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This issue originally published as A Course for Teachers
August 1994, Volume 1 Nr 12, Issue 12

The Other Family-of-Origin


Relationships. In popular and professional psychology, in personal growth circles, this is a key word, perhaps the key word. We discuss and examine and work on issues of relationship - to love and marriage partners, to parents, to coworkers, to children, to self, to God.

When family-of-origin issues are discussed, people are really referring to their relationships with their parents. But, there are other family-of-origin relationships, and to ignore them is to leave a huge gap in our explorations of our past, that soup of experience and memory which made us who we temporally (and, yes, temporarily) are today. Brothers and Sisters.

These are the people who played with, humiliated, protected, harassed, excluded and included me in such recognizable ambivalence. In a very real way, our siblings never let us grow up. No matter what roles we attain to, no matter what carefully constructed personae we present to the world, our brother or sister has known us at our most vulnerable. It is not always comfortable to be with people who knew me when I was that way. Siblings hold that magic mirror in which we see ourselves, like it or not. They remember delightful and horrifying incidents, and all the nicknames.

In childhood, emotions are at their most raw, unveneered. We have not yet repressed or otherwise defended against them. The intensity is astonishing. We may adore and then hate a sibling and then adore them again, within the space of a few hours. We learn how to tease and be teased. We live lessons of tolerance, competition, and forgiveness. And, childhood is the only time in most people's life that they consciously, deliberately, engage in fantasy play with others, often siblings.

When we befriend our Inner Child, can we ignore the other children we grew up with? One of the most famous inner child advocates, a man who has written numerous books and guided thousands of people through workshops on the subject, is John Bradshaw. His verbose books talk about magic and poetry, though they contain little, but are informed by love and generosity. Methodical and full of practical exercises, he makes the whole messy, mysterious, romantic inner adventure look as user-friendly as a set of building blocks. I can recommend his books on their nuts and bolts merits and he doesn't deny that "inner child work" may take depth and commitment. But, he nearly ignores siblings. John Bradshaw emphasizes the influence of parents, teachers and even school-peers over that of brothers and sisters.


Since the popular pattern for personal growth work is to emphasize the negative - identify the wounds that we may heal them - the obvious focus here would be sibling rivalry. Freud introduced the notion that sibling rivalry, i.e. envy and aggression in older siblings with the birth of a new sibling, was normal. Today, it is generally accepted without question, as though antagonism and competitiveness are the certain fate of brothers and sisters.

Darwinism and patriarchy influenced the development of psychology to the extent that conflict, competition and aggression have received far more attention than interdependence, affiliation, cooperation.

Perhaps, it is time for us to give weight to sibling interdependence. In a recent study, psychologists at the University of Illinois determined that girls who squabble with siblings were far more likely than others to have their own children living harmoniously. Such women tended to encourage cooperation, and were unlikely to show favoritism, among their children. These families learned sibling interdependence even though (perhaps because) sibling rivalry was so much a part of their own childhood.

Mid-life Reflection

It is common for adults in our society to enter a period of re-evaluation at mid-life. Eric Erickson called these stages Generativity versus Stagnation (approximately 29 - 49 years) and Integrity versus Despair (50 - death). Natural life experiences such as death of a parent, adolescence and independence of one's children , and body changes, all provoke such reflection.

The sandwich generation is also finding its siblings. Like it or not, the illness, dependence or death of elderly parents brings us face to face with our brothers and sisters, and with the ambivalent feelings they have always created in us. In some cases, such a crisis is the first time we have had to work with our siblings as adults. Unless you are in business together, it is unlikely that you have had to make "grown-up" decisions with these people you've known forever.

Since our larger culture has no real context for grieving and coping with such issues, these crises are confusing enough, and seldom plumbed for the available depth of sorrow and renewal. How much less likely we are to take such opportunities to begin exploring our collective sibling memory.

At my father's wake and funeral, there were touching and dignifying instances of sympathy and support, mostly from people my siblings and I hardly knew - friends of our grandmother, and Dad's extended family. This was healing but incomplete, because of what wasn't said, and properly so.

