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Anisfeld, L.S. (1998). Siblings in the Unconscious and Psychopathology. By Vamik D. Volkan and Gabriele Ast. Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1997, xiv 184 pp., 27.50.. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 46(1):323-326.

(1998). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 46(1):323-326

Siblings in the Unconscious and Psychopathology. By Vamik D. Volkan and Gabriele Ast. Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1997, xiv 184 pp., 27.50.

Review by:
Leon S. Anisfeld

With a series of seventeen classically described and interpreted clinical cases of varying length, depth, and degree of pathological disturbance, Vamik Volkan and Gabriele Ast present to a predominantly psychoanalytic audience the importance of childhood sibling experience—via the patient's representations of self and other—in determining the etiology and meaning of the patient's adult psychopathology. This slim yet substantial volume deals with a variety of cases in which the illness of a patient explicitly involved or should have been seen to involve the participation, usually unconscious, of a sibling. One might have expected to have read, long before now, in the literature of a discipline that considers the psychopathology of the individual to have developed within the context of the nuclear family, of the important place of siblings in the illness process. But indeed this volume breaks new ground for the psychoanalytic researcher, writer, and theoretician. As surprising as this lacuna itself are the reasons that it exists. It is, I believe, the result of several historical and technical factors.

One reason the topic of the sibling has so rarely been discussed in our literature may be our dedication to Sigmund Freud, who avoided the subject because, as Volkan and Ast tell us (quoting Aggar), his “relationships with his siblings were conflictual and might have played a role in his minimizing the role of sibling experiences in the formation of psychopathology” (pp. 156-157). The authors state quite clearly that they believe we analysts “have developed a tradition which tends to ignore—in our teaching, in our writings, and most importantly in our practice of psychoanalysis—internalized sibling experiences” (p. 156).

Indeed, the very nature of the oedipal conflict—the nuclear complex of the psychoneuroses—leads the analyst to explore the parent-child relationship, but not necessarily the effect of that complex on the child's relationships with those (e.g., siblings) outside the conventionally conceived boundaries of the oedipal situation. Nor does the analyst usually examine with the patient the effect of extraoedipal figures on the patient's relationships with oedipal figures. Also, the oedipal conflict is usually viewed from the perspective of the adult defending against “territorial” encroachment by the child. Here too the role of the sibling is ignored.

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