[Written in 2006.]
It may be considered indiscreet to open the doors of someone else’s house and rummage around in other people’s family histories. Since so many of us still have the tendency to idealize our parents, my undertaking may even be regarded as improper. And yet it is something that I think must be done, for the amazing knowledge that comes to light from behind those previously locked doors contributes substantially toward helping people rescue themselves from their dangerous sleep and all its grave consequences.
–Alice Miller, The Untouched Key, preface
Alice Miller has influenced my thinking more than any other writer in the psychology field. She opened my eyes to the struggle of the child in the repressive family, she introduced me to the idea that an abused child will compulsively need to replicate his repressed traumas until he is able to resolve them, and she banished from my mind the idea of inherent evil in the child – or the adult. She taught me the ludicrousness of Freud’s drive theory (specifically his Oedipus complex) and she brought home the concept of the true self like no one else. Alice Miller is a genius, her writings are a step beyond the ferocity of anyone else I have read, and for this I owe her an immeasurable debt of gratitude. Yet I have come to see her limits, and see them clearly – and realize their terrible danger for anyone wishing to understand the truest depths of the child’s dilemma in the partially unenlightened family. So it is within the backdrop of great respect for her gifts that I write this paper. I write it to give all others who come along a new platform to stand on – one more solid and evolved than that which Alice Miller has provided.
Alice Miller defended the true self of the child – but, like all of us, only insofar as she was able to connect consciously with her own true self through healing the wounds of her childhood. By her own account she was an abused child in her family of origin. In Breaking Down the Wall of Silence she wrote, “I first ran up against the wall of silence as a child. For days my mother would ignore me in order to demonstrate her total power over me and reduce me to subservience.” [p. 19]. On the following page she added:
Did I know that I had begun my life in a totalitarian state? How could I have? I didn’t even realize that I was being treated in a cruel and confusing way, something I would never have dreamed of suggesting. So rather than question my mother’s behavior, I cast doubt on the rightness of my own feeling that I was being unjustly treated. As I had no point of comparison of her behavior with that of other mothers, and as she constantly portrayed herself as the embodiment of duty and self-sacrifice, I had no choice but to believe her. And, anyway, I had to believe her. To have realized the truth would have killed me. [p. 20, her italics]
To make matters worse, Alice Miller’s father was largely absent. In Banished Knowledge, she wrote:
My father avoided any confrontation with my mother and failed to see what was going on before his eyes. Although he didn’t apply my mother’s passionate pedagogic methods – on the rare occasions of his presence he even showed me some warmth and tenderness – he never stood up for my rights. He never gave me the feeling that I had any rights at all; he never confirmed my observations and admitted my mother’s cruelty. [p. 24]
There were no witnesses to defend Alice Miller, no one to mirror her truth, no one to offer her honest love, and so she suffered in silence, and shut down emotionally as a defense. In Pictures of a Childhood, she wrote:
To be sure, I had no memories at all of the first five years of my life, and even those of the following years were very sparse. Although this is an indication of a strong repression – something that never occurs without good reason – it did not prevent me from clinging to the belief that my parents had provided me with loving care and had made every effort to give me everything I needed as a child. That was the way my mother would have described it had anyone asked her about my childhood. I had accepted her version all these years, in spite of the fact that my professional training had included two analyses and even though I should have been struck by the many similarities between my own history and the case histories of my patients. [pp. 16-17]
Yet Alice Miller struggled nonetheless. Over the years she fought to know truth, and with great difficulty. In some ways she succeeded. The beauty and power of her books is a testament to this. The question remains, however, where she did not succeed, because where she remained a blocked and traumatized child in her psyche her theories inevitably reflect this. Although it might be considered offensive to entertain the idea that Alice Miller still remains partially traumatized and unresolved, I get this information primarily from her herself. In a 1995 interview with the German psychology magazine Psychologie Heute, she replied as follows to the question of whether she had resolved her “childhood amnesia”: “No, not really.” Then, in the 1997 edition of The Drama of the Gifted Child, she went further: “I spent a long time looking for a total exploration of my childhood history. Now I see that this was hubris.” [p. 126, her italics]. A few lines later she added, “Today this seems to me impossible, even after a hundred years of therapy.”
This comment about “hubris” opened my eyes – not only because it is wrong, but because it goes against everything that Alice Miller stood for. A total exploration of one’s childhood history is not hubris – and quite the contrary. A total exploration of one’s childhood history is the very thing we all need in order to free our true self. Alice Miller made that point abundantly clear throughout her early writings, from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. Anyone who states that “a total exploration of one’s childhood history is hubris” is denying and defending against his own hopelessness – that is, against the fact that he has given up his struggle to know himself fully. The fact that even Alice Miller’s editors did not catch this – and admittedly, neither did I the first few times I read it – suggests to me how commonplace this depressed philosophy remains in our modern world.
We live in a world where perfection is supposedly impossible. We live in a world where children are taught that they can never really FULLY expect to be happy, and that they have to learn to accept their parents’ limitations. We live in a world where we are destroying our planet, ruining our environment for our own species and for so many other species, essentially eating ourselves out of house and home – and yet doing it with so much complacency. Believing that perfection is impossible is the byword of the day. It keeps us comfortable, and prevents us from really having to fight – and face our own deepest inner demons.
And it was Alice Miller who taught me who and what it is that we really need to fight. We need to fight the lies and denial of our own childhood histories – and the traumas foisted upon us by our parents that still live encoded in our psyches. I learned this right off the bat in the classic, timeless first line of her first and most famous book, The Drama of the Gifted Child (also known as Prisoners of Childhood), first published in 1979: “Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery and emotional acceptance of the truth in the individual and unique history of our childhood.” [p. 3]. I have heard it said that if Alice Miller wrote nothing more in her entire literary career that this line would make her a success for all time – and I cannot agree more.
The problem is, when she wrote the “hubris” line in the last paragraph of the Afterword of the revised edition of the same book, she unconsciously showed that she no longer believed her greatest line to be true. There she accepted that some degree of mental illness – the consequence of not unearthing and resolving our childhood traumas – is our inevitable fate. And it is not our fate. And there is only one explanation for her capitulation, because I use Alice Miller’s very theory to back me up: she is still protecting the cruel parents that live in her head. She is still unable to feel the full depth of her little inner child’s pain, because she still lives in repression, and still wants her parents – now long dead – to come to rescue her. That truism, compliments of Alice Miller herself, is the inevitability of not exhuming and fully exploring one’s history.
Careful reading of the works of Alice Miller reveals this very dilemma within her from the beginning. Early in her writings, in her three first books, each brilliant in its own right, she struggled with the concept of blame. This is the most overt weakness of the books – and the window into their writer’s underlying pathology. Although she spent countless hundreds of pages using both case examples and theory to delineate exactly how parents are totally to blame for the horrors their child experiences at their hands, she apparently did not build a strong enough case to convince herself that they were blameworthy.
Take page 252 of For Your Own Good (1980), a book in which she offers detailed descriptions of parents who sexually abuse, physically torture, emotionally humiliate, and utterly abandon their children:
…because I do not place blame on the parents, I apparently create difficulties for many of my readers. It would be so much simpler to say it is all the child’s fault, or the parents’, or the blame can be divided. This is exactly what I don’t want to do, because as an adult I know it is not a question of blame but of not being able to do any differently.
Not being able to do any differently: the classic rationalization of the abusive parent!
Or take page 58 of Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: “[People cannot] grasp that I blame neither children nor parents.” Later in the page she added, “But when psychoanalysts today attempt to discover who bears the guilt, they are voluntarily relinquishing what is essentially their most precious possession: their knowledge of the unconscious and of the tragedy inherent in human existence.”
This is an intellectualized defense against just telling the truth – against saying who committed the crime and holding them responsible. This reminded me of her criticism of Freud (in the same book) for having psychologically betrayed his patient known as the Wolf-Man: “[Freud] pits his intellect against what he knows to be true.” [p. 158]. So too with Alice Miller. Telling the truth is exactly what the child needs to do in order to heal. If you can’t do that, you cannot heal. And if you cannot heal, which Alice Miller admitted giving up attempting, then there always will remain a “tragedy inherent in human existence.”
On page 301 she addressed the blame question again, soft-pedaling further:
I have frequently pointed out in a variety of contexts that it is far from my intention to cast blame on parents… I have also carefully explained that I do not regard external circumstances as the cause of neurosis but rather the child’s psychological situation – that is, the impossibility of articulating his or her strong feelings caused by traumatic experiences.
So now the fault of childhood trauma is not the fact that parents are abusing children, but that children cannot articulate their feelings about being abused? This sounds like a great defense against the parents if I ever heard one. But below all this she was just protecting the parts of herself that have not resolved her own traumas. It is terrifying to acknowledge the horror that the child within us has gone through, and we cannot acknowledge it prematurely – or, as she noted, it would simply kill us. The upwelling feelings of abandonment and horror would be too overwhelming.
