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Alice Miller (born 1923) is a psychologist noted for her work on child abuse and its effects upon society as well as the lives of individuals. She was born in Poland and in 1946 migrated to Switzerland. She gained her doctorate in philosophy, psychology and sociology in 1953 in Basel. In 1986, Alice Miller was awarded the Janusz Korczak Literary Award by the Anti-Defamation League. She has two adult children.

Miller’s worldviewEdit

The introduction of Miller’s first book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, first published in 1979, contains a famous line that summarizes her views: “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”.

Miller became strongly disenchanted with her chosen field of psychoanalysis after many years spent in practice. Her first three books originated from research she took upon herself as a response to what she felt were major blind spots in her field. However, by the time her fourth book was published she no longer believed that psychoanalysis was viable at all.

Drawing upon the work of psychohistory, Miller has analyzed writers Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka and others to find links between their childhood traumas and the outcome of their lives. She maintains that all instances of mental illness, crime and falling prey of religious cults are ultimately caused by childhood trauma and inner pain not processed by a helper which she has come to term an "enlightened witness". She extends this trauma model to include all forms of child abuse, including those that are commonly accepted (such as spanking) which she calls poisonous pedagogy (schwarze Pädagogik).

In the 1990s Miller strongly supported a new method from Konrad Stettbacher, who was later charged with incidents of sexual abuse. Since then she has refused to bring forward therapist or method recommendations. In open letters, Miller explained her decision and how she originally fell for Stettbacher but in the end distanced herself from him and his regressive therapies.

In our culture “Sparing the parents is our supreme law” wrote Miller. Even psychiatrists, psychoanalysts and clinical psychologists are unconsciously afraid to blame parents for the neuroses and psychoses of their clients. According to Miller mental health professionals are also creatures of the poisonous pedagogy internalized in their own childhood. This explains why the command “Honor your parents” has been one of the main targets in Miller’s school of psychology.

Miller calls electroconvulsive therapy —a treatment occasionally used for severe cases of depression— “a campaign against the act of remembering”. She also criticizes psychotherapists’ advice to clients to forgive their abusive parents. For Miller this can only hinder the way to recovery: to remember and feel the pain of our childhood. “The majority of therapists fear this truth. They work under the influence of destructive interpretations culled from both Western and Oriental religions, which preach forgiveness to the once-mistreated child”. Forgiveness does not resolve hatred but covers it in a very dangerous way in the outgrown adult: displacement on scapegoats, as she discussed in her psycho-biographies of Adolf Hitler and Jürgen Bartsch, both of which she describes as having suffered atrocious parental abuse.

A common denominator in Miller’s writings is to explain why human beings prefer not to know about their own victimization during childhood: to avoid unbearable pain. However, the unconscious command of the individual, not to be aware how he or she was treated in childhood, leads to displacement: the irresistible drive to repeat traumatogenic modes of parenting in the next generation of children.

WritingsEdit

The following is a brief summary of Alice Miller's books.

The Drama of the Gifted Child (Das Drama des begabten Kindes, 1979) Edit

In her first book (also published under the titles Prisoners of Childhood and The Drama of Being a Child) Miller defines and elaborates the personality manifestations of childhood trauma. She seeks the truth about her own childhood experiences and in so doing defines the model that has become widely accepted in psychotherapeutic circles, such as the Tavistock Institute. She addresses the two reactions to the loss of love in childhood, depression and grandiosity; the inner prison, the vicious circle of contempt, repressed memories, the etiology of depression, and how childhood trauma manifests itself in the adult. From this book flow the others.

For your own good (Am Anfang war Erziehung, 1980) Edit

Miller proposes here that German traumatogenic methods of childrearing produced Hitler and a serial killer of children named Jürgen Bartsch. In this work Miller introduces the term “poisonous pedagogy”. Children learn to take their parent’s point of view against themselves “for their own good”. For Miller, the traditional pedagogic process is manipulative, resulting in that the grown-up adult is deferential to authorities, even to tyrannical leaders or dictators like Hitler. Miller even argues for abandoning the term “pedagogy” in favor of the word “support”, something akin to what psychohistorians call the helping mode of parenting.

This book is (legally) available online here.

Thou Shalt Not Be Aware (Du sollst nicht merken, 1981) Edit

Unlike Miller’s later books, this one is written in an academic style. It is her first critique of psychoanalysis, charging it with being similar to the poisonous pedagogies that she described in For Your Own Good. Miller is critical of both Freud and Jung. She scrutinizes Freud’s drive theory, a device that blames the child for the abusive sexual behavior of adults. Miller also criticizes Kafka, who was abused by his father but fulfills the politically-correct function of mirroring abuse in metaphorical novels, instead of exposing it.

The Untouched Key (Der gemiedene Schlüssel, 1988)Edit

This book is basically a psychobiography of Nietzsche, Picasso, Kollwitz and Buster Keaton (in Miller’s latest book, The Body Never Lies published in 2005, she includes similar analyses of Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Schiller, Rimbaud, Mishima, Proust and James Joyce).

According to Miller, Nietzsche did not experience a loving family and his philosophical output is a metaphor of an unconscious drive against his family's oppressive theological tradition. She believes the philosophical system is flawed because Nietzsche was unable to make emotional contact with the abused child inside him. Though Nietzsche was severely punished by a father who lost his mind when Nietzsche was a little boy, Miller does not accept the genetic theory of madness. She interprets Nietzsche’s psychotic breakdown as the result of a family tradition in Prussian modes of childrearing.

Banished Knowledge (Das verbannte Wissen, 1988) Edit

In this more personal book Miller confesses she herself was abused as a child. She also introduces the fundamental concept of “enlightened witness”: a person who is willing to support a harmed individual, empathize with her and help her to gain understanding of her own biographical past.

Banished Knowledge is autobiographical in another sense. It is a pointer in Miller’s thoroughgoing apostasy from her own profession, psychoanalysis. She believes society colludes with Freud’s theories in order to not know the truth about our childhood, a truth that human cultures have “banished”. She concludes that the feelings of guilt instilled in our minds since our most tender years reinforce our repression even in the psychoanalytic profession.

Breaking Down the Wall of Silence (Abbruch der Schweigemauer, 1990)Edit

Written in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Miller takes to task the entirety of human culture. What she calls the “wall of silence” is the metaphorical wall behind which society —academia, psychiatrists, clergy, politicians and members of the media— has sought to protect itself: denying the mind-destroying effects of child abuse. She also continues the autobiographical confession initiated in Banished Knowledge about her abusive mother. In Pictures of a Childhood: Sixty-six Watercolors and an Essay Miller says that painting helped her to ponder deeply into her memories. In some of her paintings Miller depicts baby Alice as swaddled, sometimes by an evil mother. [1]

I betrayed that little girl [...]. Only in recent years, with the help of therapy, which enabled me to lift the veil on this repression bit by bit, could I allow myself to experience the pain and desperation, the powerlessness and justified fury of that abused child. Only then did the dimensions of this crime against the child I once was become clear to me.

See alsoEdit

BibliographyEdit

Miller’s published books in English:

Miller's essays include:

  • Childhood Trauma
  • The Political Consequences of Child Abuse

Book reviewsEdit

External linksEdit


Critical:

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