, Lacan, Matte-Blanco, Rickman [field theory], Shafer and others have all tried something somewhat similar for psycho-analysis. My own 'discovery' of the already existent siblings came not through an external but an internal route. For an unconscionable number of years I puzzled about hysteria. If anyone can become hysterical (as would seem to be the case), the symptoms must be referring to a common, generic experience. But is this only the Oedipus complex? Unlike other pathologies, hysteria is consistently seen to have a gendered population --women. Hysteria is also always a social relationship relying on the presence of others--there is no point in being an hysteric on one's own --and these 'others' are frequently peers rather than parents. Anna Freud, late in life, had stated that there was something incomplete about our understanding of hysteria--the founding illness of psychoanalysis. One day as I was pondering this question for the thousandth time, the rock of Oedipus shifted slightly and behind it were all these dancing and squabbling children--sisters and brothers who turned out to be everywhere. What were these siblings doing?

Infantile neuroses, particularly what was once known as infantile hysteria, are so regular as to be normative to the degree that they can be forgotten, even entirely overlooked. The 'terrible twos' and the 'dreadful threes' illustrate this contention. Looking again at these infantile illnesses, I realized that there was hardly a child in analytical treatment in which the childhood illness did not originate with the birth of a sibling. This was true of the normal child too, as Winnicott (1931), a psychoanalyst but here still predominantly a practising paediatrician, recounted:

Joan aged 2 years 5 months was an only child when 13 months ago her brother was born. Joan had been in perfect health until this event. She then became very jealous, she lost her appetite and consequently got thin. When left for a week without being forced to eat, she ate practically nothing and lost weight. She has remained like this, is very irritable and her mother cannot leave her without producing in her an anxiety attack. She will not speak to anyone and in the night she wakes screaming--even four times a night. The actual dream material not being very clear ... She pinches and even bites the baby and will not allow him things to play with. She will not allow anyone to speak about the baby, but frowns and ultimately intervenes. When she was put in a welfare centre she worried a great deal, and, having no one to bite, bit herself, so that she had to be taken home again after three days.

She is scared of animals.

If she sees the boy on the chamber she heaves until she is sick. If given chocolate she puts it in her mouth and keeps it there until she gets home, then she spits it all out again.

She constantly prefers men to women.

The parents are exceptionally nice people, and the child is a perfectly healthy and loveable child (Winnicott, 1931, p. 304).

Utterly normal or not, something traumatic is going on here. In his later work Winnicott (1971) refers to this occurrence as the 'trauma of separation'. The separation trauma indicates separation from the pre-Oedipal mother. There certainly is this separation, but it is a separation because another person who occupies what was the toddler's place preoccupies her: there is a new baby which needs to feature in its own right. Despite all the preparation and the nine month's gestation, the new baby erupts into the scene with a paradigmatic too-muchness which is traumatic. This sibling trauma is (to my mind) absolutely necessary. It is a trauma that must be resolved by an instance of acculturation for it marks a break between pre-social infancy and social childhood and necessitates a rite of passage between the two. The toddler who was the baby one moment has to be the child the next.

In suggesting that siblings need to be an autonomous aspect of the theory, I do not have anything very grandiose in mind. A theoretical construct will need to find that the experience of them is generalizable --something we all experience--if it is to play a role in the construction of the unconscious aspect of the human psyche. Psychoanalysis works through the particular in the clinical context of an individual patient with their own unique history. This individual history is 'accidental' in the sense of being that which specifically falls to one's lot. Where it touches down on the general, it does so on what constitutes the theory of psychoanalysis.

