About a month ago, I was reading the book The Sibling Effect: What Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us by Time senior editor and science writer Jeffrey Kluger. He included some interesting tidbits about singletons and how professionals viewed only children in the past.
Did you know that G. Stanley Hall, a psychologist, professor and the first president of the American Psychological Association, actually believed that “[B]eing an only child is a disease in itself”?
He wasn’t the only one. In his 1921 book Basic Principles of Psychoanalysis, psychiatrist Abraham Arden Brill wrote:
The only child is the morbid product of our present social economic system. He is usually an offspring of wealthy parents who, having been themselves brought up in luxury and anxious that their children should share their fate, refuse to have more than one or two children. By their abnormal love they not only unfit the child for life’s battle but prevent him from developing into normal manhood, thus producing sexual perverts and neurotics of all descriptions. It would be best for the individual as well as the race that there should be no only children.
After reading this quote, I became curious about the man who speculated that singletons essentially contaminated our race. (And, honestly, as an only child, I was a bit offended.)
It turns out that Abraham Arden Brill (A.A) Brill (1874–1948) was a big deal. According to Drs. Arnold D. Richards and Paul W. Mosher in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Brill “was one of the most influential American psychiatrists of the past century.”
In his early teens, Brill left Kanczuga, Austria for America — by himself. He arrived in New York City basically flat broke. “…He slept on floors of saloons in exchange for work and later taught English to foreigners for twenty-five cents a lesson,” according to the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA).
Just over a decade later, at 29 years old, Brill had graduated from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and then received training in psychiatry. In the early 1900s, while traveling through Europe, Brill discovered Freud’s work.
Brill was actually the first to translate Freud’s writings into English. (But apparently his translations have been criticized.) According to Richards and Mosher, after Brill returned from Europe, he opened the first private practice to offer psychoanalysis in the U.S.
In 1911 he founded the New York Psychoanalytic Society and helped with establishing the APsaA. Brill also believed unequivocally that only physicians should become analysts. (He worried about potential nonphysician quacks entering the profession. But Freud actually supported “lay analysis.”) In 1934 Brill was the first to head the Section on Psychoanalysis, which became part of the American Psychiatric Association, after many years of Brill’s urging.
According to Richards and Mosher, Brill viewed himself as the father of American psychoanalysis. (He actually introduced many psychoanalytic terms into our vernacular!) In his book The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, published in 1938, Brill wrote:
Psychoanalysis was unknown in this country until I introduced it in 1908….[psychoanalytic terminology], some of which I was the first to coin into English expression, can now be found in all standard English dictionaries. Words like abreaction, transference, repression, displacement, unconscious, which I introduced as Freudian concepts, have been adopted and are used to give new meanings, new values to our knowledge of normal and abnormal behavior.
He also wrote other books, including Psychoanalysis: Its Theory and Application, Freud’s Contribution to Psychiatry and Lectures on Psychoanalytic Psychiatry.
You can learn a bit more about Brill from the International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis.