The world was shocked by the story of Patrick and Susan Stübing, the German brother and sister who grew up apart but met, fell in love and had four children. Theirs is an extreme case, but it's not unusual for blood relatives to feel an overwhelming attraction after being separated for most of their lives. Aida Edemariam and Kate Connolly report Wednesday February 28, 2007The Guardian
In public, at least, they seem remarkably unfazed by what they have done. And in some senses, of course, they needn't be. They are a loving couple, who have been together for seven years and want to be with no one else. They have had four children. Beyond these details, however, the story gets more troubling. Patrick and Susan Stübing, who live in Zwenkau, near Leipzig, are brother and sister. Two of their four children have developmental problems, and all four have been taken into care. Patrick, 30, has served more than two years of a prison sentence for incest. Asked if she felt guilty about this breach of one of the last taboos, Susan, 22, simply shook her head and said: "No, I just want us to be able to live together.
Their case is raising much prurient speculation in Germany, not least because their reaction to the threat of further imprisonment for him has not been apology and shame, but defiance - an attempt to overturn paragraph 173 of the German legal code, which forbids sex with a close relative.
What has been discussed less, is that the Stübings seem to be a textbook example of a phenomenon called genetic sexual attraction (GSA). It occurs between blood relatives who have been separated for most of their lives, and meet in adulthood; it has been known to happen in all sorts of permutations - father/daughter, birth mother/son, siblings - even, occasionally, same-sex relationships between people who would not otherwise identify themselves as homosexual.
Patrick had already been put in a children's home in East Germany when his sister was born, the third of eight children, five of whom died. (Asked in an interview what the others died of, Susan simply shrugged her shoulders.) After a lifetime spent in and out of care homes and foster families, he finally found his mother in 2000, but she died of a heart attack six months later. Brother and sister - neither of whom had known of the other's existence before this - had only each other for comfort.
But it would probably be fair to say that there would have been more to it than grief. Those who experience GSA speak of what they feel in terms we all recognise as romantic ideals of perfect love.
"As we looked at each other over lunch it was as if a light was turned on. Something had happened which was difficult to control," Tony Smedley told the Daily Mail in 2003, a week after he was found guilty at York Crown Court of having an incestuous relationship with his half sister, Janet Paveling. "It was terrifying," Paveling said. They spoke of feeling like mirror-images of each other: "Watching her was like watching myself," said Smedley. "We have the same colouring, the same skin and even the same distinctive triangle of dark-coloured freckles near the thumb on our right hands. Whatever was happening seemed awesomely powerful. When we made love it was very moving. Very intimate. Nothing could stop us. I know it's disturbing but it felt right." Janet added: "Each day we fight the impulse to be together. It has been like an obsession. We feel complete only when we are together."
"They are strangers, they can very easily be attracted to one another," says Gwen Richardson, who runs Searchline, a company dedicated to helping people to find lost relatives. She knows that sexual relationships have sometimes then developed. "You get a worrying phone call' - about a mother and a son, for example - "the mother, obviously, was married, and the marriage broke up." Or a half-brother and sister. "They were living together and one of the neighbours found out, and they had to split up because they would have been prosecuted. It's a subject that comes up as a by-product of what we do. We don't set out to get a mother and a son together, other than, you know, as mother and son."
There is more going on than simple attraction between strangers. "It was something to do with recognition. It was like kinship, the proof you're finding each other. It was just mutual, unspoken," said a respondent in one of the only scientific studies conducted of the phenomenon, by Dr Maurice Greenberg and Professor Roland Littlewood of University College London, in The British Journal of Medical Psychology in 1995. They were surprised to find that more than 50% of people who sought post-adoption counselling "experienced strong sexual feelings in reunions".
These days people are often warned this might be a possible reaction before they meet blood relatives - yet, except for the occasional memoir - such as Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss which is an account of the author's incestuous relationship with her own father - it is rarely talked about in public.