Freud (1905b) first believed the stories that paternal seduction had caused the hysteria in his nineteenth century patients, male as well as female, himself as well as others. He then realized that however extensive was such abuse (and it is), it was not everybody's lot. Unlike the particularity of abuse, it is obvious that everybody dreams; everybody, that is to say, manifests processes that are, or have been, unconscious whether at one end as dreams, slips of tongue or pen or as puns and jokes, or at the other as the symptoms of hysteria, obsessionality, paranoia, schizophrenia. Actual abuse is 'accidental', one's particular history; as distinct from this, everybody dreams of incest and everybody has to repress this desire--in our culture we repress it to such a degree that we have no knowledge of ever having wanted it. After he had split from psycho-analysis, Alfred Adler (1964) made sibling birth-order determinate of all psychic conditions. There is no doubt that birth order--like actual abuse--can be very important for one's psychic state, but it too is particular, accidental--what has fallen to one's lot. There can be general tendencies--for instance for the middle, eldest or youngest child--but by definition, each of these cannot be generalizable to the human condition but only perhaps to many people in that particular position.

The most obvious and always mentioned objection to a generic place for the sibling experience is the 'only' child, the fille or fils unique, without a sister or brother. In fact, from the psychoanalytic point of view, the 'only' child is likely to have more, not less, sisters and brothers than the child with siblings. They are more active in the thoughts and feelings, the unconscious and conscious fantasies, in the inner world of the only child than they are in those of its siblinged peers. The 'only' child will ask 'What has happened? The 'expected' one has not arrived. What have I done wrong? Don't my parents love me and want more of me'? Six year old Erna was a patient of Melanie Klein's:

Erna, who was an only child, was much occupied in her imagination with the arrival of brothers and sisters. Her phantasies in this context deserve special attention, since, as my observations show, they have a general application. Judging from them and from those of other children similarly situated, it would appear that an only child suffers to a far greater extent than other children from the anxiety it feels in regard to the brother or sister whom it is forever expecting, and from feelings of guilt towards them on account of its unconscious impulses of aggression against them in their assumed existence inside it's mother's body, because it has no opportunity of developing a positive relation to them in reality. The fact often makes it difficult for an only child to adapt itself to society. For a long time Erna used to have attacks of rage and anxiety at the beginning and end of her analytic session with me, and these were partly precipitated by her meeting the child who came to see me for treatment immediately before or after her and who stood to her for the brother or sister whose arrival she was always awaiting (Klein, 1932/1975, p. 42).

The 'only' child is concerned about its missing siblings because so far in human history everyone expects--yearns for and dreads--a sibling to arrive after them. This is quite in spite of the fact of recent policies of one-child families in rapidly developing countries such as China or of facts such as the demographic transition to non-reproductive populations of the economically wealthy countries such as our own or among the wealthy classes of the world (in India and in Ghana etc.) the unconscious psyche takes a long time to change. And if we don't have blood siblings through birth, miscarriage, still-birth, abortion ... some other kith or kin takes their place. Furthermore, the 'only' child's experience is repeated to some degree in every 'last' child who, though it may very well be preoccupied with its older siblings, will wonder too and probably worry no less than the only child about what and who should have come after them.

In her autobiography, Yvonne Kapp (2003) describes her experience when, at the age of ten, without explanation, her mother was mysteriously ill (in fact with appendicitis). Yvonne thinks her mother is having a baby and that her mother has decided not to tell her about this:

All this time some unborn brother or sister of mine had been lying under my mother's heart and she never told me. I felt betrayed and, at the same time, a feeling I had never before experienced, an emotion so powerful and so violent swept over me that I thought it must destroy me. There was a strange tightening in my belly and a dreadful weight or terror and hatred of I knew not what ... This anguish, now fastened upon me like some gnawing animal, was intensified by the blazing heat of those days from which, like the pain, there was no escape. What I went through then, concentrated into little more than a few days, was a lifetime's savage and ungovernable jealousy of a younger sibling. That torment remains in essence indescribable, but it poisoned every waking moment. I did not know, of course, that it was jealousy, but I did know that in some horrible way my feelings were shameful and this added an overwhelming sense of guilt to my burdened spirit (Kapp, 2003, p. 38-39).