And so her theory reflects her limits. Granted, in time she evolved and realized that if the child within us is going to heal and integrate it is necessary to blame the parents for their crimes against the child we were, but that took years. I will address her later writings on blame shortly, but first I wish to address other capitulations in her early work.
In Thou Shalt Not Be Aware she let parents off the hook by blaming society. Take the book’s subtitle: “Society’s Betrayal of the Child.” This is misleading, and based on her denial. Thou Shalt Not Be Aware is not a book about SOCIETY’S betrayal of the child – far from it! Despite its looping nature, it’s a stupendous three hundred page tract about PARENTAL betrayal of the child, and the fact that its own author couldn’t title it correctly showed her own denial about the full significance of her message. Society is just one of any number of unconscious metaphors for the parents, as Alice Miller herself points out repeatedly.
For instance, in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware itself, she wrote:
The fact that children are sacrificed to their parents’ needs is an uncomfortable truth that no adult likes to hear. Even adolescents find it difficult to bear, because they are bound to their parents by ambivalent feelings and would much rather direct their split-off hatred toward institutions and ‘society’ in the abstract. This provides them with objects they can unequivocally reject, and they hope in this way finally to rid themselves of their ambivalence. [p. 301, footnote]
Clearly she was unconsciously writing about herself when she spoke of these split-off adolescents. Her point: parents must be blamed, that is, held fully responsible and culpable, for the damage they themselves caused their children, and if you can’t blame them (at least in your own conscious mind, if not in outright confrontation), then it’s not fair to blame anyone else. If we don’t place full responsibility right at the feet of those who caused our damage then the trauma cycle will only continue.
Yet Alice Miller did evolve over time. In Banished Knowledge (first published in 1988) she did take more steps to blame the parents, and admitted that she was mistaken for not having done so earlier. On page 25, she noted, “In leafing through my early books, I am struck by my constant efforts to avoid blaming parents.” Yet on the next page she subtly does just that, noting, “It is still not my aim to reproach unknown parents,” and then ten pages later opens the loophole further:
If a mother can make it clear to her child that at that particular moment when she slapped him her love for him deserted her and she was dominated by other feelings that had nothing to do with the child, the child can keep a clear head, feel respected, and not be disoriented in his relationship with his mother. [p. 35]
Hardly true – but this attitude certainly placates abusive parents.
In Breaking Down the Wall of Silence (1990 edition), Alice Miller evolved a little further, stating her case more explicitly: “Preaching forgiveness” – that is, what she used to do tacitly – “reveals the pedagogic nature of most ‘therapy.’” She then added, “It was my experience that it was precisely the opposite of forgiveness – namely, rebellion against mistreatment suffered, the recognition and condemnation of my parents’ destructive opinions and actions, and the articulation of my own needs – that ultimately freed me from the past.” [pp. 133-4]
The problem here is that Alice Miller only blamed parents insofar as she understood them to be guilty, and then let them off the hook after that, due her to her own denial of believing, for a time, that she was in fact fully healed – that is, had achieved a “total liberation” from her childhood traumas. The 1988 edition of Banished Knowledge, the 1990 edition of Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, and the 1994 edition of The Drama of the Gifted Child are all full of references to her belief that she WAS fully healed, and the theory within these books rests on this misconception. Try these two references from Banished Knowledge: Page xi: “It took me fifteen years to accomplish this liberation process – from 1973, when spontaneous painting allowed me vaguely to sense the truth, until 1988, when I was finally able to articulate it completely.” Or, on page 142: “Why, then, was I able to give up the repression? Because I wanted at all costs to know the truth and finally did find a witness…”
Sadly, time proved her wrong her. The witness she chose to help her “accomplish her liberation process” and “articulate it complete” was J. Konrad Stettbacher, a primal therapist whose methods Alice Miller embraced. She wrote, in the preface to Banished Knowledge, “I wanted only to help the truth burst forth. I eventually succeeded, in 1983, with the aid of Konrad Stettbacher’s therapy method, with which I deal in more detail later in this book.” [p. 7]. Then, on page 162 she added, “Stettbacher’s therapy avoids the danger of misuse by its transparency.” And then: “All it does is consistently offer patients the truth, that is, the opportunity to encounter their own past that they have been trying to escape at all costs.” [p. 162]. On the following page she added, “After spending four years applying J. Konrad Stettbacher’s carefully thought-out method to myself, I see ever more clearly that it amounts to the discovery of an inherent logical pattern in human beings, the functioning of which anyone can test.” [p. 163].
This all sounds great – beautiful and true – and like countless other who read these words, I found myself curious about and inspired by Stettbacher – and all the more so when I read Alice Miller’s 1991 Foreword and Afterword to Stettbacher’s book, Making Sense of Suffering. From the Foreword:
J. Konrad Stettbacher is incorruptible in his judgments. He is not blinded or unnerved by fear. The theory he has evolved does not gloss over anything or veil it in secrecy. It does not preach forgiveness. Above all, it does not let anything deflect it from its duty as the attorney of the injured child. [p. 4]
This made it all the more confusing when, in the mid-1990s, she decided that his methods were dangerous (in part because he had not formally completed all of his licensure requirements and also had been accused of sexually “interfering” with a client, which I will deal with later in this paper) and she quickly expunged all mention of him from later editions of her books. In 1996 she even publicly repudiated him on the internet, going so far as to threaten legal action against anyone who used her name to endorse him, despite the fact that it was her endorsement of him that had brought him fame (and fifteen thousand therapy referrals).
The odd thing is, Stettbacher’s book was never really that good to begin with. Although his point of view overlaps with Alice Miller’s in many areas (to the point that he even recommends reading her books as a prerequisite for therapy – a good call on his part, both theoretically and entrepreneurially), analytically he’s not even close to being in her league. Although he has periods of clarity in his writing, his work often shifts rapidly between being woodenly technical and jargoned, patronizingly simplistic, and annoyingly philosophical to the point of obscure. Yet what is most surprising about his book is just how directive it is – often straying into the overtly manipulative. As a therapist myself I shuddered at the idea of putting his principles into practice in a therapeutic setting, because it felt so irresponsible – and even outright dangerous. This all begged the question of what really drew her to him.
Yet the fact is, as manipulative as Stettbacher’s methods were, they brought Alice Miller into some deep degree of her hitherto repressed childhood pain. In a 1995 interview she gave to the German-language magazine Psychologie Heute, she revealed this. Here she refers to the eruption of her own unresolved trauma from the 1980s when she was in primal therapy – with a trained follower of Stettbacher as her therapist:
At the end of these three weeks my feelings were in a turmoil, so that I could not find sleep, that for the first time in my life I thought of suicide, and had anxiety verging on the psychotic. I was already fearful of this therapy that robbed my organism of sleep, but I could nowhere escape it. The ghosts that I called for did not allow themselves to be chased away. [quoted from internet: http://www.primals.org/articles/turton12.html]
This reveals a disturbed person, one who not only allowed herself to become trapped in an abusive therapy that did not respect her defenses, but had the capacity to break into near-psychosis over it. And this is years after she wrote her three greatest books, all of which powerfully and passionately focus on the consequences of not healing from trauma! Yet only a year before giving that interview, in the 1994 edition of The Drama of the Gifted Child, she wrote of Stettbacher:
The description of the method that gave me what I had been seeking throughout my life – namely, an approach to self-knowledge by which my own life history would be revealed to me – has by now been published in many languages, so that many people have already been able to help themselves by applying it. This self-therapy method, enacted in four steps, is devoted solely to the truth and therefore dispenses with all mystification and ideology. [p. 4]
And on the following page she added, “Stettbacher’s concept is based on the discovery of a natural law…”
This adds to the confusion, to say the least. I suspect that there is truth in everything she is saying about the positive value of what Stettbacher did for her. I believe Stettbacher did bring Alice Miller deeper into her buried truth (which I will address later), and that his methods did follow some degree of “natural law,” even if he and others used them manipulatively and exploitatively. Yet what is most curious here is that Alice Miller put all her faith and trust in a semi-abusive (that is, semi-traumatized and unresolved) therapist. Had she been more healed to begin with she would never have been so susceptible to such abuse. It was Alice Miller, after all, who, in 1981, just two years before she began using Stettbacher’s method and then fell into the manipulative hands of one of his acolyte’s, wrote Thou Shalt Not Be Aware – perhaps the greatest book to systematically tear into the dynamics and dangers of manipulative therapy methods! In less than a paragraph in that book Alice Miller deflated the manipulative hypnotherapist-guru Milton Erickson more brilliantly than anyone I have read before or since. I have still not forgotten my profound relief at reading her words on Erickson the first time – which made it all the more confusing when I learned that she herself had fallen into the manipulative hands of a therapist who took each of his patients into dark rooms for several hours each day for weeks of therapy on end, had many of them live in his therapy center, and did group therapy in the dark with patients using flashlights as they relived their worst traumatic experiences of childhood.
