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The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling [Paperback]

Jeanne Safer
1.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
Price: £8.46 & FREE Delivery in the UK on orders over £10. Details
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Book Description

30 Sep 2003
What is it like to grow up with a sibling who is difficult or damaged?

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.

Product details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Delta; Reprint edition (30 Sep 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385337566
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385337564
  • Product Dimensions: 21.4 x 14 x 1.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 1.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 745,474 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"An indelible, brave, profoundly sensitive, and deeply personal look at how the 'normal' half lives." --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars What a disappointment... 8 Aug 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I bought this book in hopes it would help me deal with some family problems. Unfortunately it did not. In this case "difficult" and "damaged" siblings appear to be people often with no real problems, other than not being loved by their parents. I do not know if the author is on purpose leaving out details or if she has no concept of what real health issues are. I was looking for something to help me with dealing with a very ill relative and seeing how someone could label as "damaged" their overweight or not very social sibling did not help me, it just made very very angry. I would highly recommend to anyone interested in this book to buy "Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadow of Mentally Ill Siblings " by Clea Simon instead.
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0 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Far From Safe or Loving 9 Dec 2007
By BeatleBangs1964 TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Dr. Safer, the ironically named author describes her life with her parents and brother and the fraternal relationship portrayed herein sounds anything but safe or loving.

Her older brother Stephen is treated like a pariah in the family. He is moved into separate quarters within the house and is relegated to skeleton in the closet status. Despite his academic and musical successes, he is not even fully recognized or acknowledged by his own family.

It sounds as if the family was conditioned to react negatively to Stephen regardless of what he said or did. Even his musical prowess went largely unappreciated by them.

Dr. Safer on the other hand is indulged to the point of excess. It is only in later years, long after she has established her career that she even admits she has a brother named Stephen. It is good that a chapter was devoted to Stephen; it was long past time he was given his turn at bat.

The way Stephen was treated and the way Dr. Safer was favored turned my stomach. This book is an eye opener in how not to treat others.
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Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  39 reviews
50 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Are you the 'normal' one? Read this book. 30 Dec 2005
By Anittah N. Patrick - Published on Amazon.com
At times, reading this book was so difficult I had to close it for a while. The feelings that it brought up were so intense, raw, and neglected for so long that it was difficult for me to face them. Reading this book has made me realize that in my plight I am not alone, and that there are actionable steps I can take in order to heal myself.

Some key quotations from the text that I, personally, found poignant:

- (Healthy children) "grieve, they feel guilty, and they struggle to compensate by achieving for two."

- "Fixing the unfixable, or saving the irredeemable, is a frequent occurrence in sibling dreams... Dreams in which a sibling no longer has the disability ... gives a brief respite that is both painful and pleasing to recollect."

- (The 'normal' one's) "everyday trials and tribulations pale beside the catastrophe of their sibilings' predicaments, so it seems natural that they should never come first... As a result, many healthy siblings grow up with a hunger for attention that it never satisfied and that seems wrong to feel. Their needs, so consistently ignored, become invisible to themselves."

- "The fallout from being invisible is to become self-effacing; perverse preeminence breeds perfectionism, morbid self-criticism, and fear of failure... Excelling is not an ideal; it is an emotional life preserver."

- "... a nameless anxiety haunts them and makes everything they have seems (sic) tenuous or undeserved... compulsive self-sacfrifice driven by the belief that you do not deserve your advantages... At significant moments... it is excruciating to know how much better off you are and always will be."

As difficult as it was to read this book and grapple with all that I had so conveniently ignored for so long, recognizing the common traits of 'normal' siblings is key to becoming whole. Safer outlines those traits to be:

- Premature maturity ("... expected to shoulder ... responsibility ... w/o complaint."

- Survivor guilt ("Every achievement is tainted...")

- Compulsion to achieve ("... must succeed for two...")

- Fear of contagion ("... secret conviction that normality is tenuous or a sham.")

If you are a 'normal' one and are ready to face the issues that come with that head on, check out this book, grab a box of Kleenex, and find a quiet place to hunker down. As Safer writes, "It is no crime for your own life to come first." There is no time like the present to start living it.
41 of 43 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting 5 May 2004
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
This was a fascinating book. It sheds light on a family situation far too often ignored--the needs of the healthy sibling submerged in the all-engrossing task of taking care of a mentally ill or emotionally disordered sibling. It is true that a child who grows up in a such a family, whose needs and hopes and successes are never quite as important to his or her parents as the needs and small successes of the damaged child will feel the repercussions for the rest of his or her life.
I had only two problems with this book. First, it's not always like that. It would have been nice to have some functional family portraits, so that parents with both normal and disabled children can learn what works as well as what doesn't. In my own family, I have two normal brothers and a normal sister, all highly intelligent and successful. I am normal and in college. My other brother is emotionally disturbed and struggles both in school and in personal relationships. For a long time, my other siblings and I resented "what he had done to the family" but the fact is, he can't help it. And we have come to terms with his disorder, and even found him to be enjoyable if you are patient enough to sift through the layers of fear and anger. Frankly we have banded together as siblings over his illness, but it took time, and most of it was due to our parents, who balanced his needs against our perfectly understandable resentment, anger, and misunderstanding. They never rebuked us for how we felt, only explained to us the truth of my brother's problems, and were always available to talk to us when we needed to vent. My brother HAS a problem, he's not a problem. So I think if families were aware of what the normal one was thinking, they could help their normal children more, and help them to work through their resentment and guilt.
Second, I think the author should have finished her dealing with her own childhood to a degree before undertaking to write this book. I don't know whether she meant it to be objective, but it really wasn't. It read more like a catharsis than a study.
Overall, though, a long-overdue acknowledgement of the mental anguish of those whose siblings are damaged, disordered, or ill.
To all who still feel resentment toward their troubled siblings, please seek help. I hope you find a therapist who will listen to you. I'm not saying that to be mean or rude, I'm saying it because I see a lot of it in the reviews, and to resent someone only allows them to control you and prevents you from living your life fully. Good luck and God Bless!
25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An important introductory read for so-called Normal Ones 28 July 2004
By AvidReader - Published on Amazon.com
I was weak with relief when I read Safer's book; finally someone put into words what I've been feeling all my life. I have two older brothers, one borderline and drug-addicted, the other severely emotionally damaged and physically violent from early childhood. I remember envisioning myself at the age of 10 as walking behind my family with a broom to sweep up all the dirt left behind by my brothers' actions. The pressure to be perfect to offset their flaws was incredible. As the only girl I'd always had more expected of me and thought that it was due to generational sexism on the part of my parents; Safer led me to consider the possibility that it was partly because I was my parents' last hope.