Even when she has leamt the true state of affairs, that her mother is not pregnant, though later she can talk to, and about, her mother, she still cannot bring herself to say the word 'baby.' Yvonne does not remember that in a more inchoate way she will have felt like this when she was an 'only' toddler; that this is a traumatic experience repeating itself.

The non-arrival of a sibling for the 'only' or last child is an 'accidental' variation on the general theme. If something is general then what does not happen is as significant as what does, 'the expected baby that does not come' is merely its other side. The arrival (or expected but nonarrival) of such a sister or brother is what I call 'the sibling trauma'. It happens at the same time, is indeed another but very different aspect of what Winnicott, with his enormous clinical experience above all with children, called the separation trauma.

The sibling trauma

It is important to my argument that the 'sibling trauma', which occurs prototypically when a newcomer should arrive--that is when the toddler is roughly two-and-a-half, is indeed a 'trauma' and not just a difficulty of varying degrees (Volken & Ast, 1997). A trauma has important psychic implications which a 'difficulty' does not. Trauma both has a crucial, if debated, role in psychoanalytic theory and, as is recognized within and beyond psychoanalysis, there are common features in the reaction to a trauma. A psychological trauma will be compulsively repeated or urgently, often phobically, avoided; it sets up an unconscious as well as a conscious response.

Any trauma (an earthquake, a tsunami) is an excessive excitation coming from without but, in the case of a psychological trauma which always involves other humans as actors, it will be joined by a disturbing stimulus coming from within, coming that is, from one's feelings about those actors. The stimulus from within then differentiates a trauma precipitated by external natural causes from one that is brought about through other human beings. The external blast that breaks through the psychological barriers is crucial but it is the outcome of this internal stimulus that provides the specific psychic content. This is why traumas do not have the same impact on everybody--why the arrival of a sibling may seem a passing difficult moment for one child and earth-shattering for another.

The traumatic experience, whatever it may be and whatever its differential effect, is by definition violent. The quantitative strength of the excitation overloads the psyche. The protective barrier, a kind of psychological skin, is too weak to resist the blast. This weakness is particularly evident in the baby's early months when the ego, which provides the crucial part of this protection, is only just coming into formation. The extreme helplessness of the human infant is the key factor. Gradually with help, the ego is able to bind most of the raging energy--never entirely and sometimes not very well at all. I suggest that there remains some identification with the violence of the traumatic experience so that, throughout life, rages that echo or repeat the experience will be added to already existent aggression and may erupt in personal violence (for instance child abuse or attacks on women, hysterical 'scenes') or be channelled into socially legitimated killing.

The symptoms and expressions of trauma include nightmares, flashbacks, amnesia, disoriented personality and prolonged irritability. There are rapid and unstable but near total identifications with other people as, for instance, in what Anna Freud (1972) was the first to call 'identification with the aggressor'; but it may equally well be identification with the beloved. The ability to form symbols may collapse and speech may become uncertain. Clinically, trauma is undoubtedly recognisable. How far does the sibling trauma accord with these accounts?

The external event is the arrival of the sister or brother; the internal stimuli are the illegitimate desires that are provoked by this external shock. These first desires can be subsequently categorized as sibling incest and sibling killing. My argument is that these cannot be assimilated only to intergenerational incest and murder. They are also different and have different effects. There is also typical behavioural regression with the toddler acting the babyhood that has recently been left behind. The symptoms confirm that this is a trauma. Let us take three: inarticulacy, identification and its obverse, irritability. Prototypically, the sibling arrives when the toddler is mastering speech. Uniquely this age is a time when the frustrations of inarticulacy and inexpressibility occasion rage (independent of the trauma's violence) and despair. If loss of symbol formation characterises trauma, this would seem an appropriate infantile trauma on which to pin the problem, at the moment when the struggle with language is at its height. This affliction of speech loss will be re-experienced in later trauma. The particular type of identification, which is a response to trauma in general, I would argue, is inherent in the 'sibling trauma'. This identification with the other person is made when the ego feels annihilated: the toddler is no longer who it was yesterday, no longer the family's or mother's baby. The ego wanders ... disorientated, where can the toddler locate itself? As the delusional Doctor Schreber expressed in desperation, 'a human being who actually exists must be somewhere' (Schreber, 1903, p. 151; see also Freud, 1911).