The fact that this did not raise her antennae suggests to me that she wrote in her first three books from a non-integrated place – with little conscious recognition of just how much of her psyche remained walled off in dissociation. In fact, in the first edition of Drama of the Gifted Child (which she titled Prisoners of Childhood) she is so dissociated from herself that she makes the emphatic point that her ideas do not contradict Freud’s drive theories, despite the fact that the ideas she presents therein are some of the most scathing and succinct critiques of drive theory to date. And she takes it even further by dedicating Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, the book in which she shows how Freud betrayed and abandoned his patients by creating a drive theory which labeled their sexual abuse histories as fantasies which they had desired…to Freud himself! (She later called this dedication an error on her part – and removed it.)
Yet even though she evolved marginally after her first three books, as the result of her affiliation with Stettbacher, her works don’t suggest she grew much at all after repudiating him. After her first three books her own theory never went much deeper – and instead just expanded laterally. Whole books of hers are just taken up with case examples tracing the roots of famous people’s pathologies and creativities back to their unresolved childhood traumas. None of these case examples, however, came close to providing the reader a deeper model of understanding humanity than her brilliant 1980 explication of Hitler, from her second book, For Your Own Good – pre-Stettbacher.
So this leads me to question what Alice Miller’s theory was lacking – and what was blocking her from taking it deeper. I believe the bottom line of what she was afraid to say all along, because she was not ready to face it, is this: to become a truly healthy, mature, and non-abusive person – and an appropriate parent – one has to resolve ALL of one’s own childhood traumas. It’s very simple, but Alice Miller could never say it, because the consequences were too legion in her life. The first obvious consequence of this is that if you extrapolate her theory by doing the simple math, the same theory which she used to show how Hitler was not born inherently evil but only MADE evil through the abuses he suffered in his childhood, it adds up that where parents have not FULLY resolved their own traumas within they will be compelled to act out these traumas on their own child: AND THIS IS ABUSE.
It’s very simple, nothing complex, and yet a radically taboo concept in our society – and in the families within our society, and in the traumatized parts of our psyches that have internalized the worst of our parents. It is taboo because it crosses the line of parental denial. It acknowledges that wherever our parents were repressing ANY degree of their own childhood traumas when we were children they, by Alice Miller’s correct definition, could not help but abuse us. Abusive parents are simply unconsciously replicating their own traumatized histories on their children, and no degree of intellectual argument or education can stop them from doing it. She stated this eloquently in the first chapter of her first book, and incorporated it as an assumption from then on:
If we have never consciously lived through this despair and the resulting narcissistic rage [that is inherent in the process of healing childhood traumas], and have therefore never been able to work through it, we can be in danger of transferring this situation, which then would have remained unconscious, onto our patients. It would not be surprising if our unconscious anger should find no better way than once more to make use of a weaker person and to make him take the unavailable parents’ place. This can be done most easily with one’s own children… [Prisoners of Childhood, p. 23]
She takes it a step further in the introduction to the revised edition of the same book fifteen years later: “I do not know of anyone, however, who, having been abused in childhood, did not then behave in a destructive (or at least a self-destructive) way in adulthood, as long as she continued to deny the abuse she had to endure.” [Drama of the Gifted Child, 1994 edition, p. 23].
As inevitable as this might be, as Alice Miller’s theory points out, that doesn’t change the fact that it is abuse. It is an abuse of the spirit of the child, and that is the basis of all further types of abuse. (Even Stettbacher’s theory back this up.)
Children are perfect and innocent, the latter being Alice Miller’s word. Where the parent does not perfectly meet their needs and nurture their growth process, the parent fails them and the children suffer abuse. This can happen from the extreme end of the spectrum, which Alice Miller so beautifully points out with all of her truly brilliant case studies – Hitler topping the charts – right down to the most mild end of the spectrum (which she tends to touch only tangentially, if she addresses it at all) – neglects which can happen so subtly that no one might notice. But the child notices – and feels the rejection, and becomes traumatized over it.
The second consequence of Alice Miller’s denial is that she was never able to state this logical and obvious next step: if you remain traumatized IN ANY WAY then it is inappropriate for you to have children. It is inappropriate because you will by definition abuse them. You cannot help NOT abusing them. That is what unconscious and partially repressed people do: they act out their repressed rage and repressed unmet needs on their children. Alice Miller wiggles around this throughout her works by just taking it as a pre-ordained given that mothers will just go on having children regardless – almost as if there’s no point at even commenting on it. (Though that doesn’t stop her from repeatedly saying several times that we have an obligation to heal our inner traumas to put an end to war and evil in the world – which happens to be true as well, though because it is a more lofty and detached and grand statement it remains safer to say.) Alice Miller seems to think it is a mother’s right, regardless of her level of emotional resolution, to have children. And it is not. No one has a right to abuse anyone else. That is a crime against humanity.
She also takes it as an unacknowledged given that all adults, no matter what their degree of healing, remain partially unhealed from childhood abuse. She reveals this in For Your Own Good with the following: “…the nature of emotional life” – that is, the way things inherently are – “can be observed much more clearly in the child than in the adult because the child can experience his feelings much more intensely and, optimally, more undisguisedly than an adult.” [p. 100] This is not inherently true at all. The only reason an adult would not experience his feelings with an intensity equal to that of a child is because he is more emotionally shut down – and abused. There is no reason why it is more optimal for a child to be less emotionally disguised than an adult. This is only optimal if you hold adults to a low standard of emotional healing – which she was unconsciously doing with herself due to her lack of integration, and then universalizing her limited experience to everyone.
At only one point that I could find, however, did Alice Miller come close to tackling the issue of inappropriate procreation head on. In Banished Knowledge she wrote, “The child is not a toy or a kitten; he is a bundle of needs requiring a great deal of loving care to develop his potential. Those not prepared to give the child this must not have children.” [p. 192]. This is completely accurate, but the reader must remember that she wrote it (in 1988) within the context of believing that she herself was already fully healed and fully liberated from her childhood traumas through the therapy of Stettbacher. Thus there is no way for her to avoid underestimating firstly what her own unresolved traumas even are, secondly, therefore, what her own real childhood needs ever were and still are, thirdly, by extension, what other children’s real and full needs are, and fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, what it really takes for a parent to meet these needs! Her false beliefs about herself and others gives her the confidence to speak so forcefully, yet at the same time allowing her to remain in denial of just how abusive most parents that she considers healthy and appropriate really are.
Alice Miller’s repeated tacit granting of approval for parents who have not fully emotionally resolved their issues to procreate is convenient for her, for two reasons. The first is that it allows women to feel safe in having children yet all the while unconsciously to put themselves in the position where they can later say, “well, it might have been nice if I’d done my healing before I had my kids, but it’s too late now – I already have the children and can only do my best with what I’ve got.” (This applies to men, too, if they want to become fathers before they have fully healed from their childhood traumas, because I, and sometimes Alice Miller – who poked holes in the denial of conventional feminism better than anyone else I’ve ever read – consider fathers just as responsible as mothers for their children’s upbringing.)
Alice Miller’s denial totally lets parents off the hook, but this makes sense, because she is beloved as a writer and theorist by many parents. Many of her books are even listed in the parenting section of bookstores! Her writings still are tough for parents, no doubt, because she holds them to a much higher standard than other psychology or parenting writers, but she still lets a certain amount of their abusive behavior slip under the radar as acceptable and normal. It is not. How, even theoretically, can anyone who respects the perfection, beauty, fragility, and full needs of the human infant argue otherwise?
If it seems odd that Alice Miller would capitulate on this vital and obvious point, it goes deeper than simply thinking that she’s afraid of being rejected by her adoring audience, which nevertheless would, I believe, happen if she told the full truth – and didn’t compromise to partial truth. The reason is that she’s simply protecting herself. When she tells people subtly and between the lines that it’s okay to have children before you have healed, and therefore is okay to abuse them “a little bit,” she’s really letting herself off the hook for having done this very thing herself. And the intensity of this is not to be underestimated.
As a therapist myself, I have seen many adult patients who are parents – often parents of grown children – who, in the process of studying their own traumatic childhood histories and connecting with their ancient, repressed rage and sorrow, suddenly make the connection that they have symbolically acted out or replicated all that was done to them by their own parents onto their children. This is a horrifying moment for everyone in that position, and honestly, few can consciously tolerate it – and this includes the most intelligent and most insightful. It is a horror for a parent to realize – but worse yet, to feel – what they’ve acted out on an innocent being over whom they wielded total control, and whom they still believe they love. For many patients this realization is a turning point in their therapy. There are several options they face.
The first option is that they simply quit therapy. They quit their own exploration process, bury their own history of childhood trauma, and forgive their own abusive parents – because they now realize that every further step they take toward appropriately incriminating their own parents also incriminates themselves. All too often it is easier to just bury everything, call it quits, and drop the smothering veil of denial-laden forgiveness back over everything. Of course, this false forgiveness has nothing to do with real forgiveness, which, as Alice Miller notes, comes ONLY as a consequence of resolving one’s own traumas, because a person who has not resolved a trauma cannot emotionally forgive his perpetrator. But that doesn’t stop many from believing they have forgiven anyway. They just delude themselves into believing they have forgiven – and often blame or reject the therapist to cement this false forgiveness into place. Whole religions and philosophies – and schools of psychology – are based on this false forgiveness, and I thank Alice Miller for clueing me in to this, even if she unknowingly does some of it herself.
