Books

The Normal One

Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling

Finalist for the Books for a Better Life Award

Few bonds in our lives are as psychologically and emotionally significant as the ones we share with our sisters and brothers, although little has been written about this formative relationship. In this first-of-its-kind book, psychotherapist Jeanne Safer takes us into the hidden world of problem siblings and explores the far-reaching effects on the lives of those who are considered the “normal ones.”

Drawing on more than sixty interviews with normal, or intact, siblings, Safer explores the daunting challenges they face, and probes the complex feelings that can strain families and damage lives. A “normal” sibling herself, Safer chronicles her own life-shaping experiences with her troubled brother. She examines the double-edged reality of normal ones: how they both compensate for their siblings’ abnormality and feel guilty for their own health and success. With both wisdom and empathy, she delineates the “Caliban Syndrome,” a set of personality traits characteristic of higher-functioning siblings: premature maturity, compulsion to achieve, survivor guilt, and fear of contagion.

Essential reading for normal ones and those who love them, this landmark work offers readers insight, compassion, and tools to help resolve childhood pain. It is a profound and eye-opening examination of a subject that has too long been shrouded in darkness.

“Deftly written yet full of hard-won insights… In bravely facing and incorporating her own personal story, Safer has written an immensely moving and valuable book.”

-Molly Haskell

“An overdue and important work.”

-The Weekly Standard

“Siblings of…damaged individuals…will recognize in Safer a passionate advocate from the world of psychotherapy, speaking out on their behalf with a deeply intelligent, fully informed, and thoroughly welcome voice.”

-The New York Times Book Review

“Revelatory…an indelible, brave, profoundly sensitive, and deeply personal look at how the ‘normal’ half lives, loves, resents, reconciles, sometimes denies, sometimes transcends, aches for—but never quite trusts—the consolations of family.”

-O Magazine

“I recognized myself on almost every page….I wish I had read [The Normal One] earlier in my life.”

-Barbara Walters from her memoir Audition

“If you are one of millions of Americans with a difficult sibling, you can bury the problem–or you can read this book and liberate yourself.”

-Montel Williams

“Usually we don’t think of sibling relationships as taboo-unless, of course, they are severely unequal. In this rare and honest book, psychologist Jeanne Safer looks at those of us who become the ‘normal ones,’ and sees who we are by what we so often fail to acknowledge: the damaged dreams of our siblings who are unable to live normal lives…if you are a normal one, this book may well change your life.”

-Molly Peacock, author of How to Read a Poem…And Start a Poetry Circle

“THE NORMAL ONE is Jeanne Safer’s breakout book…in bravely facing and incorporating her own personal story, Safer has written an immensely moving and invaluable book.”

-Molly Haskell, author of From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies

“Wise and compassionate, THE NORMAL ONE fearlessly speaks the truth about the challenges of being an invisible sibling. This is a comfort book in the truest sense!”

-Laurie Fox, author of My Sister From the Black Lagoon

“This is an overdue and important book.”

-The Weekly Standard

“Disturbing and persuasive…THE NORMAL ONE provides a great service for the siblings of truly damaged individuals… [Safer is] speaking out on their behalf with a deeply intelligent, fully informed and thoroughly welcome voice.”

-The New York Times Book Review

Introduction

Nobody knows I have a brother. My best friends never hear his name. He has always been a source of embarrassment and discomfort for me, but I’ve never wondered very much about his impact on my life. Being his sister feels vaguely unreal and irrelevant; my destiny has nothing to do with his.

This is astonishing, because I am a psychotherapist who has spent years trying to understand my own and my patients’ childhoods. Somehow I’ve managed to erase my own closest relative.

I am not alone. Beyond slogans (“all men are brothers,” “sisterhood is powerful”) and the occasional soft-focus picture book, shockingly little attention is paid to siblings in general, much less to troubled, difficult, or disabled ones. And although millions of people have such relatives-85 percent of Americans have siblings, so few extended families are exempt-practically nothing has been written about them. Worse, little has been thought about them; newspaper headlines (the Kaczynski brothers, wayward presidential siblings), literature (Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the plays of Williams and O’Neill), the Bible (Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers), and the dreams of their higher-functioning brothers and sisters tell their story, not psychological research. Their influence is intensified because it is so hidden, even in a culture where people willingly expose the most intimate details of their lives.

