Monday, April 15, 2019

Book Review: The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling by Jeanne Safer

My father's only sibling, his younger sister, had both schizophrenia, and also mental capacity limitations. When she was a young adult, their parents and she moved to Florida where the mental health system was better. For decades she cycled in and out of homes, had a wide variety of harmless to severe health issues, and was a constant drain on his emotions. Years ago I read a fascinating book, Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadow of Mentally Ill Siblings by Clea Simon, who had two older siblings with schizophrenia. And after the recent success of the book, The Collected Schizophrenias, which my company distributes, I've been thinking about their relationship again, and a friend loaned me this book.

It is mostly about having a severely damaged sibling. The various case studies range from the expected (schizophrenia, bipolar) to addiction, narcissism, brain damage, and just plain horrid siblings with no diagnosis. A few were not as extreme on the scale, which was nice for variety, and also to make the book more accessible to some of us who might have difficult, but not clinical siblings. It's interesting that Dr. Safer came up with the term "Caliban Syndrome" because I've certainly heard it, even though I'm not in the mental health field. I do wish the chapters analyzing The Tempest were a bit shorter (maybe readers less familiar with the play do appreciate the lengthy descriptions however.) And I wish there was more directive of approaches to those relationships, but the book is more of a series of case studies than a how-to. The stores were fascinating and riveting, and I kind of wish the book had even more of them--if it was chock-full like a Dr. Sacks book. But I understand she needed to explain the underpinnings of the patterns she was seeing, particularly as at the time this was published, there was little to no psychological research about siblings at all. Which is bizarre as, as she points out several times in the book, your sibling relationships will be the longest relationships you have in your life.

It would be truly fascinating to see a new edition--or perhaps simply a follow-up book--twenty years later as the mental health field has changed so much in the intervening time. With new diagnoses and more diagnoses and changing attitudes towards mainstreaming and mental health concerns, I think Dr. Safer would find significant differences, in just two decades. A really interesting read.

I borrowed this book from a friend.

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