[Written in late 2009.]
Although I have already written a sixteen thousand word essay analyzing the work of Alice Miller—my favorite writer in the psychology field—over the years several people have asked that I create a shorter, more concise, easier-to-read version. I have finally done so—and have gone in a few new directions too…
Before I begin the new essay, I want to make a few background points. I wrote the longer essay in 2006. A few months after I wrote it someone passed it along to Alice Miller herself, and she read it—and criticized it harshly on her website. She labeled parts of it “highly confusing,” she argued that I was taking her words out of context, and she stated that my motivation was to confuse her readers. However, by putting my name on her website she generated a significant amount of attention for my essay, because within hours a horde of people googled my name, found the essay, and read it for themselves. (Several wrote me complimentary emails.) The next day, however, Alice Miller realized her “error” and removed my name from her website, calling me “Mr. X.” instead, presumably to make it more difficult for people to find the essay and judge my words for themselves.
Meanwhile, the concise essay…
What makes Alice Miller excellent?
In 1979 Alice Miller published “Prisoners of Childhood”—now known in the United States as “The Drama of the Gifted Child”—and in so doing broke new ground by siding radically with the child. She traced the roots of emotional problems, which she labeled as “mental illness” (a term I dislike), to childhood conflicts, to childhood traumas, and often most specifically to abuses by parents. She laid out her philosophy logically and elegantly, she didn’t mince words with psychological jargon, and she opened up a world of truth to millions of readers. She offered people an enlightened witness to their pain and horror, and confirmed what so many felt to be true: that their problems were not inherent, that their problems had real causes, and as such their problems had real solutions. I feel she started a psychological revolution into the exploration of the causes and consequences of childhood traumas, and she set the bar several feet higher for the whole psychology field.
Why then is Alice Miller not more well-known in the psychology field?
Mostly the psychology field doesn’t take her too seriously because she doesn’t play their conventional game. She avoids silly theories, she avoids confusing jargon, and she avoids making the hordes of irrelevant footnotes that so easily become the hallmark of small-mindedness. But mostly she doesn’t play the game of letting parents off the hook, and that terrifies the norm. It terrifies many parents themselves, because they are desperate to avoid looking at the damage they’ve done to their children. It also terrifies those who want to defend their abusive parents, because you can’t read and absorb Alice Miller without looking seriously at the negative sides of your own parents.
This begs the question of why people want to defend their parents. On the surface they might say, “I defend my parents because I love them, don’t want to view them negatively, and don’t want to hurt them.” But the real reason is that they themselves want to avoid the pain of opening old wounds, and the pain of grieving these wounds. Acknowledging what Alice Miller has said and applying it to one’s own life opens the door to a torrent of pain—the pain necessary for healing. And so many people, and the psychology field in general, are simply pain-avoidant, at all costs. Whole therapies and psychological theories (and of course psychiatric medications) are devoted to avoiding and bypassing the very pain, the necessary and healthy pain, that Alice Miller leads us right into. As such, they dismiss Alice Miller.
But how do they get away with dismissing her?
Easily, as follows: They say: a) that she’s unscientific (as if they and their theories are!), b) that she has an ax to grind (convenient way to absolve abusive parents), c) that she makes the same point over and over again (she often does, from book to book, but at least the point she makes is excellent!), d) that she doesn’t cite enough outside sources (yes, she does cite her own past books a lot, but at least she’s citing someone with a good point of view), and, e) that her work is not peer reviewed (and thank god for that, because in the published psychology field she’s almost peerless!). In short, they attempt to render her irrelevant by ignoring her—with the most cruel tool of all: silence.
Look in the indexes of most of psychology books in the bookstore and you’ll see how little her name appears—especially when compared to her more dissociated counterparts, like Freud and Jung and Fromm.
You say that her works repeat themselves?
Yes, unfortunately. She came up with one great idea, and then repeated it over and over with only slight variation. If you want to get the essence of Alice Miller’s point of view it’s only really necessary to read the first chapter of “The Drama of the Gifted Child.” That sums it all up beautifully. She originally wrote and published a version of that first chapter in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, and then re-crafted it for publication in her book. Although she has since abandoned psychoanalysis and most of psychoanalytic theory and jargon (a good call, as far as I’m concerned), I don’t see that her basic premises developed much further over the years. Many of her books read like repeats of earlier books. I feel that her first three books (“Drama of the Gifted Child” , “For Your Own Good” , and “Thou Shalt Not Be Aware” ) are by far her three best, and there’s not much point, unless you have a lot of time or are simply curious, to read the rest.
Yes, some people say they started reading Alice Miller by delving into such books as “Breaking Down the Wall of Silence” or “Banished Knowledge,” and found them wonderful, and I’m not surprised. I’d say that if you started by reading almost any of her books (except perhaps “Paths of Life”) you’d be reading a better psychology book than almost anything else in the field.