The Piggle enacted the dilemma of the toddler with a new-born sister the same as her but very much not her ...

The mother said that there had been a great change towards ill health in the Piggle recently. She was not naughty and she was nice to the baby. It was difficult to put into words what the matter was. But she was not herself. In fact she refused to be herself and said so: 'I'm the mummy. I'm the baby'. She was not to be addressed as herself. She had developed a high-voiced chatter which was not hers (Winnicott, 1978, p. 13).

The identification the toddler makes with the baby as opposed to the identification it makes with its mother develops into what child analyst Charlotte Buhler (1935) called 'transitivism', which characterizes children's relationships with each other: a child will hit the right cheek of its playmate and instantly feel the blow on its own left cheek. They are each other's mirror image. When the aggressor child says of the victim 'he hit me,' Lacan (1981), adopting Buhler's notion, rightly claims this aggressor child is telling a truth. The Law of the Mother, however, will adjudicate differently--insisting each child is different. In any case from an external viewpoint this is an inter-child relationship and thus on a horizontal axis. It originates with the annihilation of the toddler's fragile but grandiose ego and will be a pigeon step into sociality which will depend on a transformation of this transitivistic 'sameness' into a separate ego and other. Transitivism indicates two are one as ideally will happen again in our notion of heterosexual intercourse when two by then apparently ineradicable different sexes become the same--reversing the sibling process. If the transitivistic child does not yet know about difference, it is the toddler's notable irritability which protests against this excessive proximity. Irritability, like an irritation on the skin, can be a response to the too close presence of another person--later maybe in mind, here in actuality.

Infancy is full of trauma; some traumas are generic such as weaning, and the various comings and goings of mothers. In traditional societies, weaning and hence renewed sexuality for the mother and a new conception would take place around the age of two, thus conflating the loss of the breast and the advent of the sibling. In all instances, until this very moment, the toddler has been the baby. This means that a new baby now lying in the place the toddler hitherto occupied will be both narcissistically loved as more of the toddler's self and hated as a replacement for itself. Speaking, eating, toilet training and walking are often abandoned; in order to retain his place, the toddler regresses to the babyhood which developmentally it was beginning to leave behind. If the new baby comes earlier, as with so-called 'Irish twins' (within 11 months of each other), or later as with three-and-a half year old 'Little Hans', in Freud's (1909) famous case-history of infantile phobia, or in the expectations of 10 year old Yvonne, then, as well as regression, there will be some age-appropriate behaviour such as Yvonne's devastating sense of shame at her feelings of the jealousy that didn't know its name. However, the traumatic nucleus of the experience will be located at the typical time of two to two and a half years through deferred or referred action. Unconscious processes do not know chronological time. The new baby will be the 'same' but also 'the other'. Jealousy is the modus vivendi for the arrival of the 'other', the one who is different but who should have been the 'same'.

The traumatic shock coming from outside is the advent of the new baby; the inner stimulus which joins it is the wish for narcissistic sexual union with one who is the same, and the simultaneous wish to murder one who is different. These desires have traumatic effects because the toddler will have been prohibited from carrying them out by the Law of the Mother. The toddler has to be prevented from enacting any aspect of its incestuous and murderous wishes, which need to be curtailed and transformed in some way or displaced into new and different forms. Later they will, for instance, be transformed into conjugal love and fighting the enemy.

So, instead of, or as well as, Freud's (1913) gang of brothers and the social contract they make as a response to their murder of the father, we can see the relationship of brotherhood and sisterhood as a response to the loss of the mother, a loss which is emblematized by the prohibitions (the Law) against incest and murder which she institutes. This is vertical. But as well as vertical prohibitions, there is evidence that, as in the myth of Totem and Taboo, the brothers organize themselves. Here, however, we must add sisters and both identify them with, and differentiate them from, their brothers.

