Alice Miller: Unravelling Childhood Trauma
Alice Miller (née Alicija Englard) was born on the 12th of January 1923 in Piotrków Trybunalski, Poland, into a Jewish family. She established herself in Switzerland in 1946, studying philosophy in Basel, then psychoanalysis in Zurich. Her book The Drama of the Gifted Child , initially published in 1979 in Frankfurt, caused a stir in 1981, becoming an international bestseller by word-of-mouth.
As a practising analyst, she made a stand against mainstream Freudian analysis. “Sigmund Freud claimed that he had initially believed in the reality of childhood sexual abuse and that it was only later that he came to think of his patient’s stories as fantasies. Miller condemned Freud’s change of mind as an act of cowardice and a betrayal of children; and, distancing herself from these ideas, in 1988 resigned from the International Psychoanalytic Association, which represented Freudian thinking.” (Sue Cowan-Jenssen, ‘Alice Miller obituary’, The Guardian, Monday 31 May 2010). Oliver James, author of They F*** You Up: How to Survive Family Life (2002) said of Freud that, “He made a brilliant case, but unfortunately he was wrong.” Intuitively, Miller believed that in psychoanalysis, the therapist was taking a step too far back when it came to pointing out the true cause of mental problems in adulthood. She believed that the parent must be made aware of his or her inadequacies. The writer’s personal and family experience of Nazism seems to have galvanised her theories about a bullying authoritarian force ruling the life of an individual. “She has analysed the psyches of Hitler and his henchmen, and despotism constantly recurs as a metaphor in her work. (…) she even writes of her mother thus: “Not once did she apologise to me or express any kind of regret. She was always ‘in the right’. It was this attitude that made my childhood feel like a totalitarian regime. ” (Matt Seaton, ‘Suffer the little children’, The Guardian, Wednesday 20 April 2005). Consequently, Miller’s writing was unprecedented through the vehemence with which it pointed the finger at the cyclical inadequacies of entire generations. She maintained that parents scar their children not only by cruel corporal punishment, but also through the hidden effect of covert humiliation, neglect and inattention. Her style was honest, forthright and accessible; she claimed that children protect themselves and their parents from the reality of their bad upbringing, often idealising their parents and trying hard to gain their acceptance. Miller wanted patients to get back in sync with their “inner child”, and “their own truth” as a way of dealing with the various degrees of parental abuse. She was the first to define the way personality changes as a result of childhood trauma, pointing out two major reactions to a loveless childhood: depression and grandiosity, or psychosis and narcissism.
“There was a mother who at the core was emotionally insecure, and who depended for her narcissistic equilibrium on the child behaving, or acting, in a particular way. This mother was able to hide her insecurity from the child and from everyone else behind a hard, authoritarian and even totalitarian facade. This child had an amazing ability to perceive and respond intuitively, that is, unconsciously, to this need of the mother or of both parents, for him to take on the role that had unconsciously been assigned to him.This role secured “love” for the child—that is, his parents’ exploitation. He could sense that he was needed, and this need, guaranteed him a measure of existential security.”(The Drama of the Gifted Child )
Miller believed that the way the parent related to the child determined each and every aspect of their future life. She saw deeply ingrained perceptions of the parent in any child-turned-adult she scrutinised. Her case studies of various famous people and the way their childhoods shaped their future are particularly interesting. One instance was Proust, whose mother came across as clinging and controlling, but it was enough, according to Miller, to condemn him to an untimely death. Likewise, she writes about the artist Henry Moore who “describes in his memoirs how, as a small boy, he massaged his mother’s back with an oil to soothe her rheumatism. Reading this suddenly threw light for me on Moore’s sculptures: the great, reclining women with the tiny heads—I now could see in them the mother through the small boy’s eyes, with the head high above, in diminishing perspective, and the back close before him and enormously enlarged. This may be irrelevant for many art critics, but for me it demonstrates how strongly a child’s experiences may endure in his unconscious and what possibilities of expression they may awaken in the adult who is free to give them rein. Now, Moore’s memory was not harmful and so could survive intact. But every childhood’s conflictual experiences remain hidden and locked in darkness, and the key to our understanding of the life that follows is hidden away with them.” (The Drama of the Gifted Child ).
Some of the criticism directed at Miller was that she dealt with extreme cases and was an evangelist who offered obviously crucial truths but very few solutions to the way in which the cycle of parent-child-parent abuse can be halted. If you read her books as a child with such issues, there are strong chances you find understanding and validation, but if you came at her theories as a parent, Miller charges you with an overwhelming sense of guilt and inadequacy.“She unforgettably focuses on a child’s response to small, ordinary punishments (…) She deals with very big questions about why people take pleasure in humiliating others. And she has very creative answers. The problem arises in how people respond to what she says because she’s dealing with extreme cases.” However, the reality is that she remains indisputably a rarely outspoken pioneer of childhood trauma research and a sympathetic defender of children, famed for her condemnation of smacking and generally all violence against them.