What wasn't said at the wake and funeral were the expressions of anger and fear which any death may awaken, as well as betrayal and outrage at a life lived unwell and at emotional and other abuses we had all, as his children, endured. Inside jokes, acknowledgment of the odd, unconventional ways we had been gifted by this man. How to name these gifts to kindly strangers without choking on the incompleteness of not also naming alcoholism and mental illness (diseases sure, but not "nice" diseases like his heart condition)?

Only five people on this earth know what it means to be my father's child. They are smart, talented, each has a terrific sense of humor. They are, one and all, survivors. I'm speaking, of course, of my brother, my sisters and me.

Memorial services are important rituals for the living community. At their depth, they can be venues of memory, storytelling, forgiveness, reconciliation, and acknowledgment of love and mystery. In a culture as steeped in denial as ours, however, many people find funerals and wakes shallow and unsatisfying. Creating a separate time, a long breakfast at a diner, for just me and my siblings to talk about Dad, filled some of the gap which the usual rituals left. It also gave us a focus for reconnecting as, simultaneously, the children, adolescents and adults that we have been and are. That awareness of all our selves is a key to understanding siblinghood.

Mythic Siblings

How do we interpret myth and perennial literature on the subject of siblings? Cain and Abel, wicked stepsisters, Hansel and Gretel, Cupid and Psyche, Joseph's brothers selling him into slavery. These tales have extremities of enmity and loyalty. The power of these tales is visceral and instructive, but the lessons are not about actual people. It would be unfortunate if we believed that such extremes tell the truth about brotherly and sisterly relationships. Murderous rage, realm-destroying jealousy: these are the stories of myth and opera, not of daily human life.

The value of myth is here: everything within a myth may be seen to represent an aspect of one individual's psyche. In this way, we may see siblings of myth as aspects of oneself to integrate - to confront and to accept for the inherent gifts they represent. Perhaps, the most common sibling archetypes are twins. The inner twins, light and dark, archangel and demon, Set and Osiris, Jacob and Esau, White and Black knights. In Parabola, the Magazine of Myth and Tradition, Summer 1994 issue, Howard Teich writes, "Twin male heroes appear in the mythologies of virtually every native culture: Mayan, Egyptian, Burmese, African, Roman, Greek, Brazilian, Judeo-Christian...

"The patriarchal myths with which we are most familiar...usually portray the twins as antagonistic. Typically, the Lunar Twin is slain in favor of the Solar Twin. Up to now, our culture has hailed only the Solar Twin as its prototype of masculinity, consigning the Lunar Twin to impotence and oblivion. The character of this lunar companion spirit has become a mystery to us, having been eroticized (and devalued) as homosexual or feminine... most of us are unaware that nearly every central male hero was originally a twin. Even Hercules, the quintessential Solar Hero, was born with a Lunar Twin named Iphicles."

Recreating the balance in our collective psyche is crucial to our maturity as individuals ,and perhaps our survival as a species. Note also the prevalence of sister-sister and sister-brother twin pairs, notably Apollo, the sun god, and Artemis, wild woman goddess of the moon.

Extend from twins, with their clear yin/yang, light and shadow aspects, and you find other siblings. The nine muses; the Three Fates; the trio of brothers or of sisters found in so many fairy tales, where the youngest succeeds through innocence and kindness after the older siblings have failed through their greed, limited vision or set-in-their-way conservativeness. By the way, we fail to own these interior older siblings at our peril because they carry not only toxic greed, but necessary desire. The very same circumscribed pathways which an initiate must eschew are those he must return to and honor as a member of the traditional society. The older siblings are not visionaries but neither are they all bad - they are often simply practical, managerial types. They may have narrow vision, but also the common sense to anchor the puer aeternus of the young hero.