The purpose of this book is to reveal the neglected, lonely, and lifelong trauma of growing up with an abnormal brother or sister and its effects on personality and society; the reality of the lives of the “normal ones” is far more complex than the sentimental image presented by the media and even by their own families. It examines the world all such siblings share, whether the disability is mental or physical, minor or catastrophic, ignored or overemphasized. It analyzes how and why their influence is repudiated, and offers remedies.

Normal ones suffer from a psychological condition I name “the Caliban Syndrome” after the brutal, repugnant slave of the magician Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the not-quite-human creature who tried to rape Prospero’s flawless daughter Miranda. Caliban is the “thing of darkness” Prospero must accept at the play’s end. Because a damaged sibling is always a disavowed part of self, I believe every intact sibling must come to terms with the Caliban within in order to become fully human. Understanding the influence that such a sibling inevitably has on one’s destiny is an essential-and frequently avoided-task.

Whatever their relationship in the external world, damaged siblings loom large in the internal world of their normal brothers and sisters, as manifested in the four symptoms of the Caliban Syndrome that this book examines:

  • Premature maturity
  • Survivor guilt
  • Compulsion to achieve
  • Fear of contagion

The Caliban Syndrome has an impact far beyond the immediate families of the disabled and the difficult. These relationships are an exaggeration of the dynamics of every sibling relationship, which like every other human bond always has its dark side. Disconnecting internally from unacceptable aspects of a sibling is as universal as the primordial emotions these relationships evoke, and we pay a price for amputating them. Without acknowledging hate and repudiation, we can never truly love ourselves or anyone else; superficial assertions that short-circuit the full intensity of these prohibited emotions never work. Neither does professing spiritual uplift or sugarcoating the lifelong rigors and frustrations of having your closest relative never be your peer. Acknowledged or not, growing up with a difficult or damaged sibling is one of the defining experiences of a person’s life.

The disabled and their parents have much-needed advocates; until now their siblings have had practically none. In their behalf, I take issue with the current politically correct euphemism “special needs” children because I believe that all children have special needs. Compassion for the extraordinary trials their families endure and admiration for their achievements should not blind us to the damage done by ignoring the toll on their normal siblings. I use the terms normal, abnormal, intact, and damaged not to make value judgments but to reflect more accurately the point of view of higher-functioning siblings, who typically live in an environment that requires them to suppress taboo emotions, judgments, and the evidence of their senses. Idealizing their lives as somehow ennobling, and concomitantly denigrating and denying that there is indeed such a thing as normality (with all its contradictions and complications), damages everybody and leads to dangerous self-estrangement in society as a whole.

No one with an abnormal sibling has a normal childhood. Consciously or unconsciously, every intact sibling is haunted by the fear of catching the disability, a fear that always has a modicum of psychological truth. Family gatherings and significant events become occasions for anxiety and suppressed shame. Cheerful caretakers, mature before their time, they are supposed to consider themselves lucky to be normal. They feel tormented by the compulsion to compensate for their parents’ disappointments by having no problems and making no demands, and they are often unaware of the massive external and internal pressure to pretend that nothing is amiss. Their success is always tainted by their sibling’s failure, their future clouded by an untoward sense of obligation and responsibility. Their goal is to be as different from their sibling as possible. They live forever in the shadow of the one who does not function.

It is not my intent to create a new category of victim; the Suffering Olympics already has a surfeit of contenders, and I believe passionately that defining yourself as a victim-no matter what you have endured-is the opposite of insight, and actually perpetuates the ordeal by cutting off the possibility of integrating and overcoming it. In fact, one of the most striking characteristics of these siblings is their lack of complaint and their tendency to hide from themselves the burdens that their very normality has placed on them. I want them to know and others to appreciate what they, and those like them, experience.

The book begins with the story of my relationship with my own older brother, who was emotionally troubled from childhood on and also became seriously ill as an adult. It reflects the guilt, the grief, and the self-knowledge I have gained from my ongoing struggle to overcome my resistance and acknowledge his significance in my life. Sixty other “normal ones” aged seventeen to seventy-five, whose brothers and sisters range from microcephalic to highly obnoxious, tell the poignant, often secret stories of their lives. They also report their powerful and revealing dreams, which have never before been systematically studied for clues about their hidden inner world.

Having a damaged sibling marks you. No matter what you achieve, where you go, or who you love, that other’s life remains your secret alternative template, the chasm into which you could plunge if you misstep. Whether you know it or not, his is the doom you dare not duplicate, the fate you contemplate with shame, guilt, secret envy, and-always-relief. You are ashamed that you are related, guilty that you have a better life, envious that nothing is expected of him, relieved that you are not the misfit to be scorned or pitied. Because a sibling is your closest relative, you are eternally enmeshed with each other. Your sanity and stability are forever suspect. You can consciously disconnect your destinies, but you cannot sever the fundamental tie because it embodies the disavowed part of your history and character with which you must come to terms or never truly know yourself. I hope this book eases and illuminates the way.