The second option available to traumatized parents who awaken in therapy to the realization that they too are traumatizers is to own up to it honestly. This, by the way, does not just apply to parents, because I don’t wish to single them out. It goes for all of us, parents or not: we are all traumatizers at some level until we resolve our full history of trauma. We cannot help but replicate our traumas onto those over whom we wield power, and that includes ourselves. This traumatizing process, however, becomes most heightened and magnified when one does become a parent, because (as Alice Miller noted from the beginning of her writings) of the incredible power differential in the relationship due to the dependency of the child. It is a Petri dish for unconscious parental abuse, one far worse than anything an abusive and manipulative primal therapy can dredge up. No parent can avoid it – unless they have fully healed.
And yet does Alice Miller caution parents to avoid having children with the same intensity with which she attacked primal therapy and Stettbacher? Hardly. She is actually even more polite and disguised about her own long-dead parents than she is about the still-living Stettbacher – and almost never criticizes her own father at all, except to point him out as being a “kind” man [Banished Knowledge, p. 7] whose only error in raising her, if I may repeat myself, was that he never stepped in to stop her “cruel” and “totalitarian” mother [Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, p. 19]. My sense is that Miller’s unconscious rage at her father may have been split off and projected onto Stettbacher more than is readily apparent.
As she herself writes, “A child cannot acknowledge the negative sides of his or her father, and yet these are stored up somewhere in the child’s psyche, for the adult will then be attracted by precisely these negative, disavowed sides in the father substitutes he or she encounters.” [For Your Own Good, p. 72].
She expands this idea further in The Untouched Key when she analyzes Nietzsche’s sudden shift from idealizing to vitriolically devaluing the composer Richard Wagner. This keen analysis brought to my mind her own future flip in her relationship with Stettbacher. She wrote of Nietzsche:
And now his attack against the fatherly friend he once admired, Richard Wagner, turned into a total one: he no longer saw anything good in him and hated him with all his heart like a deeply wounded child. His hatred was nourished by despair and grief over having let himself be deceived for so long, for admiring someone for so long whom he now considered contemptible. Why didn’t he see through the weakness behind the façade sooner? How could he have been so mistaken? [p. 95]
And now Alice Miller’s attack against the fatherly friend she once admired, J. Konrad Stettbacher, turned into a total one: she no longer saw anything good in him and hated him with all her heart like a deeply wounded child. Her hatred was nourished by despair and grief over having let herself be deceived for so long, for admiring someone for so long whom she now considered contemptible. Why didn’t she see through the weakness behind the façade sooner? How could she have been so mistaken?
The question is a fair one. And so is her answer, applying equally well to herself:
Although Nietzsche’s attacks derived their intensity from his repressed rage at his father and other attachment figures in childhood, they did not display any weakness in logic that would reveal their real roots. What he wrote about Wagner and substantiated with examples was so convincing (although not probably for Wagnerians) that it retains its claim to objectivity quite apart from the subjective, highly emotional background of his observations. [pp. 95-96]
She undoubtedly captured the essence of Nietzsche’s unconscious dynamics here – but inadvertently captured her own too, as long as we can remember that the “subjective, highly emotional background of [her] observations” is not as readily apparent as is that of Nietzsche’s, because, after all, she is/was a trained psychoanalyst with twenty years of experience at regulating her emotions in conflicted transference situations. Allow me to quote a few passages from her 1996 internet “Communication to My Readers” about Stettbacher.
I should like to inform my readers that I no longer, in any way, support or recommend the therapy developed and practised by Mr. J. Konrad Stettbacher. The reasons for this are the following:
When I gave this form of therapy my support, I was proceeding on the justified assumption that, like myself, Mr. Stettbacher was a fully trained psychoanalyst and was in possession of a normal licence to practise psychotherapy. Only in 1994 did I learn that he had no formal qualifications in psychology and that, while years before he had indeed been granted a provisional licence to practise, this licence was conditional upon the fulfilment of a number of essential requirements, notably that within a period of five years Stettbacher must provide proof of having undergone the necessary basic professional training (not merely further training).
As Stettbacher failed to conform to this requirement, his provisional licence was withdrawn, and as of June 1995 he has been formally prohibited from conducting a psychotherapeutic practice in Berne, Switzerland, his place of residence.
Excellent logic – but it belies the deeper tale. A few formal education credits are hardly the reason Alice Miller turned on Stettbacher. She goes on:
Every association of professional psychotherapists will require its members to have studied psychology, to have been through a period of therapy training, and to undertake the treatment of their first patients under supervision. Thanks to these regulations clients can be more or less reliably protected from any blind spots or unconscious acting-out tendencies that their therapists may have.
So now Alice Miller, who herself wrote in 1985 that she didn’t even touch her childhood issues in her two full analyses (which I will address shortly), now believes that supervision and therapy training “more or less reliably” protect a therapist from replicating his unresolved childhood traumas onto his patients? This is hard to imagine, and suggests that she is conveniently leaning on conventional psychoanalytic dogma to cover her deeper feelings, despite the fact that in 1988 she make a public to-do over resigning from the International Psychoanalytic Association and labeling psychoanalysis as useless for resolving deeper childhood traumas. And so much for her statement in Banished Knowledge that “…the role of transference is less pronounced in Stettbacher’s primal therapy than in psychoanalysis – as far as the person of the therapist is concerned.” [p. 161] It seems almost assured that what was going on in her Stettbacher therapy was that she simply was unaware – that is, unconscious – of her transference onto him.
She continues in her internet Communication:
My misgivings [about Stettbacher] were strengthened when I was confronted in 1995 by articles and interviews (cf. FACTS 26/95, Zurich and DER BUND, 4.7.95, Berne) reporting on accusations of sexual interference with patients. For instance, in an interview given to the Swiss newspaper DER BUND, one of Stettbacher’s earlier clients, Ms. U. Sch., went into considerable detail on the accusations she had filed against Stettbacher as early as 1978 and the legal proceedings that took place in 1983. In the interim, her only witness, a medical student who was also said to be a patient of Stettbacher’s at the time, had committed suicide.
This sounds convincing, but so was Alice Miller’s flowing praise of her second analyst, Gertrud Boller-Schwing, who she thanked effusively in the preface to For Your Own Good in 1980 [p. xvi], yet then painted in quite a different light five years later in Pictures of a Childhood: “It didn’t fit in with the training or ethical attitudes of either of my therapists [Boller-Schwing being the second] for them to acknowledge that [my mother’s] pedagogic efforts had served her interests and the conventional ideas of her day while ruthlessly violating her child, whom she considered her property.” [p. 17, her italics]. Alice Miller goes on in her letter about Stettbacher:
Naturally, I do not believe that a course of formal training is any guarantee of a therapist’s infallibility and integrity. But I do think that such training is absolutely indispensable. Without supervision and membership of a reputable professional association defining the ethical standards it expects its members to live up to and empowering an ethics commission to uphold those standards, therapists can indulge more or less at will in the abuse of the patients dependent upon them.
So now it is external ethics committees that prevent therapists from acting out with their patients? Does she truly believe this? Does she also believe that if parents were forced to join organizations with ethics committees that that would put a stop to the unconscious repetition compulsions they foist on their children? And do anti-rape laws stop rapists from acting out their childhood rage at their mothers on innocent women? And did the United Nations stop the United States from invading Iraq in 2003?
Alice Miller concludes her Stettbacher letter:
Therefore I will never give my support to the activities of therapists evading professional accountability by refusing to undergo the necessary training and supervision. My publishers were informed of my decision in August 1994 and instructed to delete all passages from my works containing recommendations for Stettbacher’s therapy. But new editions take time. In the interval I am making this attempt to spread the new information at my disposal via the Internet.
Any form of advertisement or recommendation for Stettbacher’s activities that makes reference to my name and my former support for this therapy is anachronistic, inaccurate and misleading. I reserve the right to take legal steps against any such publications.
And so she remains beautifully intellectually logical to the end – to the degree of subtly threatening (with legal action) anyone who challenges her version of “the truth.” The seamlessness of her argument suggests to me how frustrating it would have been to be her therapy patient, if, heaven forbid, you had more access to the feelings around your childhood traumas than she was willing to face within herself.
As to her legal threat, I found it chillingly interesting to read a similarly worded version of the same threat by none other than Stettbacher himself in his own book. In writing about his group therapy method, which Alice Miller endorsed (despite the fact that it entails patients huddling with flashlights in a dark, padded, “womblike,” seventy-eight degree therapy room and grabbing on to each other for emotional support to prevent becoming overtly psychotic as they re-experience their childhood horrors which Stettbacher manipulates them into), he notes:
Each prospective group member signs a written statement pledging secrecy and respect for other participants. Should this pledge be violated, the consequence can be exclusion from the therapy. The right to take legal action is reserved. [Making Sense of Suffering, p. 78]
Perhaps if it’s good for the goose it’s good for the gander. But on a deeper level, it leads the reader to question the degree of Stettbacher’s healing. It is not hard to fathom that he too had a whole world of split-off childhood traumas which he had not yet accessed – and instead acted out manipulatively on his patients so that he himself could avoid the hell of going deeper.