The gendering of sibling relations

In brief my suggestion for the gendering of sibling relations is that, for the purposes of analysis, we need to distinguish 'gender' from 'sexual difference'. I find it helpful if we use 'gender' in considerations of sexuality and 'sexual difference' for sexed reproduction--reproduction which, despite modern technologies, still needs a female and a male. Freud's still radical theory of infantile sexuality (1905b) proposed that we separate sexuality and reproduction. This crucial disjuncture distinguishes humans. Sexuality does not necessarily aim towards reproduction; the two are distinct. Human sexuality is uniquely diphasic with non-reproductive infantile sexuality being separated from reproductive puberty by the hiatus of so-called latency. In his emphatic 1933 essay on femininity, Freud argues for the importance of the castration complex as the moment of the institution of what he specifies as 'sexual difference'. It is this with all its difficult implications that I believe should be kept to describe the later non-negotiable different reproductive position of women and men. I want to apply our new concept of 'gender' to sexuality (Mitchell, 2007).

For humanity, what is important is that sexuality is not a biological instinct that makes straight for its object. The human sexual drive is just a drive. 'Sexual difference' is enjoined as a non-negotiable division following on the resolution of the castration complex; it is modelled on the vertical axis--becoming parents. This 'sexual difference' is about the child's future reproductive position; prefigured with the castration complex, its realization takes place in puberty with the influx of fertile sexuality. It has nothing to do with siblings or the horizontal axis of human relations.

The new term 'gender' should be applied to the lateral sibling position. Gender is about sexuality but not sexed reproduction. Of course we are all both 'gendered' laterally and 'sexually differentiated' vertically. However, I think that a confusion of the two as 'categories of analysis' (to adapt Joan Scott's (1986) erstwhile term), has been a besetting problem since the introduction of the 'gender' category at the inception of second wave feminism (1). Under 'gender' sisters and brothers at the time of the sibling trauma are in identical positions as both have the same murderous and incestuous wishes towards each other. Murder and incest are prohibited and potentially punished for both genders in identical ways--not differentiating the two as does the castration complex. The differentiation that subsequently occurs is that fathers will exchange daughters who are also sisters of their brothers to become wives of their husbands who are also brothers in a different clan or social group. Put schematically, when the father gives his daughter away (under patrilineage) he ends this bit of vertical control. The exchange itself is between lateral relations on a horizontal axis. When the lateral couple become parents they will start a new vertical, intergenerational process. The brothers have taken over from the father-daughter bestowing; the women they exchange, like the social contracts built on this kinship basis, are essential to avoid war. The exchanged sister is thus an object of peace. Structurally it is this position (rather than the more often acclaimed maternity which subsequently founds itself on this) which may account for female-male gender difference in sex and violence, rape and killing. 'Gender' as sexuality along a horizontal axis, then, does not constitute the same problematic as 'sexual difference' with vertically instituted reproduction.

At birth, as far as we know, all cultures make as their first distinction a categorical demarcation that has been lying in wait for the new-born: it is a girl/it is a boy. This is what we can now call a 'gender' distinction. My suggestion is that this splitting into girl/boy on birth only acquires subjective meaning for the infant on the occasion of the sibling trauma when the next baby--the interloper the toddler observes and reacts to is likewise instantly assigned a gender. This new baby is not just a baby; more importantly, it is a sister or a brother, a girl or a boy. I suggest the toddler gains access to its own gendered self through this 'other'. The baby whom the toddler thinks it is, or whom it wants to be, turns out from an objective position to be gendered. Thus the toddler itself gets an objective perspective on itself: it too must be girl or boy unlike in its babyhood. Its own subjectivity as a child will always be acquired with this gendered meaning. It can be a bit of a struggle to get there. I remember long ago dressing for a party in the presence of a little boy in the same household. I decided to distract his two year old pleasure as he gazed at me by asking him whether I should wear a trouser suit (then fashionable) or a dress. 'A trouser-suit'. Slightly miffed in my femininity, I asked why. 'Because you are a girl', he answered without hesitation. Categories do not drop from the skies. Getting them right, finding answers can be hard work. Categories are constructions and the accurate definition thereof is a strenuous and complex endeavour.

