I have cited Alice Miller as one authority for the assertion that childhood abuse is the key to later mental illness.
This might leave the impression that I otherwise agree with Alice Miller. That makes it necessary to disassociate myself.
Miller’s writing has been influential. She is often popularly identified with the concept that mental illness is caused by childhood abuse. The very first sentence of her Wikipedia bio ends: “who is noted for her books on parental child abuse, translated into several languages.”
So she has to come up.
Miller was not the first to realize childhood abuse causes mental illness. We have seen that. Not long ago, this was commonly understood. Rather, she popularized the idea in recent decades. There have also been many studies during those same decades that establish this, independent of her work.i The main thrust of her writing, despite her own claims, is actually to minimize the significance of that discovery.
While emphasizing childhood trauma as the foundation for mental illness, Miller also asserts
1. That this experience of childhood abuse is often repressed. It is often only found in “repressed memories.”
2. Even normal parental discipline amounts to child abuse, and can cause mental illness.
3. Having been abused causes abuse in the next generation. An abused child becomes an abusive adult.
The net effect of these three assertions is to trivialize abuse, and to excuse it. It looks like the problem considered from the perspective of the confirmed abuser. Everyone experiences it, everyone does it, everyone is equally guilty or innocent. That’s life. If you claim to have been abused, you are probably yourself an abuser. And you have no right to so complain: whoever abused you must have gone through the same things you did.
This seems deliberate. It is no surprise to learn from Miller’s son that she herself was a notably abusive parent.ii
Like many another author writing on psychology, and perhaps inevitably given the nature of the subject—one only ever really knows one’s own mind and thoughts, not those of any other—her own personal experience seems to have been her primary source of material. As she herself was an abuser, she sees things from the viewpoint of the abuser.
But that, perhaps, makes her viewpoint instructive.
According to her son, she habitually manipulated people: “She grew up in an upper-class family and had servants all her life, even when she didn’t have money. I never understood why she maintained a staff of employees. She was extremely arrogant, a diva, and treated people horribly” (Maya Sela, “The Trauma of a Gifted Child Whose Mother Was Alice Miller,” Haaretz, Jul 12, 2014).
Why, you might ask, would an abuser publicize the problem of child abuse? Might it make more sense for her to deny it ever happened?
Yes, perhaps, if there were no such thing as conscience. However, if anyone has certain knowledge that child abuse happens, it is an abuser. To deny this altogether would mean lying, and lying to oneself.
It is, in the end, a better strategy to say, yes, of course, it exists. It is common! In fact, everyone does it! So if I did it, if I do it, I cannot really be blamed, can I?
And so her interest is actually to exaggerate the prevalence of abuse.
To deal with each of her problematic claims in turn:
1. That this experience of childhood abuse is often repressed. It is often only discovered in “repressed memories”
The existence of repressed memories has never been proven. Freud believed in them.
But the claim seems improbable on its face. Since antiquity, it has been a principle of mnemonics that, the stronger the emotional associations of a memory, the more likely it is to be remembered. Miller claims the opposite: that memories are forgotten because they are too emotionally important to us.
Freud and Miller may be conflating two different things: ability to remember an incident, and desire to recall it. Strongly emotional memories of abuse may indeed be repressed in the second sense, because thinking about them causes the victim to relive the trauma. Old soldiers are proverbially reluctant to talk about their experiences in war. To re-experience a trauma is, after all, traumatic.
This does not mean they cannot remember; it means they do not want to remember.
Miller inadvertently demonstrates the difference in citing the childhood memories of Anton Chekhov. She quotes Chekhov writing to his brother that:
“Despotism and lies have so thoroughly marred our childhood that it makes me feel sick and afraid to remember it” (Elsbeth Wolffheim, Anton Tschechow, Rowohlt 2001, p. 13).
Yet elsewhere, when writing for the general public, Chekhov claims:
“For me, father and mother are the only people on this earth for whom I would do everything they asked of me. If I should make it to the top one day, this will be the work of their hands; they are splendid people, their boundless love of children puts them beyond all praise and outweighs all their faults” (Ivan Bunin, Tschechow, Berlin: Friedenauer Presse, 2004).