So you really only have to read the first chapter of “Drama” to understand her?
Well, to get the basic essence of her point of view. But if you’re really in a rush and don’t have too much time to read much more of her work, I’d also read her chapter on Adolf Hitler in “For Your Own Good”—where she explicates Hitler’s adult atrocities in light of the abuse and traumas he suffered as a child. It’s pure brilliance—psychological logic at its finest—her best case study by far. It also has a far-reaching philosophical and psychological point: that evil is not inherent. If the world’s worst monster’s evilness was created by child abuse and lack of mirroring, then the evil in everyone else must, by default, be the same—resulting from nurture, not nature. She took a lot of heat for writing that chapter—especially since she is of Germanic origin and originally wrote it in German. Very politically incorrect stuff—yet vitally important.
So what is your criticism of her—what is your perspective?
My main criticism is that Alice Miller does not adequately apply her point of view to herself—and does not take her point of view to its logical conclusion. Let me start again by stating her point of view as logically as I can:
- She notes correctly that people’s emotional problems in adulthood can be traced to root conflicts in their childhood.
- She points out that in most cases abusive parents are the essential cause of these conflicts.
- She then points out just how wrong and inappropriate abusive parenting is—and she doesn’t mince her words here. She sides with the child, and the essence of her point of view blames the parent, even though she shies away from the word “blame.”
- Next, and this is a key point, her writings make it clear how people who do not resolve their childhood conflicts, their childhood traumas, will in some way or other, directly or through metaphor, inevitably repeat these traumas on others, primarily their own children. This is the essence of the repetition compulsion, a Freudian concept which she respects highly. (And which I respect too, because my observation is that it’s totally correct, though perhaps not exactly in the way Freud intended it.)
Here, however, is where Alice Miller’s problem appears. She fails to take her theories to the next appropriate level.
And the next level is?
The next level is that if parents will inevitably damage their child if they have not yet resolved their own childhood conflicts, and that damaging the child is wrong, then it is logically wrong for people to have children until they’ve resolved their own childhood conflicts. Simple as that. Don’t have kids until you’ve healed yourself first.
And Alice Miller doesn’t believe that?
No, she doesn’t. Throughout her work she gives her tacit approval to people to become parents—to have children—before they have healed their traumas. In fact, in many places throughout her books (and I go into detail on this point in my longer essay) she just assumes that people will have children before they’ve done their full inner homework. In this way she considers it inevitable that people will abuse their children. Yes, she encourages parents to try to heal their conflicts and become better parents, but she absolutely refuses to tell people not to have children until they’ve done their inner homework first. And to me that is a major cop-out—and a major flaw in her logic—because it goes against her whole point of view. Instead of siding with the child she sides with the parent. She tacitly says that a certain amount of child abuse is acceptable. Which it isn’t.
But why doesn’t she take her point of view to its logical conclusion?
Firstly because it’s totally politically incorrect to speak of the inappropriateness of people having kids, and secondly because she herself had two kids herself before she ever even looked into her own childhood history! In various places in her books she writes about having had these children, and in other places she writes about having not delved into her childhood history until decades after raising them. The essence of what she’s implying is that in many ways she was (and still is) an abusive parent. But she never comes out and says it, presumably because it’s too painful for her to face. And by not facing it she cripples the application of her own theory.
And what are the consequences of this?
Well, one big consequence is that it makes a lot of people feel much safer reading her work! (There are many parenting websites that love Alice Miller. And her book “For Your Own Good” is often located in the “Parenting” section of bookstores.) Certainly many people who are parents feel let off the hook by reading her work, because she is really telling them it’s okay to abuse their kids—that some abuse is inevitable. Interestingly, when I was a teenager my mother had “The Drama of the Gifted Child” in our home, and I’m almost sure she read it. (I myself didn’t read it until I was in my late 20s.) And my mother was a very abusive and inappropriate mother in many ways—an alcoholic, a drug user, and a subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) sexually perverse woman. But also, my mother was herself an abused and neglected child, which I’m sure is why she liked reading Alice Miller. It gave her support. My mother’s parents had too many children, her father was rigid and authoritarian and perverse and grandiose (and a respected and published psychologist!), and her mother was extremely passive and neglectful and broken and let her father get away with all his cruel nonsense. My mother spent a lot of time criticizing and critiquing her own inappropriate parents, but was infinitely less assiduous at criticizing and critiquing her own inappropriate parenting. In fact, in the very midst of studying her own childhood horrors she was quite happily (and presumably unconsciously) replicating some version of them on me! And Alice Miller, because of her theoretical flaws, makes this easy for a parent to do.
So are you saying that if Alice Miller took her theories more to their logical conclusion that parents would feel less comfortable reading her work?
Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.
Hmm. But are you really just criticizing your mother by criticizing Alice Miller? Like Alice Miller is a scapegoat for your mother?