The drive sets the mind to work with two major 'first' questions that the infant conceives under pressure from its urgent need to get rid of the new baby intruder. These are claimed as the first and foremost questions in the quest for knowledge. All the toddler's 'whys' and 'hows' fall under their aegis. They are: where do babies come from? And: what is the difference between the sexes? Both questions refer to the new sibling. Here the answer the toddler gives itself at this stage is that everyone can do everything: babies come from people's tummies and therefore the boy, no less than the girl, can himself give birth to babies; the girl has a penis like the boy's; it is hidden inside or it will simply grow from the small clitoris as children grow from babies. The position of girl and boy is on a level.

Up the vertical ladder, the Law of the Mother establishes, to both the boy's and the girl's dismay, that only mothers can give birth, children of either gender cannot. This leaves the boy with womb envy and the girl wishing she could urinate as spectacularly or have the many social advantages enjoyed by boys--neither sex experiences the threat of castration. There is no absolute distinction and it is not by chance that feminism developed the concept of gender from the field of transgendering; unlike reproduction, here lines can be crossed. Although there is the fantasy of parthenogenesis which plays, I believe, a large part in creativity, this is the realm of sexuality not reproduction: relatively fluid gender, not rigid 'sexual difference'. However, despite this continuing sameness and the bisexuality of gender, there is also within the realm of gender a distinction between the sexes. In order not to implode endogamously, societies enter into many and various modes of exchange. Within kinship systems it is predominantly rights in girls not in boys which are exchanged between social groups; through this, sisters will have an additional position as wives. Rights in girls are exchanged so that they become wives as well as, but also independently from, the purpose of their becoming mothers: you cannot have your brother sexually, you must have a husband who replaces him instead. Differently, boys as a category are exchanged not in kinship rights but through labour contracts which will include contracted or conscripted fighting. This gender differentiation happens to the people concerned in a lateral manner, on the horizontal not the vertical axis. It is fathers, however, who authorize exchange on a vertical dimension--giving away a daughter to marriage or a son to an apprenticeship with another man, but the people whose rights are thus exchanged are sisters and brothers. Of course women work and men become husbands. But it is not mothers but girls, not fathers but boys, who move in the contracts and circuits of kinship and labour. The separation of sexuality and reproduction that contributes to making Freud's (1905b) Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality still so revolutionary a treatise, can be seen even more clearly when we consider the illegitimate underside of kinship exchange: it is sisters, not mothers, who are sex-trafficked as slaves or sex slaves. No-one wants, nor ever did want, a prostitute to have a baby.

A clinical understanding of sibling relations

The response to this sibling trauma is then an important aspect of the social world that is constructed from the sibling relationship and with it the sameness and the difference between brothers and sisters within the framework of gender. We have here a ground plan for an aspect of the psyche and a place where we can add inter-sibling relations into the larger theory. I started by suggesting that the sibling trauma opens a space for sisters and brothers in the metapsychology. Sibling trauma rejoins and develops the theses about the social contract of brothers offered by Freud. It claims a different structural place with different implications. It adds the exchanged sisters to the exchanging brothers. Let us return from the effects on the theory of this new place for the transition from the narcissistic, omnipotent baby-infant--'His majesty the baby' (Freud, 1914, p. 91)--to the gendered, social child through a rite of passage which should follow a trauma of human development (2).