It is not that Chekhov does not remember. It is that it makes him “sick and afraid” to remember. And so he presents a false face in public.
It is one thing not to want to remember something painful. It is a very different thing to have always thought that your war experience, or your childhood, was fun and games, hugs and bunnies, and then realize that it was not. This latter claim is improbable. It verges on “gaslighting”: trying to convince the patient to no longer believe the evidence of their senses.
Yet that is the model of “repressed memory” that Miller proposes.
“I do not mean to speak, primarily, of cases of obvious desertion by, or separation from, the parents, though this, of course, can have traumatic results. Nor am I thinking of children who were obviously uncared for or totally neglected, and who were always aware of this or at least grew up with the knowledge that it was so. Apart from these extreme cases, there are large numbers of people who suffer from narcissistic disorders, who often had sensitive and caring parents from whom they received much encouragement; yet, these people are suffering from severe depressions. They enter analysis in the belief, with which they grew up, that their childhood was happy and protected (The Drama of the Gifted Child, p. 5).
Before we go on, note here the bizarre omission of the obvious: children who are not merely neglected, but actively abused. That would apply to her own son, by his testimony. Is she not, literally, minimizing this possibility?
Are there such people, though, as she introduces here? Depressed people, who think their childhood was wonderful, and are mistaken?
I suspect not.
I suspect, however, that Miller here reveals that there are two different classes of people who are diagnosed as “depressed,” and they are not the same. Just as spots on the face might be caused by several different diseases.
Childhood abuse, and PTSD, leads to the classic symptoms we call “depression.”
But children who are overly indulged while growing up can also develop, in adulthood, a sense of malaise. The problem is that they have been trained by an indulgent childhood to expect too much, never to exert themselves or withhold anything from themselves. The real adult world is not inclined to treat them in the manner to which they have become accustomed. As they attain adulthood and must make their own way, they discover they are no longer the centre of attention, they no longer get whatever they ask, those around them do not think that everything they do is wonderful. They have to work for things, they have to prove themselves. They must defer gratification.
This, to them, is obviously unfair. They deserve better.
|The tragic fate of a princess.|
Here, too, we have the ideal literary model: Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea.”
And so such overgrown children are discontented with their lot in life. There are too many damned peas under the mattress.
They will naturally lament loudly and often—hence the diagnosis of “depression” or “mental illness.” Do they suffer as much as those who experience true depression, from PTSD? It is probably impossible to know. At a minimum, I would net expect them to suffer the crippling anxiety that is the most common symptom of what we call “depression.” In any case, this is a very different thing from the experience caused by childhood abuse; the opposite thing, in fact.
Abuse that they have forgotten? The telling signature of their problem is their sense that everything was so much better when they were children. It was. This, as it happens, was Miller’s own unreconstituted memory of her childhood. And she became an abuser.
Another telling symptom of this syndrome, I suspect, would be alcoholism and other such addictions. That would seem to come with a tendency to deny oneself nothing.
According to Miller, most of her patients are under the “illusion” that they have had a happy childhood, and must be carefully taught by her that this is not so. If this is true, it would seem that most of her patients were not true depressives, but this sort of adult spoiled child.
“This ability to mourn, to give up the illusion of his ‘happy’ childhood, can restore the depressive's vitality and creativity, and (if he comes to analysis at all) free the grandiose person from the exertions of and dependence on his Sisyphean task. If a person is able, during this long process, to experience that he was never ‘loved’ as a child for what he was but for his achievements, success, and good qualities, and that he sacrificed his childhood for this ‘love,’ …” (Miller, op. cit., p. 57).
One can see how the doctrine of “repressed memories” could be appealing to such patients. Narcissists are instinctively prone to scapegoat others; nothing can ever be their fault. Miller allows them to scapegoat their parents. No doubt they feel better. Their real problem has been made worse; but for now, they feel better. It works, just like alcohol works. And they will keep coming back.