Meanwhile, the second option for the parent in therapy is the full healing route. This is the painful path – and risks driving some people crazy, especially when they open the doors to the horrors they themselves have perpetrated. This is why it is so vital that a therapy method not be manipulative. Patients must proceed at their own speed, and on their own motivation alone – and even so this route is hell. There is a reason that so few people enter therapy with a desire to end their perpetrations against others; most instead enter therapy because they acknowledge to themselves just how much they feel like trapped victims in their own lives – which, incidentally, perpetrators also are at the level of their unconscious dynamics.
Although I cannot be sure, I suspect that this healing route is the one that Alice Miller took – perhaps precipitously and under some degree of unconscious coercion – in primal therapy. She went into primal therapy with a desperation to heal, and wasn’t prepared to face the consequences of what came up. Her positive transference onto Stettbacher (and his methods) aside, I sense that the reason she went forward with such full steam is that writing her first three books set the stage for her, intellectually and at some level emotionally. She had the essential theory at her disposal – and once she wrote the first chapter of Drama of the Gifted Child she had it more beautifully than perhaps anyone before her – and she wanted to put it into practice in the remaining split-off areas of her psyche. In Banished Knowledge (1988), referring to the development of her emotional liberation from the repression of her traumatic childhood history, she wrote:
My first three books mark the beginning of this development, for it was only as I was writing them that I began systematically to explore childhoods, including my own. It was thanks to my work on those books, and later also thanks to the success of a carefully and systematically uncovering therapy [that is, Stettbacher’s method], that I could see what, despite my critical attitude toward the drive theory, still had remained concealed from me during the twenty years of my analytical practice. [p. ix]
But Miller’s failure to be able to integrate her own history does not mean it is too much for everyone to do. I believe that even a parent who has abused his or her child can heal, but my experience has shown me that once a person becomes a parent the road to healing becomes much, much, much more difficult. That might account for another of Alice Miller’s motives for giving so much tacit approval to not-yet-healed people to procreate: she feels safer around them, just as parents feel safer around their own children when they procreate. People who are more stuck and troubled are much less likely to expose her for her own denial and traumatizing behaviors (which I will address shortly).
People can heal. I believe even Hitler could have emotionally healed from the horrors that he committed in the Holocaust – given the right healing environment, which, I admit, is hard to fathom, yet of which I am convinced exists at least theoretically. I believe we all want to heal more than anything in the world, because the true self is irrepressible and full of only one desire: to become conscious and manifest. Alice Miller herself, in 1980, wrote along these very lines (though granted, before she faced her deeper levels of emotional horror): “For the human soul is virtually indestructible, and its ability to rise from the ashes remains as long as the body draws breath.” [For Your Own Good, p. 279].
It comes at no surprise that so few would want to acknowledge their own traumatizing behavior and fully admit the extent of their worst perpetrations. In this modern society, where healing is so criminal, where telling the truth about who one’s parents really are and what they really did is the greatest crime of all, where placing blame – that is, laying honest responsibility – at the feet of traumatizers is considered a betrayal of all that is good in the world, and where traumatizers are not given love and healing but instead given punishment and sometimes even death for their unconscious replications of what was done to them, who wants to admit even to themselves that they are a traumatizer?
It’s amazing that anyone tells the truth at all. We live in a society so hell-bent on denying the buried traumas perpetrated on us by our parents and the traumas we perpetrate on others that we take glee in punishing external figures, which Alice Miller partially notes: we start wars against other cultures onto whom we project our hatreds, we murder criminals who did things similar to that which we can’t accept our parents did to us and that which we unconsciously do to others, we despise people of other sexes and races and cultures and sexual orientations because they look so different from our parents yet act so much like them, we psychiatrically medicate and numb and restrain and electrically shock anyone with upwelling symptoms of their traumas, and perhaps most of all we go on blindly having children – to keep ourselves well-stocked with a fresh fodder of moldable human beings with few rights, little voice, and no power to fight the projections being foisted on them behind closed doors.
So when parents flee therapy when they realize what they’ve done to others, I understand. And when they stick around and try to figure out the truth of what they did, and why they did it, I give them amazing credit. Few can. They are rare. So when Alice Miller states that full healing is “hubris,” she is not correct. Full healing is not hubris, only terrifying, exceedingly painful, protracted, at times misery inducing, and ultimately extremely humbling – and in this disturbed and health-hating era practically impossible. But not hubris.
The third way that parents in therapy deal with the growing realization that they have traumatized their own children is a combination of the first two ways. They partially accept it and partially deny it. They compartmentalize. They often stick around in therapy in body but really abandon much of the deeper emotional process. They find ways to rationalize what they’ve done, and this allows them to keep on processing what was done to them and all the while not have to look deeply at the comparable horror they replicated onto others. I find this perfectly acceptable for a therapy patient, because it is heading in the right direction, and I stick with the maxim from Shakespeare that sooner or later if you work hard enough and long enough, “truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long; …in the end truth will out.”
But I cannot accept it when a partially healed patient like Alice Miller creates a theory based on her own rationalizations, and calls it the full truth. This is why I was inspired to write this paper! After all, Alice Miller is a parent of two, and she writes about both of her children in her books. And although she is only partially clear about what actually happened between her and them, careful analysis allows the reader to put her point of view into context and make sense of it.
In a 1999 interview given to Noreen Taylor of The London Times, Alice Miller stated, “I have two adult children. I never hit them but I was sometimes careless and neglecting to my first child out of ignorance. Fortunately not so much as my parents had been to me.”
I trust this last sentence. Many traumatized children really do become better parents than their own with little or no overt therapeutic healing beforehand – as was the seeming case with Alice Miller, though her writings suggest she was never in therapy before having children and only became interested in the field of psychology after having children. I think many parents who have never healed much from their childhood wounds do better than their own parents simply because of the naturally healing direction of the human spirit. We have a natural and spontaneous urge to evolve – and we do, often by no conscious will of our own.
Alice Miller, is correct, however, in pointing out that non-parental enlightened witnesses can help, and sometimes can help dramatically, though at times she radically overestimates their potential, such as with the following:
The fact that every perpetrator was once a victim himself does not necessary mean that each person who was himself abused is bound later to become the abuser of his own children. This is not inevitable if, during childhood, he had the chance – be it only once – to encounter someone who offered him something other than pedagogy and cruelty: a teacher, an aunt, a neighbor, a sister, a brother. [Banished Knowledge, p. 193]
Can she truly believe that a single understanding person who witnesses a child for his truth one mere time is enough to make up for a whole childhood of abuse and stop its replication in adulthood? Then again, we must remember that she wrote these words in 1988, within the backdrop of believing herself already fully cured by Stettbacher and his method. Regardless, it is comforting wishful thinking for a “sometimes careless and neglecting” parent to believe that others might spare her child his inevitable place in the intergenerational trauma cycle.
I believe this older child that Alice Miller refers to is her son. She wrote about him in 1980 in the preface to For Your Own Good. Her words are telling.
Countless conversations with my son, Martin Miller, played an equally important role in this learning process. Again and again, he forced me to become aware of my unconscious compulsions, internalized during childhood and stemming from the upbringing common to my generation. His full, clear account of his experiences is partially responsible for my own liberation from the compulsions, a liberation that could be achieved only after I had developed an ear for the sophisticated and minute nuances of the pedagogical approach [that she addresses in the book]. Before writing down many of the ideas developed here, I discussed them thoroughly with my son. [p. xvii]
I found myself truly surprised to read that Alice Miller, perhaps the greatest writer of her generation to hear the child’s hidden truth behind his manifested behavior, had not considered the possibility that her own son might have some motive to protect his mother. Clearly she was looking to her now adult child for support and rationalization of her own denial. This to me is like the slave-owner of a pre-Civil War plantation asking his slaves if they like their lot in life. What are they supposed to say? His question might sound nice and caring on the surface, but when you consider the possibility that if his “property” – Alice Miller’s word for what she herself was to her unconscious mother – answer honesty they might face rejection or worse, you understand why they’d all say how great it is.
I see her son’s supposedly affirmative reply as not relevant to giving credence to her theories, rather, anti-relevant. That said, by and large her theories are brilliant, the book is brilliant, and the ideas are ground-breaking. After all, it is in For Your Own Good that Alice Miller explicates Adolf Hitler and thereby disproves that human behavior can be innately evil. But the fact that she would ask for her son’s approval at all suggests that something fishy is going on between the lines. I believe her words about her son represent her guilt acting on her. One also wonders how it affected her son to “force” his mother to “become aware” of the “unconscious compulsions” she certainly inflicted on him. Perhaps it felt healthy at the time, but as Alice Miller noted later, it is inappropriate for a child to try to heal his parent, not to mention a setup for failure.
