Fiding sisters and brothers in myth, analysis and active imagination | Henry Abramovitch

הרצאה שניתנה על ידי פרופ'הנרי אברמוביץ בכנס בקופנהאגן 2013

Neglect of Siblings in Depth Psychology
I have often wondered what might have happened, if instead of Greek mythology, Jung and Freud had used the Book of Genesis for inspiration. In Genesis, the major emotional conflicts are not between parents and children, but between sisters and brothers. Given the importance of siblings in life of families and the psyche, their neglect is surprising. Their neglect has many reasons: unacknowledged sibling countertransference, e.g. birth order bias of the founders, Western cultural complex of early sibling separation, theoretical emphasis on early mother-child interaction that leaves no room for siblings, as one observer stated: "Psychoanalytical theory seems to have colluded with wish to be the only child.” (Coles 2003: 1). Many patients report how sibling material was ignored, distorted, or re-interpreted in theoretically familiar patterns (Mitchell 2003; Abramovitch 2005). Yet understanding sibling bonds is crucial in treating analysands and especially those from sibling-centered cultures.

Ideal siblings vs. Actual Siblings
I am a person who loves to tell jokes. So it was natural for me to search for a joke about brothers and sisters to begin my presentation. I searched, but I could not find one. From this I understood that the subject of siblings is not funny. As an archetypal experience, being a brother/sister, or having a sister/brother, promises so much: loyalty, togetherness, a lifelong, unbreakable bond. Someone who knows you better than any other and who will stand by you, side by side, against ‘The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune’; through separations and celebrations, through divorce, mourning, marriage and more. Or at least, that is the way it is supposed to be. That is the promise of the myth of sisterhood and brotherhood. Sibling reality is very different. I want to explore sibling space with an active imagination.

Imagine the sister or brother you would most like to have…
Now think about the sibling with whom you have the most complex relationship…
Much of our lives as sisters and brothers is played out in the gap between myth of what siblings are supposed to be and the often painful reality of what they are, between your ideal sibling and your real ones, between the myth and the reality. The greatest compliment one can give a friend is, “You are like a sister or brother to me.” How many of us can say that about our own sibs.
Ultimately, I did remember a joke. It was a Talmudic joke about a theoretical sister, at the intersection of Jewishness and siblingness:

A terrified, rabbinical student who had never before been alone with a female, was about to go on his first date. His Rabbi reassured and guided him, “First, speak of family. Then about love and finally, philosophy.”
When he was alone with a similarly terrified young woman, he asked about “family”: “Do you have sister?” She answered meekly, “No.” Noticing a bowl of oranges on the table he asked, “Do you like oranges?” Again she responded, “No.” Now only philosophy remained. With a look of inspiration, he asked, “And if you had a sister, do you think she would like oranges?

This joke about a theoretical sister highlights that imaginary siblings, those sisters we meet in dreams and brothers in fantasy, are no less important than our actual ones. We all carry within us, the image of the ideal brother, that perfect sister as well as their evil twins. As Jung wrote, “Yahweh had one good son and the one who was a failure. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, correspond to this prototype, and so, in all ages and in all parts of the world, does the motif of the hostile brothers, which in innumerable modern variants still causes dissension in modern families and keeps the psychotherapist busy.” (Jung, CW 11, ¶629).Our identity as siblings is often conflicted and flawed. Consider this sister, suffering from sibling denial:

Do you have any siblings?”…Invariably, I open my mouth to answer and can’t. After too long I say, “Yes”. Or I say “No”. The period in which I tended to say no was brutal, but it was easier than saying yes and having to explain…I could say “I have one/two brothers.” Then came a haze of heartbreak, and who needs that over dinner. (Albert 2010: 10).

Growing up, we typically spend more time with our brothers and sisters than we do with our parents, and our relationship with them usually lasts longer. In an age
of divorce, mobility, and alienation, the sibling bond is often the only one that really lasts. Siblings and birth order appear to play a crucial order in the success of a marriage and friendship patterns (Toman 1976), successful aging and longevity (Vaillant & Vaillant 1990) as attachment figures and transitional objects especially early and later in life. As Katherine Hepburn wrote:

I cannot say anything in detail about my sisters and brothers. They are so much a part of me that I simply know that I could not have been me without them. They are my “box” – my protection…(Hepburn 1991: 16).

Even solo children may have important fantasy and dream siblings who may provide similar sense of security.

Brother-Sister Archetype

The brother/sister archetype revolves around tension between extraordinary cooperation/companionship/love, illustrated in Indian epics of Mahabharata, (where five brothers are married peacefully to the same wife!), versus an intense competition//alienation/hate so well described in the story of the First Brothers in Genesis, where the first death is brother-murder (and by implication, making all murders, fratricides). Training institutes often reflect this polarity when candidates experience intense rivalry or loyalty with fellow candidate-siblings. Our lives as siblings are played out along this "cooperation-competition continuum". We probably learn more about loyalty and competition, strategy and aggression from our sisters and brothers than from anyone else.

“Our families are like houses; you get the room that is not yet filled.” (Kelsh & Quindlen 1998:37).
Sibling Niches, Shadow Siblings and Polarized Identity
Our sibling identity is highly influenced by which niche we occupy in our family system. A firstborn entering the family has the ability to choose any niche and most opt for a niche typical of firstborns. A second born enters the family with at least one niche occupied and must search for a different available niche and so on. The relationship between sibs will be largely determined by the relative position of occupied niches within the family system. When the niches are mutually exclusive, then each sib will develop a “polarized identity” towards the others. If one is bad, then the other will be the good one; if one is considered beautiful then the other may become studious, perhaps to hide the fact that she feels ugly. Each sibling is formed in the shadow of the other: the identity of one becoming the negative identity of the other. Unconsciously, such polarized identity takes the form: “I am not what you are.” The polarization will be most extreme for “high access siblings” similar in age and gender, which have the greatest need to differentiate from each other. When the psychological space is divided up in an ether/or manner, then the brother or sister becomes a shadow sibling. These shadow siblings divide up the world between them and then forbid the other to enter into their psychological territory making siblings unconsciously dependent upon each other for an ultimate sense of wholeness. The shadow sibling is envied and hated for having those qualities denied in oneself. The result of such polarization is that certain attributes, personal qualities and characteristics are declared ‘off limits’ to the other siblings; to enter into their realm is perceived as a kind of symbolic invasion or even, to declare psychic war. Yet, if I never enter her psychic territory, I will never encounter the beautiful side of myself and I will live life cut off from it, just as my sister will never connect with her own intelligence. To live within the framework of polarized identities is to live in a world of fragmentation. Jung did not develop a framework to conceptualize brother/sister dynamics clinically (Newton 2007). Yet, sibling work, therefore, is often the key to individuation.

The “sibling challenge” of clinical work
Active Imagination II
The “sibling challenge” of clinical work is understand sibling experience of people from birth orders dramatically different from our own. To help stimulate this skill, I offer another active imagination to help you imagine being a different birth order:
The goal of this active imagination is to understand in depth a birth order different from your own. You can choose to see world from the position of a brother
or sister with whom you have least connection. Or, you can choose a birth position that may not even exist in your family. If you are a first born, imagine what it is like being the middle child, always caught in between; if you are the sandwich child of the family, imagine being the youngest and never having to grow up; if you are the “baby” of the family, imagine being the pioneering eldest, doing everything first while having everyone else watching you; if you are an only child, imagine having an identical twin so that you are never alone; if a twin, imagine living life solo, never sure of who to let in. Take a moment and allow images and feelings to emerge.
Then go onto to imagine each of the other sibling positions in your family and other sibling positions most foreign to you.
I believe this exercise is important for therapists who must understand the depth psychology of sibling experiences very different from our own.
The sibling stories in bible provide a developmental framework for how severe sibling conflict may be changed into brotherly togetherness. It includes dynamics of shadow siblings, sibling survivors, replacement child in which parent’s unresolved grief is folded into child’s unconscious, de-identification and sibling strangers, as well as the impact of death of parent on sibling solidarity.

Cain Complex/Abel Complex
I now want to discuss two important sibling-based complexes and then give clinical illustration. A “Cain complex” describes someone who is chronically given over to intense feelings of envy and interminable social comparison of feeling chronically “unchosen” (Schachter et. al. 1976). Murray Stein has drawn a psychological portrait of their inner life. These individuals are subtly identified as rejected children, as the “bad” sons or daughters. Often, they are older children who are displaced in the affections of parents by younger children. They have ‘great difficulty forming and maintaining relationships’ and live ‘in a world of continuous vulnerability to envy reaction’. In treatment, the central task is making envy conscious. Such tormented individuals feel alienated from Self without any comfortable inner center, but with a void occasionally filled by tormenting self-accusations. They ‘cannot soothe themselves…cannot find comfort in meditation or active imagination…mostly experience anxiety, low self-esteem, emptiness and critical inner voices. If another figure does appear in this person’s active imagination or fantasy, it becomes the object of envy; it is the preferred one, the favored, the chosen and the person… is thrown back into feelings of rejection and worthlessness…of being abused and shamed…a soul in hell, consigned to everlasting torment by an indifferent or hostile parent/God. (Stein 1992:104).
In practice, treating victims of chronic envy is not easy. The use of empathy often only makes matters worse: “Soothing analytic words can exacerbate pain…since the patient knows the analyst prefers other patients…[The] patient comes in at the end of a long line of preferred others. The transference is heavily loaded with
expectations of rejection and humiliation. The analyst can become an object of envy…Someone else always has more of the Self …” The patient feels themselves identified with the ’outcast child who has been condemned and driven into isolation. In isolation, they feel worthless, filled with envy toward favoured ones’. They are consumed by their own hatred and desire to destroy and hence feel evil. Suicide may seem ‘an act of generosity and goodness to diminish the presence of evil in the world’. Suffering from a Cain complex is indeed a curse, in which there is no inner place of rest, but only ceaseless, restless, homeless envy.
Most sibs do not literally kill each other, but harbor murderous feelings and “kill” their fellow sibs in symbolic ways. Symbolic killing may involve repeatedly wounding each time they meet, cutting off all contact or refusing to speak.

Abel Complex
In parallel to the Cain complex, I believe one can also speak of an “Abel complex”. Individuals suffering from an Abel complex feel favored, but always at someone else’s expense. Typically, this ‘preference at a price’ begins with siblings, but subsequently it can be experienced almost anywhere as a part of a ‘sibling transference’. Unlike so called “angel child” who gloat over their “devil sibs” (Schachter 1985; Schachter & Stone 1987), a sibling with “Abel complex” feels an overwhelming sense of guilt at the inequality from which she or he benefits. As a result, such a person is deeply wounded in the capacity to receive, since every “gift” is experienced as a deprivation of an Other. These individuals are trapped in a personal psychology characterized by emotional scarcity where there is never enough to go around. In compensation, such individuals may even develop an exquisite sense
of social justice, akin to what my mentor Robert Jay Lifton (1979) called “animating guilt”. They may transfer the Abel complex from the family of origin into the society as a whole, arguing that no one should receive unless all receive equally. As a result, they may be capable of enormous acts of altruism and personal renunciation, as contributors or even founders of altruistic or egalitarian movements like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. neither of whom were firstborns!
However, if they are unable to link up with some symbolic brotherhood/sisterhood, they are more often left with a static or self-lacerating feeling of guilt and unworthiness, based on their unconscious identification with their rejected sib. Those weighed down by an Abel Complex experience their sibling’s unconscious hostility, even when the rejected siblings do not express it overtly. They can never wholeheartedly enjoy their successes, because they feel forever their “brother” or “sister” watching. They yearn for a psychology of surplus but feel condemned to live within a psychology of scarcity. They cannot free themselves from Cain’s haunting question, ”Am I my brother’s watcher?”