Who is a "Normal One"?

A "Normal One" is any person who has a brother or sister with serious mental, physical or social problems. These problems can range from disabilities like mental retardation, autism, ADD/ADHD to antisocial behavior or drug addiction or physical illness. Often the disorder is undiagnosed or undiagnosable (particularly when it is emotional,) but still significant enough to have a major impact on family life. Higher-functioning, healthy siblings are labeled by their parents, and think of themselves, as "The Normal One."

If these siblings are so normal, why do they need your book?

Normal children need attention too, but they tend to get ignored because their siblings' more overwhelming and dramatic difficulties take precedence. Parents expect them to take care of themselves, to assume responsibility for their siblings, to have no problems, and never to complain. They are told to "count your blessings," and assured that their trials will "make you stronger." As a result, they often feel invisible, guilty, ashamed and driven. I call this "the burden of normality."

What makes your book different from other books about siblings?

The Normal One is the only book for intact siblings written by a practicing psychotherapist who is a Normal One herself; I understand their psychology personally as well as professionally. My own life experience has sensitized me to the hidden struggles and to the feelings that are overlooked by siblings' families, by society, and sometimes even by therapists.

What are the most valuable insights Normal Ones and other readers will gain from your book?

Normal Ones who read this book will realize that they are not alone, that their emotions-even their forbidden ones-are natural and valid, and shared by many other siblings. They will understand how having an abnormal sibling has affected their lives and shaped their characters. They will recognize within themselves the four personality traits I name the Caliban Syndrome and learn how to combat the restrictions it imposes on them.
Every normal sibling harbors what I call "fear of contagion"-the secret anxiety that they, too, are or could become abnormal. Understanding the origins of this fear diminishes its destructive power.

How did you come to write The Normal One?

I remember the exact moment I realized that I had to write about siblings: I had just met with my agent about possible ideas for a next book, and nothing seemed right. Then, walking back to my apartment, the words of a dear friend and colleague came back to me and stopped me in my tracks: "Someday you'll have to write about your brother." I felt sick, scared and compelled, and started crying in the middle of the sidewalk. That's how I knew the time had come. I dedicated The Normal One to her.
Since I wanted to understand other siblings' experiences too, I interviewed sixty people whose brothers and sisters suffered from a wide variety of ailments and dysfunctions. Although I had known some of these people for years, we had never spoken about our siblings before; I didn't even know they had siblings. What stories they told!

What was it like to write about your brother?

Even though I wrote The Normal One in order to come to terms with my brother, I dreaded actually doing it. The autobiographical chapter, entitled "My Brother, Myself" which appears first in the book, was the last thing I wrote. My biggest fear was that I wouldn't have anything to say about him, since I have so few memories of our relationship. Why that was so was, of course, the story I had to tell. I had to face the excruciating truth, and my own shame and guilt about excluding him all those years. The night before I finally sat down to confront this suppressed part of my past, I had a nightmare about a flood in my office-a flood of feelings-that I describe and interpret in the book. That dream unlocked my memory. I wrote the entire section in six weeks, virtually non-stop.

What struck you most about the stories your subjects told?

I couldn't get them out of my mind. People told me it was such a relief to talk about thoughts and feelings nobody had ever wanted to listen to before. They carry around such a weight of sorrow, anger, responsibility, shame and anxiety-about the past, about the future and about their own ability to function. Their damaged and difficult siblings haunt them.
Here are some of them:

  • A man who turned down his acceptance at medical school to "make a place" for his obsessive/compulsive brother to attend
  • A woman who saw her borderline sister homeless on the street
  • A woman whose paranoid brother tried to kill her
  • A woman whose sister is a mute "almost twin"
  • A man who cannot forgive himself for distancing himself from his drug-addict sister who then committed suicide
  • A man who torments himself about whether he should care for his reclusive sister after their parents die
  • A woman who had to fish her mentally ill sister out of the river
  • A woman who won't marry because she believes no man will tolerate living with her retarded brother
  • A woman who is the only member of her family who is not mentally ill

What was your most surprising finding?

I had no idea of the power and the reach of the sibling bond before I wrote The Normal One. When I discovered the Caliban Syndrome, the personality constellation characteristic of intact siblings, in myself, I understood what a central role it played in virtually every facet of my life. As I studied other siblings, I saw that few escape it.