Harrison wrote in spare present tense, of the sexual affair she had with her father when she was 20 and he had just come back into her life. "My father looks at me, then, as no one has ever looked at me before." And elsewhere: "In years to come, I'll think of the [first] kiss as a kind of transforming sting, like that of a scorpion: a narcotic that spreads from my mouth to my brain. The kiss is the point at which I begin, slowly, inexorably, to fall asleep, to surrender volition, to become paralysed. It's the drug my father administers in order that he might consume me. That I might desire to be consumed."
The term "genetical sexual attraction" seems to have been coined by a woman called Barbara Gonyo, who was taken aback by the lust she felt when she was reunited with a 26-year-old son she had given up as a baby. The relationship was never consummated, because he did not reciprocate, and the feelings faded when he married. But she wrote a book about it in which she suggests, wrote Alix Kirsta in this paper three years ago, "that romantic love and erotic arousal may be the delayed by-product of 'missed bonding' that would have normally taken place between a mother and her newborn infant, or between siblings had they not been separated by adoption. Many such people, as adults, need to go through that early missed closeness. It may become sexual, or it may not."
There is certainly something childlike in the way the Stübings relate to each other. A reporter who recently organised a clandestine meeting with the couple found them sitting side by side on a bed in a motorway hotel. Much of the meeting was characterised by the couple's shoulder-shrugging, Susan Stübing's obsessive nail biting and anxious glances towards their media adviser. When questions were not directed at her, Susan, who dropped out of school at 15 with no qualifications, turned her pink pumps in circles like a child. At one point, the adviser told her: "Take that chewing gum out of your mouth." It is clear, say those who have met them, that the couple need looking after, which is one reason why, according to youth workers, their children have been taken away.
They are also far from being media-savvy. Their lawyer, Endrik Wilhelm, says they have been "overwhelmed" by the interest in their story. Many of their statements, such as "we just want to get rid of paragraph 173" sound rehearsed, and it is unclear just how much they understand about the situation in which they find themselves. When Susan became bored with the newspaper interview, she poked her brother on the back of his feet with her toes. He took her hand tenderly, as if comforting a child, and the interview was brought to a swift close.
When relationships such as this do become sexual, they tend greatly to complicate knee-jerk assumptions about abuse and incest: "There is no force, coercion, usually no betrayal of trust," Greenberg told Kirsta. "And no victim. If sex occurs, it involves consenting adults." So far as we know, this seems to have been the case with the Stübings, though Susan was very young - 16 - when they met, one reason why she has not yet been prosecuted. (Described as "slow" by her carers, she became pregnant for a fifth time when Patrick was imprisoned, by a 49-year-old man who described himself as her boyfriend. Their child, Safira, born in 2006, now lives with her father.) Many sufferers - if that is the right word - of GSA do not see it as incest at all, while at the same time they might be horrified by any suggestion of a sexual relationship with a member of their adopted family.
The Stübings' lawyer insists that the main scientific arguments behind Germany's existing law banning incest no longer hold. "Sociologically speaking, incest is not the cause of difficult problems in families, rather the consequence of them," he says.
"The risks of inheriting defects are as high as the chance of inheriting positive things," he claims, pointing out that people with inheritable conditions are not forbidden sexual intercourse. He believes that, in a modern society, laws should be used only to punish "socially damaging behaviour".
What is unusual about the Stübings is the number of children involved. They may argue, through their lawyer, that they aren't hurting anyone - "everyone should be able to do what he wants as long as it doesn't harm others" - but it could be said that they have already harmed their children. Quite apart from two of them having developmental difficulties (it is not certain whether this is because they were premature, or because they share so much genetic material), the fact that they have been taken into care, as Patrick was, means that it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the whole cycle could begin again.
In the meantime, Patrick has been voluntarily sterilised, in the hope of avoiding further prosecution. "It wouldn't be easy," says their lawyer, "but it would only have to be proved that they had slept together." All the Stübings want, he says, is to be left alone. "They want to be a family - to have that which was impossible to have in their own childhoods".