A clinical vignette may help illustrate aspects of the sibling psychology of the Abel complex. The man I shall call “Samuel” like his Biblical namesake, was a person who ‘grew in esteem and favor both with God and men’ (I Samuel 2:26, JPS). He was married with two teenage sons when a severe mid life crisis brought him to his knees and into analysis. Despite all his outward success, he had a profound sense of being unworthy and a tendency to self-blame. He was very concerned with issues
of social and environmental justice. He found it easy to give to others but very difficult for him to receive in return, characteristic of the Abel complex.
During the remodeling of his home, he became very upset because of a Cain-and-Abel like incident involving his two sons. The purpose of the remodeling was that for both of his teenage sons to receive new, separate quarters downstairs, with the parents remaining upstairs. Originally, the two boys had shared one room. Eventually, the younger son, wanting his own space, moved downstairs to take over Samuel’s compact office. In the new arrangement, the rooms were to be of different dimensions. One was larger but with a low ceiling, while the other was smaller but with a high ceiling. The elder son was given first choice of rooms. Samuel rationalized this preference saying that the elder was, in fact, giving up a bigger room. Family friends, he recalled, had argued the reverse, that the younger brother who had had a smaller room should get first choice.   As a father, Samuel acutely experienced the wounds of his first born who was unable to give verbal expression to his inner wounded feelings of dethronement.
The elder brother, initially, chose the smaller room, with the high ceiling. As the renovations continued, however, he began to have second thoughts, undoubtedly not helped by the taunting of his younger brother “I’m getting the bigger room! I’m getting the bigger room!” The older son said that he now wanted to reserve his final decision until he could see the rooms completely finished. He said that he needed to feel at home in the new space, and it was hard to tell how just how he would feel, from the room’s dimensions alone. The younger brother reacted vehemently: “You already choose and you cannot take it back.” A ferocious and seemingly intractable argument ensued. Samuel, caught between his two sons tried to get them to stop, but the brothers continued fighting with enormous hostility and without the hint of a solution. As soon as he could, Samuel went off to be by himself and began crying uncontrollably.
In analysis, Samuel’s sadness brought into focus his childhood relations with his own elder brother. He, too, had fought with his brother to the extent that they had drawn an imaginary line down the middle of the room over which the other was forbidden to cross. When he had been young, he had been nicknamed “Me, too!” He would say this phrase every time his brother received some treat. On the one had, it indicated an idealization of his brother – “I want what he gets”. On the other hand, it showed how easily he felt that he would be left out and forgotten. Unkept and unseen.
His older brother could never stand up to their powerful and judgmental father. Reacting to his brother’s negative experience, Samuel developed a defensive persona that he called “Mr. Contrary.” Whatever position his father would take on any issue, Samuel would take the contrary position. Without any personal investment in the debate, he could argue passionately and express the resentment both brothers felt to this distant, judgmental authority figure. His older brother admired him for his courage, but Samuel knew he could be strong only if it was an issue he really didn’t care about. On the contrary, he himself hardly knew what he really cared about. As a result, he felt he was a fraud, an imposter. An inner voice would continually accuse him, saying, “If only they knew the real truth about you….”
Samuel felt there must have been something earlier to create such inner mistrust and not allow himself to feel good about himself. The memory that eventually emerged was an image of early sibling Oedipal triangle. Samuel saw himself as an infant at his mother’s breast while his brother, only 14 months older was screaming. Every time, he nursed, looking into his mother’s distracted eyes, he felt he never had her full attention. Mother’s milk carried the sibling imprint of his brother’s screaming. Everything he received was scarred by a sense of it coming at someone else’s expense.
In the transference, Samuel came to experience me as a caring older brother he never had and ultimately allowed him to begin to develop a caring, inner brother. The interplay between personal and archetypal “inner siblings” and “outer siblings,” is worthy of further exploration.


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