What I wish Safer had included more of was a discussion of the rage that abused normals feel. My violent brother terrorized and brutalized me; many years later, I still feel a great deal of hatred toward him. Yet Safer's focus on guilt (her own brother never hurt her, so she doesn't feel residual rage toward him) made me feel somehow dirty that my guilt is matched by equal -- no, MORE powerful -- feelings of rage. I wish too that Safer had acknowledged that sometimes parents, in an effort to blame their damaged child(ren)'s defects on something, anything, will overtly blame the good child for somehow robbing their damaged sibling(s) of health and wellbeing. This happened to me; thus I grew up knowing that I had to succeed to save the family name (a phrase my mother tossed around liberally), yet at the same time every success was held against me as an act of thievery against my brothers.

I agree with the other reviewer who said the book is a good start, but not enough. It could have been twice as long, with much more detail paid to the different varieties of the Caliban Syndrome. Surely the syndrome must vary, as the disabilities of the damaged sibling(s) vary. For instance, emotional disabilities often render children difficult to be around. Contrast this with a sweet, benign child confined to a wheelchair. The latter might be deemed a hero; the former usually aren't. No one mistook my siblings for heroes, so I've never experienced the particular frustration of resenting a sibling everyone else thinks is an angel incarnate. On the other hand, I dealt with violent abuse. My point is that Safer has introduced a concept (the Caliban Syndrome) that, in its attempt to be all-inclusive, glosses over important differences in normal children's experiences that result from differences in the nature of their sibling's damage. At the end of the day, though, it's clear that I'm praising Safer with faint damnation. She had something important to say, something that resonated bigtime with me and others, and now I (we) want more. That should be good news for any author.
40 of 44 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I finally understand my parents 21 Sep 2002
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I am not a 'self help' healer - but needed to understand the role my sibling's illness plays in my family and in my life. Though we are both adults, it has taken a toll on my parents and on me personally. It became especially difficult when my sibling started to require 24 hr care. I am the relief care when my parents need a break. This book gave me insight that I needed to help me reduce the frustration I felt in dealing with the circumstances at hand, and helped me acknowledge the resentment and irritation I was experiencing. It also helped me understand that I have a choice to make regarding my involvement. I appreciated that "The Normal One" didn't try to fix anything - but felt more like it provided information to help me make better choices when dealing with my family.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I have been waiting for this book all my life. 21 Jan 2004
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
I agree with the author, on the basis of my own experience, that the normal sibling must have ingrained resistance to the idea that he or she could have suffered deeply or even at all, because I imagine that suffering is to any normal sibling a judgment we no longer have the capacity to make without comparison to the other -- because suffering, for us, conjures the experience not of self but of the retarded, sick, or otherwise incapacitated sibling. This problem may be inescapable, and although this is maybe presumptuous, I do believe this might account for some of the negative reviews here. The point of the book is not to say whose experience was "worse." It is to describe an experience that is little acknowledged and generally unwanted. The impulse these readers had to pick up this book is not consistent with their statements that they didn't really get hurt. Why are they reading this self-help book at all? A few of these reviews smack of an all-too-familiar sanctimoniousness, a defensiveness of the experience of the abnormal sibling against the author and the world in general. (One reader refers to Safer's "bourgeoise Jewish" childhood and talks of herself as a "Christian" with "Christian values" -- yikes!). When I first started reading this book, I was shocked that the author could talk about her brother in such bald, bold terms. But as I read further, I felt relieved that she did and realized that I needed to do so to heal. She is also full of tremendous compassion for the brother and all the other abnormal siblings, but as she says, they have their advocates. Safer tells what it's like to be in the "normal" position, with all the slings and arrows of daily life (and I mean all arrows, not just those that come from living with the abnormal sibling) and the pain they inflict constantly deflected because, after all, they could not possibly be as bad as anything suffered by the problem sibling. As a writer, I once wrote a short story based on my own experience and told it from the viewpoint of the normal one, a girl who struggled between wanting her own life and not wanting to abandon her retarded sister. A friend and colleague disliked the story, saying it wasn't an interesting viewpoint -- I should have told the story "from the viewpoint of the one who REALLY suffered." I thank Ms. Safer for unearthing a little-heard, little-valued, little-loved, and little-understood voice that I have been told to quiet for a lifetime. Her book has freed much of the suppressed reality of my own experience -- while showing me that this reality can coexist with the very real suffering my own sister no doubt experienced as well.
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