Miller refers sympathetically to an account published in a German magazine, as “the tragic story of her experience of motherhood,” “told without camouflage.” As if the perpetrator is primarily to be praised for her bravery:
“I wouldn't have minded if the baby had died. And everybody expected me to be happy. In despair I telephoned a friend who said that I’d get fond of him in time through being busy with him and having him around all the time. But that did not happen either. I only began to be fond of him when I could go back to work and only saw him when I came home, as a distraction and toy, so to speak. But quite honestly, a little dog would have done just as well. Now that he is gradually getting bigger and I see that I can train him and that he is devoted to me and trusts me, I am beginning to develop tender feelings for him and am glad that he is there (Miller, op. cit., p. 48).”
This is the Oedipus story written from the perspective of Jocasta. Yet to Miller, this is a tragedy for the parent, and not for the child? If Cain murders Abel, should our sympathy be for Cain for not being able to feel love?
Miller is simply wrong, in conventional morality, to maintain that the parent is not responsible for loving their child. When asked, for example, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus answered, “love God, and love your neighbour.” It must follow that this is a matter of free will. When, at marriage, we promise “to love and to cherish,” the vow is meaningless unless this is in our power.
Miller, in sum, is blaming the child and victim for the parent’s sin. Just as an abusive parent would.
The great advantage of the doctrine of “repressed memories” is that, with it, anyone can claim to have been abused. This is of use only to those who have not been.
2. Even normal discipline amounts to child abuse, and can cause mental illness.
On her web site, Miller defines what she means by child abuse: “humiliations, spankings and beatings, slaps in the face, betrayal, sexual exploitation, derision, neglect, etc. are all forms of mistreatment.”
Some of those things are abusive. But there is no distinction made here between deserved punishment and arbitrary assault. Spankings are child abuse; so is mere criticism; and it does not matter whether the child has done something wrong—or even harmful to themselves.
This is not an oversight. Miller believes that morality is child abuse:
“I will now enumerate,” she writes, “some characteristics of a successful narcissistic development…
• The child was allowed to experience and express ‘ordinary’ impulses (such as jealousy, rage, defiance) because his parents did not require him ... to represent their own ethical attitudes …” (The Drama of the Gifted Child, p. 33).
To Miller, then, “ethical attitudes” are abuse.
|Narcissus lost in admiration.|
With the same logic, Miller rejects any negative associations of the term “narcissism”―itself a euphemism, surely, for “selfishness” or “self-centredness.” This is not a matter of opinion; the legend on which the term is based makes this plain. Miller writes:
“The ambiguity that characterizes the word narcissism, even in professional literature, is further complicated by the derogatory emotional overtone it receives in everyday use. For there such meanings as 'in love with oneself,' 'always thinking of oneself,' 'egocentric,' 'incapable of object-love' have become attached to it. Even psychoanalysts are not always free of such judgmental, emotional use of the word—although they try for neutrality (p. xviii).”In a sense, Miller is right. There is a second meaning of narcissism in psychoanalytic theory: sexual attraction to one’s own body. Yet this is clearly not the definition she is using here. She means that self-adulation is a good and noble thing.
And it is not just narcissism that she wants to endorse:
“As soon as we look more closely and examine their origins, we shall see that other moralizing, derogatory words also will lose their popular clear-cut character (p. xix).” “[I]t is my aim in this book to break away from judgmental, isolating, and therefore discriminating terminology (p. xx).”
Moral judgments are “discriminating.”
She also explicitly excuses incestuous relations with one’s children.
“A father who grew up in surroundings inimical to instinctual drives,” she explains, “may well be inhibited in his sexual relationships in marriage. He may even remain polymorphous perverse and first dare to look properly at a female genital, play with it, and feel aroused while he is bathing his small daughter. A mother may perhaps have been shocked as a small girl by the unexpected sight of an erect penis and so developed fear of the male genital, or she may have experienced it as a symbol of violence in the primal scene without being able to confide in anyone. Such a mother may now be able to gain control over her fear in relationship to her tiny son. She may, for example, dry him after his bath in such a manner that he has an erection, which is not dangerous or threatening for her. She may massage her son's penis, right up to puberty, in order ‘to treat his phimosis’ without having to be afraid. Protected by the unquestioning love that every child has for his mother she can carry on with her genuine, hesitating sexual exploration that had been broken off too soon” (Miller, Drama, pp. 74-5).
How helpful and comforting for her. But there is no visible concern here for what it might mean for the child.
So it seems one aim, if not the only aim, of Miller’s therapy is to excuse child abuse, along with any other preferred form of immorality. This would certainly appealing to a certain sort of person: the sort of person who habitually wants to behave immorally.
This is worse than useless to a true depressive, one who suffered from real abuse as a child. It tells them their suffering was trivial and morally meaningless. Yes, you were horribly mutilated and disabled in the war, but it was all pointless and nobody’s fault.
It might, on the other hand, offer transitory therapeutic benefits to a patient who has done things that are morally wrong, and is troubled by conscience because of it.
But it is a false cure, like drugs or alcohol. You cannot escape conscience in the end.
If Miller’s argument were sound, after all, it would call for abolishing the legal system, and any legal punishments. Everyone should just be free to take or do whatever they want, and we would all live in peace and harmony. Punish a criminal, she believes, and you are teaching him to hurt someone else.
She makes virtually this claim:
“A child who has been allowed to be egoistic, greedy, and asocial long enough will develop spontaneous pleasure in sharing and giving” (p. xix).
The essence of true abuse is injustice. Contrary to Miller’s assertion, a child does not suffer permanent damage from being disciplined, even when that discipline is strict. The harm comes if the child is beaten, raped, or berated when they have done nothing to provoke or deserve it (of course, a child can never be held to have provoked or deserved many of these things). When “punishment” is undeserved, it conveys the message that there is something wrong about the child’s fundamental nature, their very existence, as Oedipus held of himself, and there is nothing, ever, that they can do to fix this. That is the seed of depression.
The only other form of parenting that might approach this in damage to the child is just the sort of parenting Miller advocates: never punishing the child no matter what. This conveys the message that there is something unimpeachable about their fundamental nature, and there is nothing, ever, that they can do that is justly worthy of blame.
The first is the perfect way to cripple a child with depression. The second may also lead to an experience similar to depression; but whether or not this is so, it is the perfect way to create a future abuser.
Unfortunately, Miller has been most influential here: in this assertion of hers that all parental punishment is abuse. This is why there is now a campaign everywhere to outlaw spanking. Besides ensuring a new generation of psychopaths, this is a red herring across the path that distracts attention from real abuse.
Our best evidence that Miller is wrong here comes from our literary models. Our literary victims of abuse, Ophelia, Hamlet, Oedipus, and Dymphna, as we have already noted, care above all for truth, morality, and righteousness. Miller’s denial of justice would repel them. Both Dymphna and Hamlet died to uphold the distinction between right and wrong.
3. Having been abused causes new abuse in the next generation. An abused child becomes an abusive parent.
This notion is probably a consequence, maybe an intended consequence, of Miller’s conflation of the two opposite types, the “depressive” and the “grandiose”; Oedipus and Laius. And, if “repressed memories” can be induced by the power of suggestion, it would be easy to “prove” it. Anyone can be convinced they were abused in childhood.
One of Miller’s stock assertions is that “as adults, most abused children will ... let others suffer, from these injuries.” “They don’t know that the only reason for the punishments they have (or in retrospect, had) to endure is the fact that their parents themselves endured and learned violence without being able to question it. Later, the adults, once abused children, beat their own children” (Miller, “Child Mistreatment, Child Abuse, What Is It?” alice-miller.com).
But this, again, goes against our literary evidence. In the Dymphna legend, the contrast between father and daughter is stark. Damon, the father, is a pagan. Dymphna is a Christian saint. He wants to kill his child. She wants to help the poor and sick. Could the moral contrast be any clearer?