When the sibling trauma occurs the toddler's expectation is that the new baby will be an extension of itself, the old baby. Traumatised by the fact that it is not now the only baby (or even baby at all), it makes an identification with the mother (boys and girls plan their pregnancies) and with the new baby, the baby it still wants to be. The ego of the toddler itself is 'nowhere'. After trying for the impossibility of being in two places at the same time, hopefully helped to find a new position, the toddler's ego splits: it will be both big girl/big boy and baby. The individual splitting of the ego in the response to the sibling trauma is necessary and normative and leads to an all too familiar social splitting that is a major feature of the social world: friend/enemy, young/old, black/white and girl/boy.

Splitting is a normative process and constitutive of all social life. However, at its pathological end it characterizes psychosis rather than neurosis. Our model could use the fact that hallucination is normal for the baby who feels the breast belongs to it and cannot be allowed to vanish; furthermore we all dream we can fly. At the normative end of this process, we simply have not arrived at what Lacan (1997) calls the Symbolic, the full order of language which is human culture. However, if we continue to hallucinate and try to fly when we are awake, we are in trouble. Psychoanalytic theory uses the 'bright colours' of pathology as seen in the clinic to grasp the duller shades of the normative. Here, at this psychotic end, we have paranoia, schizophrenia and delusions. For Freud in his day, such people could be understood but probably not helped by psychoanalysis because psychosis forecloses on the object relations of Oedipus and there can therefore be no transference in the clinical situation to work within. These are narcissistic structures and as such constitute the growth area of the practice and theory after Freud. Here we can compare the normative and the pathological ends, remembering that where the infant-becoming-child has not yet entered the Symbolic that surrounds it, the psychotic refuses it.

The new baby introduces the toddler to the triangulation of a three person relationship: mother, baby and toddler (as later, with Oedipus it will be mother, father and child). Once it starts to dis-identify with the mother, the mother will become the object of the toddler's love and hate--as object she is ripe for oedipal love. Once the toddler starts to dis-identify with the baby, the baby, and reciprocally the toddler, will first and foremost become the 'other' as object. The sibling relationship as it moves into the social does so on this cusp of identification and other/object. Finding an object in psycho-analytic understanding is always re-finding an object, someone who was there before the infant was able to construct objecthood out of its identifications. As well as the breast/mother becoming the re-found object as in classical theory, the toddler will discover itself in a mirror image (though very differently according to whether we follow the observations of Donald Winnicott or the theories of Jacques Lacan). For the issue of siblings let us make use of Freud's (1920) famous observation of his eighteen month old grandson: the baby mastered his mother's absence by throwing and retrieving a cotton-reel; it then tried this on itself, appearing in and then vanishing from a mirror. However, I suggest an additional dynamic, not an actual mirror nor the mirroring face of the mother but the mirror of the baby: looking at its baby sibling, the toddler sees there in the baby what it itself once was. Identification and re-finding itself as the object is, so-to-speak, a double narcissistic whammy. Is this psychic change the underside of the 'minimal difference' between siblings that for anthropologists is the precondition for exogamy, the exchange that forges new communities? Furthermore, what enables the move towards psychic change--old baby for new friend? I suggest that it is jealousy. Since Melanie Klein (1957), envy has had a good innings but somewhat at the expense of jealousy, with which it is often confused in our feelings but should not therefore be confused in our argument. Envy is binary; jealousy, triangular: one is envious of what someone has, jealous of the position that they are in/of where they stand. Acknowledging this 'other' as 'other' turns on jealousy: the baby stands where I want to be with the mother. I may be envious that the mother has a baby--I want one too. But it is the baby sibling of whom I am jealous. The turn from the hatred which wants the baby to be thrown away to the unbearable experience of jealousy is confirmation that this baby is another, an object to be rivalled. The task of the mother is not to help the toddler pile the Pelion of object love on top of the Ossa of narcissistic love, but rather to recognize the normality of jealousy. If recognized, jealousy can open the way to positive rivalry, competition, and creative struggle; left unrecognized it will lurk as the green-eyed monster.