Recently, our family saw The Lion King. Our eight-year old son, Dylan, did not understand why someone (Scar) would want to kill his own brother (the King, Mufasa). This question is not simple curiosity about the natural history of African Lions, and parents do a (well meaning?) disservice to their children if they answer, "That's how lions are, honey; each male wants to be head of the pride with lots of females, etc." These are talking lions, anthropomorphic, you know, People. The Lion King is one of the most unapologetically operatic animated features Disney has recently produced. If we can honor its mythic proportions, we may find gems that raise it from a commercialized kid-movie status.

Using mythology as a creative map for exploring and enriching oneself is gaining popularity as people demand more poetry and tolerate more mystery. Jungian psychology has perhaps the most examined western body of thought on the subject, but more scholarship on archetypal siblings is due.

Birth Order Theory

Why have psychology and sociology comparatively little to say on the subject? Perhaps because sibling relationships do not lend themselves to simple patterns (nor do any other relationships of course, but in trying to explain ourselves to ourselves most other relationships can more readily seem to fit in theoretical containers).

The varieties of ambivalence most of us feel about our siblings, or about our lack of siblings, may be why few theorists have tackled the subject. Perhaps, the best known theory of siblinghood is the one which made a recent, brief sweep through bookstore and talk-show circuits: Birth Order Theory. Kevin Leman, a Arizona psychologist, popularized it, and it seems to make sense to us, and of us.

Birth order theory has a comforting simplicity. Some examples: older children take on responsibility, grow up fast and may sacrifice their creativity to their controlling nature. Middle children suffer from benign neglect, are compromising diplomats, and are often late bloomers, blessed and cursed by unclear parental expectations. Last born children, "the baby", often receive more unconditional love than their siblings, and tend to be clowns (Leman, a last born, likes to list contemporary comedians who share his birth order status and his wit).

Like much of popular psychology, a little goes a long way into the dubious conventional wisdom. At one time, "everyone knew" that the earth was flat, and that women had hysteric tendencies. These ideas just seemed so obvious. Most of the clinical community however, seems to dismiss birth order as of little significance in shaping personality. Zurich psychologists Angst and Ernst surveyed thirty-four years of published research on the subject and concluded that birth order influence is negligible.

Any theory which emphasizes one aspect of personality influence over all others is too simplistic. Birth order theory is made even more problematic by the natural irregularity of intervals. What about children spaced in two groups with a decade between? Does gender matter less than order? Blended families; step-siblings? How old were children at the time of divorce or parental death? Any disabled or medically compromised siblings? Such variables muddle the perceived simplicity of birth order theory. And the great constellation of other childhood influences are not included.

If the descriptions of personality traits in popular birth order discussions seem as vague and self-applicable as those in newspaper horoscopes, should we be surprised?

Like One's Shoulder

Siblings. In four short pages I can only hope to stir the surface waters of an endlessly rich subject, and to encourage you to explore it further. Other aspects, which I can but name here, may be examined in future issues: youth gangs - surrogate family; kindred spirits - siblings of the soul; inner siblings (in the manner of inner children and inner parents); the only child; incest; metaphors of brotherhood and sisterhood (feminism, black solidarity, labor unions, deep ecology, the human family...); Saint Francis' Brother Son and Sister Moon.

Wishing you love in all your relationships, hoping you have, and are, siblings of blood and/or spirit, of whom the Somali proverb is true:

A brother is like one's shoulder.


With this issue, A Course for Teachers completes one year of publication. The newsletter began by listening to the Inner Voice. It is read in nineteen states and two countries. We are considering changing the name in order to become more inclusive by title. We are all teachers to one another however, does our the name of the newsletter convey the impression that we are geared only toward the teaching profession? We appreciate your comments and name suggestions.

With the September 1994 issue, A Course for Teachers no longer requires a subscription fee. We simply ask that you make a contribution to keep the newsletter going. All subscribers will continue to receive the newsletter. The number on the mailing label indicates the year, month of the original subscription and the reader number. If you have been receiving the newsletter for a year, you may wish to make a contribution. A Course for Teachers has always been distributed free of charge to students. That policy is now extended to all.

1994 JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski
      and Jozef   Hand-Boniakowski

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