Also, in The Drama of the Gifted Child [1997 edition, p. 55], she has a chapter subheading titled “Confronting the Parents.” I found this one of the most disjointed sections of the book, because it actually had nothing to do with confronting the parents at all – and in light of that, made little coherent sense whatsoever. Tracing into the earliest edition of the book, which first came out in English as Prisoners of Childhood (1979) [p. 52], I found that it was originally labeled “The Struggle With The Introjects,” that is, the confrontation with the internalized, cruel, parental voices that live on in our heads. Suddenly the section made sense – and was beautiful. Alice Miller was right the first time around, yet in her zeal to dismiss classical psychoanalysis (a foreshadowing of her repudiation of Stettbacher) she threw the baby out with the bathwater and let a key concept slip out of her hands.
I find it telling that she so heartily supported her son’s confrontation of her – and also tacitly let it slide as being “for his own good.” But was it? I doubt it. If her son were really to heal he would need to confront his introjects and feel his rage and sorrow at them, not try to force his mother to face her traumatizing behavior and her introjects. And it is worth noting once again that she gave her son partial credit for her “liberation from her compulsions” less than ten years before she became nearly psychotic in Stettbacher’s primal therapy, and fifteen years before she admitted that her childhood amnesia was still largely in place. Psychologically liberated people do not become nearly psychotic in therapy. One wonders how her son reacted to these changes in the mother he believed he helped to “liberate.”
And then there is Miller’s relationship with her daughter, who was born mentally retarded, with Down syndrome. Although Miller only writes specifically about her daughter at one point that I could find, in the 1996 preface to the revised (that is, excised-of-Stettbacher) edition of Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, her words tell volumes.
My daughter’s direct, spontaneous, and affectionate nature released me from many of the protective mechanisms I had developed, above all the fear that my love might be exploited. With her I had no need to protect myself. At last I could love, trust, and be tender without any apprehensions about my openness being misused for corrective educational purposes – as was the case with my mother – or my feelings being hurt. As I did not have the good fortune of enjoying an open and warmhearted relationship with my mother, this new opportunity for communication – for all its tragic aspects and the restrictions it brought with it – was more of a blessing than anything else. [pp. xii-xiii]
Curiously enough, it was Alice Miller’s theoretical writings that first helped me understand that it is not a parent’s place to get her own needs met through her children. That is the exact opposite of what parents are supposed to do with their children – and yet in a society such as ours, made up of a conglomeration of families each with their own thick veil of denial, this backward thinking prevails. This is the norm, and sadly, Alice Miller remains partially entrenched in it – even though her theoretical writings do largely orient one in the direction of breaking free of it. But her descriptions of her relationship with her daughter come surprisingly close to overlapping with her own definition of abuse.
When asked to define abuse in an 2005 interview with Borut Jesenovec, Alice Miller stated:
“Abuse means to me using a person for whatever I want from her, him, without asking for their agreement, without respecting their will and their interests. With children, it is very easy to do so, because they are loving, they trust their parents and most adults, and they don’t realize that they were abused, that their love had been exploited.” [from www.alice-miller.com].
Although this definition most obviously applies to extreme cases of abuse – such as overt sexual and physical abuse – I hold that it also applies to Alice Miller’s relationship with her daughter. How could it not, considering that she herself has explained that she had not even explored her childhood at all by the time she had her own children, and thus was not aware of what her own unresolved and unmet childhood needs even were? And when you consider that the mentally retarded are not even allowed to give their consent for so many adult activities, because of their limited intelligence and inherent dependency, as children they are often the most ripe for being exploited by people with unmet needs. Now I grant, I am not stating that Alice Miller was in fact a full-blown monster with her daughter – but I am stating that on the metaphorical level, she was. And until each of us heals from our own repressed traumas and thus are able to find mature, adult ways to meet our own needs, we will all inevitably exploit those over whom we wield power. We may try to rationalize it as being “for the child’s own good” – to use Alice Miller’s classic phrase – and perhaps sometimes it is MORE good (or less bad) for the child than a different form of abuse might be, but the fact is, when the primary need being met is the parent’s, which it always is wherever the parent retains repressed and unresolved traumas, the behavior remains abusive of the child’s basic essence and needs. And if Alice Miller’s son gave his consent to her and did not blame her for the abuses she perpetrated on him (because, after all, she was still ‘anti-blame’ when she wrote about her son in For Your Own Good), certainly her mentally retarded daughter was in less of a position to blame her.
Miller goes on writing about her relationship with her daughter:
The spontaneity with which my daughter expressed her childlike, innocent, affectionate nature at whatever age she happened to be, and her sensitivity to insincerity and disingenuousness in whatever form, gave my life new dimensions and new objectives. [Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, 1996 revised edition, p. xiii]
This again begs the basic questions of whose need was being met here – mother’s or daughter’s? Miller clearly states that it was her own – as if this were obviously acceptable – but all abusers rationalize their abusive behavior of children. That is the standard line, and in the milder cases our society doesn’t bat an eye. Even recidivistic pedophiles sometimes get away with defending their overt molestations of children as being positive for the child – and point out that the child enjoyed it, or wanted it, or was gaining a “valuable” sexual education from it, or that it was “natural.” Regardless, all abuse of children, from the most extreme to the most mild, violates the basic principle of not meeting the child’s needs. And I guarantee that Alice Miller’s daughter’s was not born with the inherent need to give her mother’s life “new dimensions and objectives” and bless her abused mother with a “new opportunity for communication.”
Along these lines, I found myself disturbed that Alice Miller threw pedophiles a partial bone in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware. On page 121 she wrote, “It is quite natural for children to awaken sexual desire in the adult, because they tend to be beautiful, cuddly, affectionate, and because they admire the adult so much, probably more than anyone else does.”
This shocked me, firstly because it came from the pen of one so ferocious as Alice Miller, and secondly simply because it is not true. It is not natural for children to awaken the sexual desire in a psychologically HEALTHY adult, rather, it only happens in adults who live with massive amounts of repressed childhood trauma – and by nature of their repetition compulsions are desperately searching for objects onto whom they can project. So when Alice Miller writes about her conception of what is “natural” – and remember, she also referred to Stettbacher’s method as the “discovery of a natural law” – one is only left to assume that she herself felt sexual desire for her children (because if she hadn’t she would never have labeled it as “natural”), and also that she assumes that all adults must inevitably be equally sick. This is in the same book, no less, where she makes several statements that she believes pure emotional independence and healing, which in many ways she led the reader to believe she has already achieved, to be attainable through classical psychoanalysis. Either side of the coin shows her denial.
She then adds in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, “If adults have a satisfying sex life with another adult, they have no need to act upon the desires aroused by the child or to ward them off.” [p. 121]. Translation: the only way to avoid becoming a pedophile or repressing the “natural” sexual urges you have for your children is to have good sex with your partner. Heaven forbid you’re a single parent (or are celibate): then you’re stuck!
This window into her distorted sexual point of view also led me to question her deeper motives for putting so many explicit sexual case examples of child sexual abuse into her books – especially Thou Shalt Not Be Aware. On one hand I see the value in the case examples, as we need to hear the frank truth and not follow Freud’s lead and deny it, but on the other hand, considering the denial inherent in her viewpoint, my antennae are raised. Taken out of context, much of the case material bears a striking resemblance to child pornography.
Meanwhile, it might be construed that because of all these points I bring up I am arguing that parents should therefore not derive pleasure from raising their children – but I am not saying that at all. All I am saying is that wherever a parent has not yet resolved their own traumas from their own childhood, the pleasure they derive from their interactions with their children will be laced with at least some degree of an abusive dynamic, and this violates the child – and continues the intergenerational cycle of abuse. The bottom line is, heal first, have children later – and if you don’t heal first, you cannot avoid abusing your child. Even good sex with your partner will not protect your children.
But to continue Alice Miller’s writing on her relationship with her daughter:
My intellectual fixations stood revealed for what they were and in time were discarded. [Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, 1996 revised edition, p. xiii]
So now she credits her daughter with healing her, just as she credited her son fifteen years earlier! This suggests Alice Miller might be engaged in a repetition compulsion here.
I countenanced only those things that were able to stand the scrutiny of my feelings. I became curious about my own childhood, a world that till then had been kept ‘frozen,’ as it were, in the confines of my intellect. It was this that prompted me to train for a career as a psychoanalyst and to start to paint. [p. xiii]
I have seen this to be the case with many parents. Once they finally feel the safety with their own child that they never felt with their own parents, they “find themselves.” They use their child as a screen onto which they project their own repressed inner child, and they begin to work through and work out – though really act out – their own sordid histories through their relationship with their children, which no child asks for or wants, or has much power to refuse. This is abuse. Alice Miller pointed this out years earlier in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware:
But parents who have had to repress the fact of having been abused [which Alice Miller has admitted was the case with her at the time she was a mother of her young daughter] and who have never consciously relived it can become very confused in this regard where their children are concerned. They will either suppress their genuine feelings of affection for fear of seducing their child or they will unconsciously do the same to the child that was done to them, without having any idea of how much harm they are causing, since they themselves always had to distance themselves from their suffering. [p. 161]
It sounds like Alice Miller described herself well – though, she, like many parents she noted and so many I have seen, abused her daughter following similar latent dynamics but with a different manifested face. This allows the abuse to be much more easily rationalized, and allows parents to keep intact their idealizations of themselves. It is a logical step for many such parents to take the leap into becoming therapists, because patients who were manipulated in their childhoods (as all of us were, wherever our parents were not fully healed), can easily, as Alice Miller has noted, be made to function similarly to needy and compliant children. These therapists-parents have learned through their relationship with their child a template that transfers easily into the therapist-patient dynamic, one which narcissistically (and financially) gratifies the parent-therapist and that few in society will blow the whistle on because it is so ubiquitous.
Alice Miller points out this out succinctly in the first chapter of the 1997 edition of The Drama of the Gifted Child: “As long as the therapist is not aware of his repression, it can compel him to use his patients, who depend on him, to meet his unmet needs with substitutes.” [p. 8]. It seems, however, that she had no idea she was really talking in code about her own relationship with her daughter. If she had she would have admitted it.
She continues about her relationship with her daughter:
That was where the story of my childhood finally broke through. Today, I am convinced that I have only been willing and able to face up to my true feelings thanks to the existence of my daughter. She would tell me frankly and uninhibitedly what she saw in my pictures and what she felt about them, something that otherwise only very few people did. It was a kind of emotional communication which I found very precious… [Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, 1996 revised edition, p. xiii]
Precious, yes: her mentally retarded daughter was functioning as a substitute mother that Alice Miller never had – unlike the biological mother who did not and could not love her, a mother who gave her days of the vicious silent treatment, a mother from whom she could not escape. Her daughter was a built-in audience. Alice Miller then adds:
Without the relationship with my daughter I would have been even more remote from myself that I already was. … In many ways it is only now, in retrospect, that I begin to appreciate something like the full extent of the boon my daughter has been to me. [pp. xiii-xiv]
Yes – she used her daughter to meet her own needs. The rationalized intergenerational dynamics of this abuse cycle is so common. So many parents who acknowledge they were abused as children fail to see the abuse they perpetrate on their own child because they simply abuse her differently from how they were abused. And while often the abuse they perpetrate is milder than what they experienced, the underlying dynamics are remarkably similar because they follow the same unconscious repetition compulsions. I learned this from Alice Miller: Hitler didn’t need to beat the toddler son he never had into oblivion to be able to replicate the violent abuses he suffered at the hands of his own tyrant father. [For Your Own Good, pp. 153-4]. Hitler instead took out his own complex history of abuse on the Jews, Gypsies, Poles, homosexuals, and mentally ill of Europe. (Actually, I loved it when Alice Miller quoted one of her readers as saying that had Hitler had sons of his own to act out on he might have never needed to foment the Holocaust!)
Later in the 2005 interview, Alice Miller was asked to estimate how many people she thinks were abused as children. She replied, “It is difficult to estimate… I do know people who were not exploited in their childhood, who were loved, cared for and allowed to live their true feelings. I saw them as babies and I see that they are able to give their children the same respect which they got from their parents.”
What she is really saying here when she states that some people were never abused is that there are such things as perfect parents. This is the same line of denial she has subtly been giving in her books from the very beginning. It is a farce, because the only person potentially capable of being a perfect parent is the one who has resolved all of his or her traumas. But considering that Alice Miller views even the possibility of full inner exploration as “hubris,” you realize that something is not adding up in her philosophy. And psychological rationalizations like Winnicott’s concept of “the good-enough mother” are not enough to balance the ledgers.
These gaps in her philosophy abound across the scope of her writing career. Take her writings on abortion, in which she notes that blocking abortion is terrible because it leads to creating more unwanted children who will only be abused.
Do they not know that no less than one hundred percent of all seriously abused children are unwanted? Do they not know what that can lead to? Do they not know that mistreatment is a parent’s way of taking revenge on the children they never wanted? Shouldn’t the authorities do everything in their power, in the light of this information, to see to it that the only children who are born are wanted, planned for, and loved? If they did, then we could put an end to the creation and continuation of evil in our world. [Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, 1996 edition, pp. 142]
Although there is truth in this – that unwanted children do get abused more – it is wrong to think that wanted children do not get abused. Many children who get horribly abused were desperately wanted by their parents – and Alice Miller should know that, because she all but stated it back in 1979:
Quite unconsciously, and despite her own good intentions, the mother then tries to assuage her own narcissistic needs through her child, that is, she cathects [i.e. engulfs] him narcissistically. This does not rule out strong affection. On the contrary, the mother often loves her child as her self-object, passionately, but not in the way he needs to be loved. [Prisoners of Childhood, p. 34]
It can be very gratifying for parents to act out on their children, and many have them unconsciously for this very purpose. How many mothers want a replacement husband or father or mother in their baby and pray to get pregnant so their future baby will make their lives complete? These maternal (and paternal) motives are so easily rationalized, because they are the norm. Thus, being a wanted baby is hardly a vaccination against abuse. Only full parental healing of childhood wounds is. A world full of wanted babies under the care of partially traumatized parents is no recipe for world peace.
Miller then goes on with the second half of her argument regarding abortion.
Abortion can, indeed, be seen as the most powerful symbol of the psychic annihilation and mutilation practiced since time immemorial on children. But to combat this evil merely at the symbolic level deflects us from the reality we should not evade for a moment longer: the reality of the abused and humiliated child, which, as the result of its disavowed and unresolved injuries, will insidiously become, either openly or aided by hypocrisy, a danger to society. [p. 143]
Abortion is not a “symbol of the psychic annihilation” of children. There is nothing symbolic about abortion, and it goes far beyond “psychic” destruction! Abortion shows that an extreme element of parents-to-be have no regard for their own unwanted, unborn children – and physically (not symbolically) murder them when they do not want them. Yes, there are contingencies and exceptions, but in the great degree of cases, those are the facts. And yet Alice Miller, because of her own limits in resolving her history of childhood trauma, cannot pull back her viewpoint into enough perspective to realize it, let alone to see the simple theoretical answer to the problem: that people should not have children until they have first done ALL of their inner emotional homework. And theoretically speaking, any answer less than this is a tacit acceptance of child abuse.
Early on in her writings she even rails against moralizing – that is, using any “shoulds” or “woulds.” It is a huge theme in the first edition of Prisoners of Childhood (1979), to the degree that she writes the whole book from the totally detached perspective of just describing a phenomenon she has observed in her therapy patients over the years – and refusing to draw any deeper conclusions from her observations, much less to take a stand and give anyone any advice on what to do with all this vital information she has found. The following year, she wrote in For Your Own Good: “It is my intention to refrain from all moralizing. I definitely do not want to say someone ought or ought not to do this or that … for I consider maxims of this sort of to be useless.” [p. 9].
And yet even by the end of the same book she moralizes. She can’t help it – and thank God for it. For instance, on page 271: “Loving parents should want to find out what they are unconsciously doing to their children.” [my italics]. Frankly I find nothing wrong with this moralizing, because anyone who digs deeply into the repressed emotions of childhood is going to start seeing things in a new way, and realizing that things have to change. And if we really care about the future of humanity – and the feelings of innocent children – then speaking up about these newfound conclusions is our utter responsibility. Taking a seemingly non-judgmental attitude in the face of one’s own conclusions is simply fiddling while Rome burns. The only thing that is offensive about moralizing, however, is when one’s morals are based on a denial-laden philosophy. That is why Alice Miller’s point of view is largely so beautiful: she really is far more liberated than so many psychological theorists of today, many of whom were born a lot later than her birthyear of 1923!
In her later writings, however, Alice Miller becomes more than a moralizer: she becomes a crusader. Her anti-spanking campaign, for instance, pushes the limits of trivializing the early theoretical power of her works, though she did tend to spin off into tirades against spanking (albeit detached ones) even in Prisoners of Childhood. And while I too am totally against spanking, and wholeheartedly agree with her on how it damages the child, I feel she loses the beauty of her more panoramic viewpoint and style when she narrows her focus – and often, throughout her works, her focus narrows (and diverts into yet another extreme case example) just at the moment when her writing is poised to go deeper. I feel this directly relates to her continually giving up on her own healing process – and having rationalized her emotional stuckness in her unresolved traumas. Also, it strikes me as convenient for her to take up a crusade against spanking, a trauma she admittedly never perpetrated against her own children. This allows her to keep her crusade at an emotionally personal distance, that is, not to have to face its painful application to herself.