How have readers responded to your book?

I am touched that The Normal One has struck a nerve for so many people, validated their experiences and given them permission to express taboo feelings. Readers tell me they feel consoled, encouraged, and understood. "Finally somebody knows, somebody's listening," one woman wrote, "you read my diary-you told the story of my life." I got a call from a woman standing in the aisle of a bookstore, weeping with recognition as she read. One reader confided that she keeps her copy in the bathroom, with her favorite passages underlined in magic marker, and reaches for it whenever she needs to encourage herself that she deserves happiness. Some readers gave the book to their parents because it said what they could never bring themselves to say aloud; they felt the book was their advocate. I have also learned that pediatricians give it to parents, and that therapists give it to patients; sometimes, patients give it to their therapists. Nothing means more to an author who is also a psychologist than to see that her work touches so many and makes a difference in their lives.

What about negative reactions?

Nothing is exempt from misinterpretation, and The Normal One upsets some people. One man called a National Public Radio program on which I was featured to accuse me of setting care of the disabled back decades by advocating institutionalizing them indiscriminantly. Another charged that I encouraged selfishness and criminal irresponsibility in healthy siblings by questioning whether they had to be their "brother's keeper" regardless of circumstances. Of course I do neither. Others objected to my use of "normal" and "damaged," although I explain in my introduction that these words reflect the authentic feelings of the siblings themselves, not my value judgments. It's always dismaying to be misunderstood, but it's inevitable when your topic evokes passionate sentiments.

How has having written The Normal One changed your life?

The experience of confronting a buried chapter of my own history, one of the hardest things I have ever done, helped me recover feelings about my brother and parts of myself that otherwise would have been lost forever. I hope it will do the same for every reader.

There are currently no upcoming events related to this book.

For a comprehensive list of past speaking engagements please click here.

“The Normal One has answered so much about the relationships between my sibling and me. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing it.”

“The Normal One sat in my bedside table drawer for over two years, but I was scared to read it. Last night I picked it up and finished it just now. From the bottom of my heart I want to thank you for writing this book. I have watched my brother go in and out of mania and repression for 40 years. He has been hospitalized more than 20 times. I never had my own children for fear of passing on my “bad geners.” I have undergone therapy many times and have come a long way, but your book was by far the most comforting and truthful addition to my recovery.”

“Dear Dr. Safer,

I just found you online and immediately ordered three of your books (The Normal One, Forgiving and Not Forgiving, and Death Benefits). Just reading your website has provided more validation than a lifetime of therapy and support by extended family and friends.”

“Thank you for your book. As the wife of a “Normal” sibling who survived a childhood with a devious, verbally abusive sister, your book has become a bible for my understanding of my spouse’s issues — and a big part of helping to keep our marriage together!”

“I am so glad I found your book! I left my home in Africa four years ago, and now I understand why I felt depressed and guilty because I left my mother with my sister. I never told anybody about her. I look back and see why my relationships failed. The other siblings’ experiences have helped me acknowledge my pain and work on letting go of the past traumas. Thank you for the good work.”

“Your book is such a relief to me. My only sibling was badly handicapped. He has always been the central event in my life but I could never find anything to read that related to my experience. Thanks for your work.  What a jewel for me and others like us.”

“Thank you so much for writing your book, The Normal One. I am the older sister of 2 disabled siblings, and for the first time in my life I felt understood, acknowledged, validated, and even vindicated, in some ways. I feel like I just took a deep breath of fresh air and am very grateful to you, and to those who shared their stories in the book. It was truly amazing and startling to find much of my life story in those pages. It read like a thriller.”

“Tonight I again picked up your book and re-read several parts where I had long ago underlined things that have meant a lot to me. It helped me a lot. Thank you so much for saving my marriage and my sanity, and helping me understand my brother!”

“I recently started reading The Normal One after hearing you speak on NPR. While reading your book I find involuntary tears falling on the pages, tears that have dared never to present themselves. It has touched a very deep, unrevealed place in my heart.

Specifically, I want to thank you so very much for addressing this type of family dynamic that as far as I know has not been identified as clearly or directly as you have done.

As I’m reading the case histories and find myself absolutely amazed how much I have in common with some of the people and their stories! Until now I’ve been baffled and somewhat confused at my personal history and my past/present behavior. Yet now there is a glimmer of insight. It’s as if the pieces to the puzzle have been located—and it feels somewhat miraculous.

Thank you for and from “The Normal One”.

“I feel like you read my diary.”