Yes and no. Some of my criticisms of abusive parents in general of course arise from my anger at my mother (and father) in specific. (My father was abusive in his own way too—drugs, rage, violence, narcissism, neglect.) If I had never been abused I would probably have less motivation to critique Alice Miller. That said, I deal with my specific criticisms of my parents elsewhere—and just haven’t done much public expression of that. I have saved most of my criticisms of them—and I have a lot—for my private life, my self-therapy. But the majority of my criticisms of Alice Miller are separate from my criticisms of my parents. I recognize quite fully that Alice Miller has not abused me, not one iota. My parents were my primary abusers. Alice Miller has not hurt me at all. Even if she is like my parents in some ways, she didn’t damage or warp my soul or personality, whereas my parents did. The reason I come to criticize Alice Miller is not because I have any anger or vengeance toward her as a person, but because I wish to do my part to set the theoretical record straight—for the sake of all abused children.
So your point is?
To take Alice Miller’s point of view to its logical conclusion, and not be blinded by her limitations. Some of the points I stress, and feel she would have stressed had she been less limited, are as follows:
- Don’t have kids until you’ve done all your inner homework.
- The only way to avoid replicating your unresolved traumas on children is to heal all these traumas fully before you have kids.
- Having children before you have completely healed your childhood traumas is a set-up for child abuse. It’s inevitable. And it’s wrong.
But isn’t what you’re saying a bit extreme?
Extreme, yes, for a blinded, traumatizing society hell-bent on not looking within. But not extreme if you understand the basic points of view of Alice Miller and then add them up to their logical conclusion. Then it’s perfectly natural.
But can people really fully heal their childhood traumas?
Yes, I believe so. If our core is perfect and healthy—which it is—then the rest of us, given hard work and the right environment, can become perfect and healthy once again. Alice Miller, however, does not seem to believe so.
Are you fully healed from your childhood traumas?
No, not yet, but getting closer by the day.
But what if it takes people decades to heal from their childhood traumas? If everyone followed your guidelines wouldn’t that prevent the world from having children, and wouldn’t the species go extinct?
First, I think that if everyone logically followed my prescription and devoted themselves to healing their childhood traumas, a massive groundswell of healing momentum would ensue, and it would NOT take people decades to heal from their childhood traumas. At present it probably will take decades, though, because there’s almost no societal or interpersonal support for healing fully from childhood traumas. Nowadays if you try to heal fully—or even partially—from childhood traumas you do so almost entirely on your own: without allies, and with the hatred and resistance and dismissal of society. And that is extremely difficult—and certainly much harder than doing it in the midst of allies.
So, second, if everyone followed my guidelines I believe that healing from childhood traumas would happen much more quickly, and that the species would not go extinct. In fact, the species would have a chance to evolve into something much less traumatized, and much more healthy and beautiful. But either way, this species is not going to go extinct as the result of people struggling to heal childhood traumas. It’s a million times more likely to go extinct because of unresolved childhood traumas. Just look around: look at the abuse we’re perpetrating on the world because of our unhealthiness. Our insanity is ruining our environment.
But in the meantime, doesn’t your point of view prevent people from having children?
Yes, and what’s so bad about that? If you really get my point of view—which is the essence of Alice Miller’s point of view—you will not really want to have children until you’ve healed your childhood traumas, because you won’t want to abuse your beloved future progeny!
Also—and this is a point that Alice Miller doesn’t make—having children is a fantastic way to avoid ever really dealing with the totality of your childhood traumas. Having children, and even trying to do a proper job raising them, is such an intense and all-encompassing task that it doesn’t really leave the proper time and energy required to do the work of deeply healing childhood wounds. Children make the ultimate psychological diversion. It’s much easier to project unresolved psychological material onto children—and act it out on them—than it is to grieve that material.
So, again, my point of view: for all these reasons, avoid having children until you first heal from childhood traumas. And if you never have children, well, all the better, because by devoting yourself to the inner journey you give yourself your best chance to heal, you don’t ever have to carry the burden of having brought a perfect child into this world and having abused him or her. And of course you don’t contribute to overpopulation…
Any other points you want to make about Alice Miller?
Well, she’s an amazing person, even if she, in her partial blindness, hates what I have to say. (But from what I’ve observed, she hates anyone who criticizes her, be their criticisms legitimate or not.) Yes, she’s had her problems over the years, such as falling under the sway of manipulative therapists—even after writing the book “Thou Shalt Not Be Aware,” which directly addresses the dangers of manipulative therapy—but she’s still so far ahead of her time. She’s far more psychologically advanced than the average therapist born fifty years after she was born. (She was born in 1923.) I really am eternally grateful to the work she’s done, because she gave me the chance to build on her shoulders.
[Alice Miller passed away on April 14, 2010.]