When Freud's grandson represented the comings and goings of his mother and then himself, he uttered his first pair of contrasting words: ooo/aahh; fort/da, gone/there. By the time the sibling arrives, these pairs have multiplied like the doubling of the toddler's self in the mirror of the baby. At the pathological end of the process we speak of the concrete language of the psychotic; here in the small child, I see 'literal' language. Wilfred Bion (1974) describes a mother re-entering a room to find her little daughter with her profiled face tenderly but firmly on the supine baby's tummy. The mother's enquiry elicits that, being a good girl, she was doing as she had been asked and 'keeping an eye' on the baby. To the adult this literal language is a source of new pleasure in the child and children themselves soon also seem to find their verbal similitudes comical. At the other end of the scale, with his schizophrenic puns, the deluded paranoiac jokes through his pain. But for the small child, the comic in words or identificatory acts is an early manifestation of sociability: small children produce pantomimes, play word-games with each other, verbal teasers start and expand into latency. For the toddler, if there are other playmates, the baby can be left to be a baby for another day.


The sibling trauma is traumatic because of the invasion of something unknowable, something that cannot be psychically processed. Only a rite of passage to a new state of being is possible. It is commonly argued that, after his disillusion with the hysteric's story of abuse, Freud dismissed trauma from the metapsychology. In fact, never having entirely abandoned it, he brought it back into prominence when threatened with the rise of Nazism: Ilse Grubrich-Simitis (1997) has called Moses and Monotheism 'the book of trauma'. Coinciding with its completion, Freud (1937) argued, as the sun set, that we must always remember that a pathology-producing conflict in the present replays one in the infantile past which had itself prefigured the later event. He argues too for a grain of 'historical truth' in this earlier conflict. This is where I would place the 'sibling trauma'. Arguing that we should make a 'construction' in our therapies, Freud gives a pertinent illustration:

If in accounts of analytic technique, so little is said about 'constructions', that is because 'interpretations' and their effects are spoken of instead. But I think that 'construction' is by far the more appropriate description. 'Interpretation' applies to something that one does to some single element of the material, such as an association or a parapraxis. But it is a 'construction' when one lays before the subject of the analysis a piece of his early history that he has forgotten, in some such way as this: 'Up to your nth year you regarded yourself as the sole and unlimited possessor of your mother; then came another baby and brought you grave disillusionment (Freud, 1937, p. 261).

Constructing, deconstructing and constructing again a patient's plausible early history has been crucial to psychoanalysis. This construction has weighted vertical parent-child relations. Yet sibling relations are absent neither from psychoanalytic writings nor from the consulting room. Indeed, Freud's articulation of an emblematic analytic construction includes both mother and sibling: 'then came another baby and brought you grave disillusionment. This paper offers clinical practice a lateral lens through which to understand our patients as both children and siblings. I suggest that the concept of a sibling trauma opens a place where we may place lateral relations along a horizontal axis within an expanded metapsychology. In its turn a theoretical habitus could contain the clinical observations and give them staying power.


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(1) This concept was initially borrowed from psychoanalyst Robert Stoller (1968; 1973). See also Mitchell (1976).

(2) Sibling child-care is extremely extensive. South Africa has a census category of the 'child-headed household'. Girls as little mothers take precedence over boys as big brothers in child care. But from the viewpoint of the 'sibling trauma' in neither case are they the same as parents--whatever the age difference they are the same generation as the infant-in-care; they can never traumatize it by producing a new sibling--although they can of course produce a half one by having their own baby but this will probably be much later.

Juliet Mitchell

University College London

Juliet Mitchell established and directs the Expanded Doctoral School in Psychoanalytic Studies at University College London Psychoanalysis Unit. She is also the Founder Director of the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge and a Research Fellow at the Department of Human Geography, University of Cambridge where she is Professor Emeritus and Fellow Emerita of Jesus College, University of Cambridge. She is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Fellow of the British and International Psychoanalytical Societies. She has published many scholarly articles and books. Her most recent book is Siblings: Sex and Violence (2003, Polity Press).
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