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My sister has a brother


coplan blog

Dr. Coplan speaks about family dynamics, and sibling relationships.

I’ve been out of town the past few days, helping my kid sister with a doctor’s appointment. A perfectly ordinary event – except for the fact that this is the first time in fifty years that I’ve been able to partake in my sister’s care, or have unimpeded contact with her.

In the next few posts I will share a bit of our family’s history with you. Not all of the details, because some of them are private and/or unique to our situation. But the big picture, because the general principles involved are transferrable to all families – including yours. In the course of this series of posts we will talk about “special children,” family systems, and what I’ve learned about parents and siblings. Some of this stuff I learned in class, some I learned in therapy, some I learned in the course of working with thousands of families over decades of practice, and some I learned through personal experience: as a son, as the elder brother of a sibling with disability, and as a parent in my own right. Someone once quipped “Learn from other people’s mistakes. You don’t have time to make them all yourself.” In that spirit, let’s jump in.

I was born in 1948, the only offspring of my father’s first marriage. My parents divorced when I was 2, and – most unusual for 1950 – my father was awarded full custody of his toddler son. My father remarried when I was four. My younger sister (technically, my half-sister) is the only offspring of my father’s second marriage. At the time my father and stepmother married, my stepmother already had 3 daughters from her first marriage. So I grew up in a “yours, mine, and ours” family, composed of my father, his second wife (my stepmother), her 3 daughters from before (my step-sisters), their daughter together (my half-sister), and myself. We didn’t use the terms “step” and “half” at the time; I’m just using them here to clarify who’s who. So, right away you can see that we had a very complicated situation. And bear in mind that all of this was unfolding in the up-tight 1950s – a time when diversity of any kind was frowned upon. Divorce? Blended families? Non-traditional families (i.e. gay parents)? Racial integration? No, no, no, and no. The pinnacle of success in those days (at least as far as I knew) was the stereotyped image of the house in suburbia, where daddy drove to work each morning and mom stayed home and cleaned house and everyone was blissful. Think “The Donna Reed Show,”, “Father Knows Best,” or “Ozzie and Harriet.” All problems were solvable, usually within a 30 minute time frame, with time out for two commercial breaks. Except, it seemed, in our family.

The other thing we take for granted today, which was not the case way back then, is the openness with which we can talk about developmental disability. Back then, disability was a taboo topic, right up there with sex and mental illness. They simply weren’t discussed in polite company – if at all. It’s hard to believe, but the 1953 film The Moon is Blue caused a scandal because the word “virgin” was used in the dialog. Also in 1953, The Kinsey Reports (Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female) were published, to the great consternation of much of the American public. The Three Faces of Eve (1957) was one of the first films to openly portray mental illness (and did so in a sympathetic light).

As for developmental disability, the first crack in the wall of silence came with Pearl S. Buck’s autobiographical The Child Who Never Grew (1950), in which the author shared her personal reflections about her daughter with Down Syndrome (trisomy 21). At the time, it was considered quite daring and a bit improper to speak of such things in public, but Buck’s stature (having already received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1932 for her novel The Good Earth), enabled both her and her publishers to take a chance on what was then a most unorthodox work. But broad public acceptance of disability was still a long way off. It wasn’t until JFK (President of the United States from 1960 to 1963) spoke out about his own sister that the American public finally began to “normalize” the concept of disability. After Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” included the creation of federally funded research programs in developmental disability. And it wouldn’t be until 1975 – two decades after my younger sister’s birth – that Congress would enact the Education for All Handicapped Law, opening the door to public education for children with special needs.

This was the world in which my father and his second wife were trying to raise a blended family, in which the youngest member of that family had a developmental disability.

More next time.



James Coplan, MD is an Internationally recognized clinician, author, and public speaker in the fields of early child development, early language development and autistic spectrum disorders. Stay connected, join Dr. Coplan on Facebook and Twitter.





2 responses to “My sister has a brother”

  1. Arlene Seal says:

    Well done, Jim. The first paragraph really got to me…I’m so glad I made that first phone call. God has blessed us.

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