There is a line from The Truth Will Set You Free, written in 2001, I which Alice Miller unknowingly sums up her own recent state of affairs as a writer. Here she refers to a book (not written by her) intended to explain Hitler’s adult behavior where the author never delves even into the question of the horrors of Hitler’s childhood. Miller writes:
He is content to offer a journalistic compilation of data and anecdotes without reflection. He, too, is at pains to respect the taboo and divert his gaze from the place that holds the key, although he had access to such insightful studies of Hitler as those by Robert G. L. Waite, whom he quotes in his book. [p. 128]
I felt this was really referring to what happened to Alice Miller herself. Her later works just rehash and even soft-pedal her earlier points of view, and just fall back, for example, on giving brain evidence of child abuse, exploring the next hopeful therapeutic technique on the market, like neurolinguistic programming and EMDR, and fighting spanking rather than going philosophically or emotionally deeper.
At times she even seems to contradict her early points. In The Truth Will Set You Free, she writes, “Sincerely forgiving our parents … is not difficult once we have allowed ourselves to feel the distress they caused us, to take it seriously, and to fathom the full extent of their cruelty.” [p. 150]. Although there is truth in this, when we remember that only a few years before she wrote that full healing was “hubris,” and that “a hundred years of therapy” would not help her understand her own childhood. So how, then, could such forgiveness possibly be so easy for her now, or is she just lulling herself into a sense of false forgiveness? I believe she herself answered this question two decades earlier, on page one of Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: “I was strongly tempted to abandon the path I had begun to travel because the inferences it led to aroused such resistance even in myself.” The only difference appears that now she gave in to the temptation.
Her 2001 letter to Pope John Paul expresses this even more starkly. Here she takes on the tone of an enraptured, star-struck young girl begging yet another omnipotent parent figure to hear her point of view. Had I not known beforehand that it was written by the ferocious and insightful Alice Miller I might not have believed it.
I will quote a few lines of it here (and the full text was on her website, www.alice-miller.com, until it, like Stettbacher in her books, was removed):
Open Letter to the Holy Father. I take the liberty to write to You again…
I can’t imagine that any other person in the world would have Your courage, Your credibility, as well as Your personal talent and God’s grace to be able to speak up against an old tradition [of parents beating their children]…
I am asking You again to make an appeal to all parents urging them to no longer beat their children, and to tell them that it is highly dangerous.
If the Church continues to ignore the new scientific information and to stay silent about this issue in spite of the lessons of Jesus, who else can be asked to open the parents’ eyes in order to prevent the blind escalation of violence? I am sure that if my letters succeed to reach You personally You will not stay indifferent to the knowledge they are trying to pass on to you.
With my most profound respect, Alice Miller.
I found this troubling, yet I must remember that she again predicted her own future capitulation twenty years earlier in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware. On page 209, she notes how often “individual analysts shrink in later life from their own findings and return to earlier ways of thinking they had already left behind.” As she herself points out consistently, traumas that are not fully exhumed and resolved always find a way to manifest pathologically.
This brings to mind her more recent writings on Jesus (also from 2001), which, again, had they not had Alice Miller’s name attached to them, I would again have found difficult to believe were created from the same piercing intellect that deconstructed Hitler and put previous brilliant analysts like Erich Fromm, who attempted the same feat, to shame. (These Jesus writings did, however, have a precursor in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware.) It was like she really just blocked out so much of her earlier theory and just started running on autopilot. She wrote:
Long before his birth Jesus received the greatest reverence, love, and protection from his parents, and it was in this initial all-important experience that his rich emotional life, his thinking, and his ethics were rooted. His earthly parents saw themselves as his servants, and it would never have occurred to them to lay a finger on him. [The Truth Will Set You Free, pp. 190-191]
Jesus grew into a strong, aware, empathic, and wise person able to experience and sustain strong emotions without being engulfed by them. He could see through insincerity and mendacity and he had the courage to expose them for what they were. [The Truth Will Set You Free, p. 191]
Ignoring the fact that Jesus is a mythical figure and the Bible is anything but a solid historical document, we can see that Alice Miller is building a case for idealizing Jesus’s parents. Oddly enough, if Jesus’s parents were as she states (and we have no way of knowing accurately if they were), she is probably quite right, that they would have created quite an ideal person. Yet even the Bible does not censor the fact that Jesus himself rejected his mother, and encouraged his followers to similarly reject their families.
Take this Biblical line in which Jesus ignores his own biological mother and brothers, who wanted a word with him, and instead addresses a crowd of his followers:
‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’ [Matthew 12: 48-50]
Or this, from Luke 14: 26-27:
‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’
Or Matthew 10:34:
‘Think not that I have come to bring peace to the earth; it is not peace I bring but a sword. I have come to set son against father, daughter against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law; a person’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
I do not know how Alice Miller would respond to these as of the time of this writing (June, 2006), but I know how the most logical extrapolations of her earlier theory would deal with them: that Jesus was furious as hell at his family system because they’d abused him. Children who have not been abused do not turn on their parents and reject them. And ideal parents truly worth emulating do not abuse their children, because they have no unresolved traumas that they acted out on their children.
So for that reason, I cannot be so sure I agree with Alice Miller when she writes the following, also in The Truth Will Set You Free:
Would it not make eminent sense to encourage believers to follow the example of Mary and Joseph and regard their children as the children of God (which in a sense they are) rather than treating them as their own personal property? [p. 191]
Yet sadly, a couple of pages later even Alice Miller does not agree with herself.
With the best will in the world none of us can emulate the example of Jesus. None of us were carried by our mothers as the child of God… [p. 193]
I find this all strange and sad, especially when you consider the force with which she tackled the “God” question only a few mere years before. In the 1994 edition of The Drama of the Gifted Child, she noted, “When psychiatrists with decades of experience have never dared to face their own reality and have instead spent their time (and their patients’ time) talking about ‘dysfunctional families,’ they will need a concept like a ‘Higher Power’ or God to explain to themselves the ‘miracle’ of healing.” [p. 64]. Sadly, this is just what she’s doing. She gave up on her own inner search, and is instead searching for Jesus – or the Pope, or Stettbacher before him, or Freud before that – to rescue her. And they all failed. That is because no parental figure can save us in our adult life. We have to confront the introjects. This is how we save ourselves.
So as I close, I would like to return to Alice Miller’s words of 1997, when she noted that “a total exploration of my childhood history” is “hubris.” It was there that Alice Miller and I parted ways. The search to know oneself fully is not hubris! Terrifying, yes. Gutsy, yes. Overwhelming, at times, yes. And maybe even impossible for Alice Miller, given her advanced age, her relatively severe childhood history, and her increasing rigidity. But hubris for everyone: no! The real hubris is that Alice Miller, who went so far, still so readily universalizes her own limited healing experience to all of humanity. Here is the truth: Healing is possible. Full enlightenment is possible. And so is an end to all child abuse. Even mild child abuse. That is what our species is striving for. And that is what the future of our species needs. And I guarantee that if Alice Miller were healthier she would be the first to agree.
••• ••• •••
References (sorted by date)
- Miller, Alice, Prisoners of Childhood (aka The Drama of the Gifted Child), 1979. (First published in English in 1981. My quotations refer to the 1981 BasicBooks hardcover edition.)
- Miller, Alice, For Your Own Good, 1980. (First published in English in 1983. My quotations refer to the Farrar, Straus, Giroux paperback edition of 1987.)
- Miller, Alice, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, 1981. (First published in English in 1984. My quotations refer to the Meridian paperback edition of 1986.)
- Miller, Alice, Pictures of a Childhood, 1985. (First published in English in 1986. My quotations refer to the Meridian paperback edition, 1995.)
- Miller, Alice, The Untouched Key, 1988. (First published in English in 1990. My quotations refer to the Anchor paperback edition of 1991.)
- Miller, Alice, Banished Knowledge, 1988. (First published in English in 1990. My quotations refer to the Anchor paperback edition of 1991.)
- Miller, Alice, Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, 1990. (First published in English in 1991. My quotations refer to the Dutton hardcover edition of 1991.)
- Stettbacher, J. Konrad, Making Sense of Suffering, 1990 (Foreword and Afterword by Alice Miller, 1991). (First published in English in 1991. My quotations refer to the Dutton hardcover edition of 1991.)
- Miller, Alice, The Drama of the Gifted Child, 1994 edition. (My quotations refer to the BasicBooks paperback edition of 1994.)
- Miller, Alice, Communication to My Readers, 10/9/96, http://www.primals.org/articles/amiller.html
- Miller, Alice, Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, 1996 revised edition. (First published in English in 1997. My quotations refer to the Meridian paperback edition of 1997.)
- Miller, Alice, The Drama of the Gifted Child, 1997 edition. (Afterword by Alice Miller written and translated in 1995, copyright 1997. My quotations refer to the BasicBooks paperback edition of 1997.)
- Miller, Alice, The Truth Will Set You Free, 2001 (My quotations refer to the BasicBooks hardcover edition of 2001.)
- Turton, Sam, Alice Miller & Primal Therapy: A Summary, Spring 2002 (newsletter): http://www.primals.org/articles/turton12.html
www.alice-miller.com (2005 interview, and general articles)