A Study in Contrasts
When I saw the title at the library, I couldn't help but take pause. When I spotted “The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling,” the slim volume by Jeanne Safer seized my attention. Though I cringed at the word “damaged,” curiosity led me to check out the book and read. Safer's older brother was the “difficult” one in her family, and she writes with poignant pain about his isolation and the debilitating pressure she felt as “the favored child.” She shares her highly dysfunctional family situation, and the disappointment of not being able to connect with her brother as an adult. Safer's story did speak to the importance of siblings, and I agreed with her that, until recently, neurotypical siblings have had few opportunities for sibling-specific support.
However, red flags began waving immediately. The text's terminology continued to trouble me; the term, “damaged” seemed to shroud the ways in which individuals like Willie can be whole, and wholly themselves. And as someone who has “left normal,” I didn't like being put back into that category. (Throughout the book, “normalcy” is described as something to strive and sacrifice for, rather than an artificial, often-arbitrary construct.) Further, Safer's extreme pessimism was practically poisonous for me. Though I understood that the book was intended to reveal the hidden struggles associated with having a “special” sibling, it largely ignored—and even mocked—the idea of finding meaning within those challenges. For example, Safer quotes a sibling who says, “I'm trying to eradicate the “Hallmark Hall of Fame Special” myth—‘How I learned the meaning of life by having a disabled sibling.'” Safer and the sibling she quotes seem to think that finding meaning in one's most challenging relationships necessitates a naïve denial of the difficulties therein. By contrast, I believe that moving through relational grief and pain into a place of acceptance and “meaning” shows strength and emotional fortitude.
Furthermore, I know from experience that siblings can take a very different path to freedom than the one that Safer suggests is their only option. She asserts that siblings must “forge an identity in which [the] sibling is peripheral.” On the contrary, I've come to see that siblings can be central to one's identity in a healthy way. For example, by acknowledging Willie's importance in my life, I was led to serve at L'Arche, an experience I value beyond measure. There was a fatalistic tone to Safer's words that gave me chills: “No one with an abnormal sibling has a normal childhood …. Their success is always tainted by their sibling's failure, their future clouded by an untoward sense of obligation and responsibility.” She goes to say that “[for parents] … disappointment and the loss of possibility are permanent.” She notes that “A damaged brother or sister will never be a peer, a companion, or a confidant,” and that “Being [a] sibling forever defines and confines [them].” Institutionalization is mentioned as a viable option more than once. Eventually, I had to skim the passages; I couldn't bring myself to continue close reading. The book was intended to serve as nourishment to siblings like me, but I felt a recurring taste of toxicity on my tongue.
What does real sibling support look like? For me, it appears in full form in another book I read this week (one I savored as an “antidote” to “The Normal One”): The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy by Priscilla Gilman. Gilman, a former Vassar professor, shares the story of her son Benjamin's development with courage and candor. “Benj” has hyperlexia and has “borderline Asperger’s,” but those labels do not limit his luminescent character. Gilman writes openly about the daily struggles of life with this “unexpected” boy, yet she celebrates his every achievement and ultimately arrives at a place of hard-won acceptance and gratitude. I didn't want this beautiful book to end, but as I turned the final pages I raised my arms in triumph at this line: “I will always resist mightily any orientation or approach that sees [my son] Benj as a problem or somehow “broken” rather than as simply and profoundly himself.”