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Emeritus Fellow Prof Juliet Mitchell on feminism, psychoanalysis, and the sibling trauma

Emeritus Fellow Professor Juliet Mitchell has published a book, Fratriarchy: The Sibling Trauma and the Law of the Mother. In it, Juliet expands her ground-breaking theories.

Writing as a psychoanalytic practitioner, she shows what happens from the ground up when we use feminist questions to probe the psycho-social world and its lateral relations. She argues that the mother’s prohibition of her toddler attacking a new or expected sibling is a rite of passage from infancy to childhood: this is a foundational force structuring our later lateral relationships and social practices.

We asked Juliet to tell us more about her book and the arguments that it makes.

What is the significance of the term 'fratriarchy'?

Fratriarchy means brotherhood. It contrasts with the equally important patriarchy. It is the origin of social relations.

How would you summarise your book's argument?

The book is about the 'sibling trauma' experienced by a toddler when a new sibling arrives and the impact this has on our later lateral relationships and social practices. To use a rather topical example, consider the relationship between Prince William and Prince Harry. William would have had a 'sibling trauma' when his brother Harry became the family baby, which was hitherto William's own only identity.

Who are the most central psychoanalysts and other researchers that feature in your book, and why these thinkers?

Freud, Klein, Winnicott, Bion, Pontalis, Anna Freud...these are all well-known people who continue to influence psychoanalysis.

What made you decide to write this book? Why now?

Every analysis looks at parents and children and family life. Social life is different and the theory of it is neglected. This is clearly important. But brothers and sisters and the friends and enemies that make up the social world are neglected. So is the mother, who all the time tries to help her children understand reality, and who also prohibits William from trying to make Harry just more of himself, or from trying to kill him. This is true very widely and I have been writing about it for more than 20 years. However, the horizontal, lateral relations of social media gives understanding them a new urgency.

What significance and impact do you see your book having? How would you like your book to change things (or people)?

Make people kinder to each other, help us to understand why we are such a violent species, and tackle the oppression of oppressed groups such as races, non-normative sexualities, and women.

What is one piece of information or advice you would give to people who want to read your book? How should they approach it?

Realise that they are perfectly clever enough to read about difficulties, and that doing something about the state of the world matters.