Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2005, Volume 25, No. 2
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Safer, Jeanne. The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling. New York: Free Press-Simon & Schuster, 2002. 224 pages, $24.00, Hardcover 0743211960.

Reviewed by Elizabeth C. Hamilton, Oberlin College

Disability Studies scholars will likely be infuriated with the opening chapter of Jeanne Safer's The Normal One: Life With a Difficult or Damaged Sibling, and after enduring pages of concern for the "whole" and "intact" sibling, many may choose not to finish the book. Those who read further, though, will find their objections addressed and their anger at least partially assuaged.

The Normal One ultimately exposes the dichotomy of "normal" and "damaged" to be as detrimental to the non-disabled as to the disabled person, although Safer's focus here is clearly on the non-disabled. The accomplished and ambitious sister of a man with mental and emotional disabilities, Safer begins with her own life story and chronicles the spurious ways in which compulsory sentimentality and guilt over her "better lot" had come to dominate her life. A practicing psychologist, Safer turned her professional focus to studying and treating the effects of what she terms "unequal" sibling relationships.

Safer's book acknowledges that disability is a term laden with meaning and is more often interpreted than recognized or affirmed. Safer thus smartly turns to literature for a working vocabulary, employing Shakespeare's The Tempest as a source of her analysis. She names the phenomenon of sibling estrangement the "Caliban" syndrome, after the dark and troubled figure of Caliban, the virtual opposite of his sister, the bright and successful Miranda.

Although Miranda is on the surface the deservedly favored child, her ostensibly better position neither derives from a sustainable foundation, nor will it allow for enduring happiness. Safer writes that "splitting character traits between siblings is common in damaged families, and it is only a superficial advantage for the one who is assigned the positive characteristics. (...)The task of every intact sibling is to recognize this split and reabsorb the qualities that she has colluded in depositing in her opposite" (51).

In quotations like this, Safer's address to the non-disabled sibling is most apparent, yet here as well is where her notions of disability coincide with and reinforce those of people working to remove cultural barriers to people with disabilities. The well-written chapters include among other "disability-friendly" topics a welcome discussion of the "inspirational imperative" that requires disabled people to provide a treacly hope for the non-disabled.

The book is furthermore commendable for exposing the tendency for non-disabled siblings to assume self images of grandiosity, as though they alone embodied the reason for their "damaged" siblings and provided the only hope for their rescue. Safer demonstrates that the tendency to adopt roles, especially ones of heroism and nobility, is usually harmful to the psychological and physical well-being of the non-disabled sibling. Moreover the very falseness of these roles guarantees that they never serve the disabled sibling. Though The Normal One does address the psychological interdependence of family members who reside at different ends of the spectrum of normality, one wishes that Safer had addressed the unfair and alterable barriers that disabled people routinely encounter. Indeed, Safer does not attend sufficiently to the social model of disability. This is a missed opportunity, for Safer seems eminently qualified and well-poised to elucidate the interdependence of social and psychological barriers.

Precisely because The Normal One emphasizes the interpretation of disability, Disability Studies scholars in the humanities and in the social sciences should take this book seriously. Safer underscores how disability continues to be something that people interpret in terms akin to those found in literature and drama. Disabled people are perceived to embody punishment, blame, fault, and failure, whereas the normal sibling adopts roles: the invisible or the preeminent, the caretaker or the estranged, the insistent denier or the painfully conscious (159). Safer argues for a fuller interpretation of the unequal relationship, reasoning that if traditionally limited interpretations are psychologically harmful, then richer interpretations can be psychologically liberating: "acknowledging and owning the Caliban within does not change reality; it changes perspective" (180).

Although Safer reads disability very well, she does not acknowledge the extent to which she also writes disability. Despite her promising efforts to break down stereotypes, Safer reifies the very dichotomies she effectively shows to be dangerous. A myriad of degrading assumptions and terms too numerous to list here erodes the insights that would otherwise enrich the analytical toolbox of disability-rights activists. Her frequent staging of the unequal relationship as an antagonistic contest belies the work she does to facilitate genuine intersubjectivity. In short, Safer does not show readers how to account for disability at all.

Despite its best intentions, The Normal One does not disentangle itself from the polarizing conceptual framework that Disability Studies scholars regularly dismantle to examine the experiences and meanings of disability in their fullest dimensions. Unless greater attention is given to the contours of interconnectedness, we will remain fixed to the belief that either the "normal" or "the disabled" must prevail. No matter where we readers locate ourselves on the sliding scale of disability, The Normal One does not let us see that unnecessary barriers are both your problem and mine.

Copyright (c) 2005 Elizabeth C. Hamilton

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