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  • Sister, Brother, Other, Same
  • Rebecca L. Spang (bio)
Leonore Davidoff, Thicker than Water: Siblings and their Relations, 1780–1920, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012; 449 pages; ISBN 978-0-19-954648-0
C. Dallett Hemphill, Siblings: Brothers and Sisters in American History, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011; 316 pages; ISBN 978-0-19-975405-2

They are so very similar. And, yet, they are not the same. Leonore Davidoff’s Thicker than Water: Siblings and their Relations, 1780–1920 and C. Dallett Hemphill’s Siblings: Brothers and Sisters in American History share even more than their titles (and common publisher) might suggest. Both, of course, are histories of siblings: books that ask how many sisters and brothers people once had, how they interacted, and what they imagined the ideal relationship to be. Both begin by observing that such questions have heretofore largely been ignored. And both focus chiefly on the long nineteenth century and draw on equally varied sources: correspondence, diaries, memoirs, advice literature, children’s literature, vital records. While one considers English households and the other concentrates on North America, and while one gives a bit more space to psychoanalysis and the other looks to sociology for insights – nonetheless, a striking resemblance is the first thing to be noticed about these two books. One is tempted to call it ‘familial’, or to ask if these two books were ‘separated at birth?’ But the [End Page 268] reviewer who did so would no doubt (and perhaps rightly) provoke the authors’ ire.

For the psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell, it is this dynamic – a threatening similarity as the basis both of loving familiarity and of violent hostility – that is at the core of all sibling relationships. If her claim strikes you as farfetched, consider things from the perspective of the first-born child in a twentieth-century, nuclear family. ‘Baby’, the song says, ‘makes three’. But what happens when there is another baby? The lyrics (written in 1926) tell us that in ‘my blue heaven’, it’s ‘Molly and me [and baby makes three]’ – if we consider how Molly would feel if it suddenly became ‘Molly and Maggie and me’, we get some sense perhaps of how baby reacts to the birth of a brother or sister. And while Molly at least has the comfort of her own given name, baby has no such distinctive marker. S/he is just ‘baby’ – nothing, in other words, to distinguish her/him from another baby born to the same parents. Or, rather, it is the newborn who is now ‘baby’ and the older child who no longer seems to have a place in the ‘little nest’ at all. Building on this insight, Mitchell makes a compelling case (supported with clinical material and literary works) for the central role of sibling relations in psychic life. If, as she writes, ‘the sibling is par excellence someone who threatens the subject’s uniqueness’, it is through overcoming this feared annihilation (and murderous hate) that interaction with peers becomes not just possible but even pleasant.1 The deep trauma of non-uniqueness, moreover, is something experienced repeatedly through life – from the very particular case of a researcher who discovers somebody else working on the same topic to the basic truism of common human mortality. Expanding from siblinghood as we usually understand it (shared parentage) to all ‘lateral’ interactions, Mitchell suggests it has a universal significance and even haunts the lives of only children. Oedipus, she cleverly notes, had two (half) brothers and two (half) sisters – that they are more usually thought of as his children (which, of course, they also were) only shows how difficult it has been for western culture to acknowledge the importance of sibling relations.2

Like Mitchell, Hemphill and Davidoff begin by noting that sibling relations have been little studied. Though they also both cite Mitchell’s Siblings: Sex and Violence (2003) as evidence that this omission is being remedied, neither fully agrees with her analysis (though Davidoff comes closer to doing so) nor accepts individuals’ dogged mental attachment to the phantasy of their own uniqueness as explanation for the gap in scholarship. Instead, Hemphill points to the fracturing of social and demographic history into subfields...


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pp. 268-277
Launched on MUSE
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