Oedipus Rex verges on heavy-handedness in contrasting Oedipus’s concern for his children to Laius’s and Jocasta’s determination to kill theirs.
Learning the truth about his parentage, Oedipus says to Creon,
“… I reck not how Fate deals with me
But my unhappy children—.
... for my daughters twain, poor innocent maids,
For them, I pray thee, care, and, if thou willst,
O might I feel their touch and make my moan.
Could I but blindly touch them with my hands
I'd think they still were mine, as when I saw.
[ANTIGONE and ISMENE are led in.]
What say I? can it be my pretty ones
Whose sobs I hear? Has Creon pitied me
And sent me my two darlings? Can this be?
‘Tis true; ‘twas I procured thee this delight,
Knowing the joy they were to thee of old” (Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, Storr translation).
Oedipus’s concern for his children was, apparently, common knowledge. While his parents were ready to sacrifice their child to their own interests, Oedipus puts his children first.
This, surely, conforms with our wider experience. Those who have themselves been oppressed are the people least likely to oppress others. The experience of oppression teaches empathy. As the Chinese Book of Changes (I Ching) puts it, “Through oppression one learn to lessen rancour.” Some historic examples of such magnanimity: Nelson Mandela, Jomo Kenyatta, Vaclav Havel, Aung San Suu Kyi, Kim Dae-Jung.
Miller cites little clinical evidence for her assertions that the abused becomes the abuser. Nevertheless, when she does cite evidence, it tends to support the Dymphna model, rather than her own interpretations.
She writes that her patients (or possibly their mothers; the reference is unclear) are “an only one or often the first-born” (The Drama of the Gifted Child, p. 35).
“What these mothers had once failed to find in their own mothers [sic] they were able to find in their children: someone at their disposal who can be used as an echo, who can be controlled, is completely centered on them, will never desert them, and offers full attention and admiration” (ibid).
All else being equal, children who are only children or first-born are the least likely to be abused or neglected. Said situation would tend to grant them lots of attention from their parents.
Yet these are the ones who, as parents themselves, according to Miller’s own account, demand submission, sycophancy, and adulation.
In other words, they demand from their children the attention they got from their parents, and so are used to getting. They are not, as Miller speculates, making up for some deficit.
Miller also agrees with the literary sources, and other psychiatrists we have mentioned, in seeing a link between “giftedness” and having been abused. She notes that many famous artists and writers had been abused in childhood.
“In his novel Le Lys dans la vallée, Honoré de Balzac described his childhood. His mother preferred his brother, gave Honoré first into the care of a nurse and then sent him away to school. He suffered greatly and all his life courted his mother in the guise of different women. ... The very hopelessness of his wooing gave him the possibility of developing his own emotional wealth and the ability to freely develop his exceptional capacity for suffering” (Miller, Drama, p. 31).
“Perhaps the same is true of Vincent Van Gogh, whose mother, throughout her life, mourned and idealized the first Vincent who had died very young (Humberto Nagera, Vincent Van Gogh, 1967; Miller, p. 31-200).
In this, perhaps not incidentally, young Van Gogh’s experience is like that of Jack Kerouac, the American beat novelist. His older brother Gerard died age nine, and was venerated by his mother as if a saint. “Ti-Jean” could never measure up.
Here is Chekhov’s biographer, Elsbeth Wolffheim:
“The disparagement and humiliation he was subjected to at school were as nothing compared to the repressions he suffered at home. Chekhov’s father was hot-tempered and uncouth, and he treated the members of his family with extreme severity. The children were beaten almost every day, they had to get up at 5 in the morning and help out in the shop before going to school and as soon as they got back, so that they had very little time for their homework. In the winter it was so cold in the basement shop that even the ink froze. The three brothers served the customers until late in the evening, together with young apprentices who were also beaten regularly by their employer and were sometimes so exhausted that they fell asleep on their feet” (Elsbeth Wolffheim, Anton Tschechow, Rowohlt 2001, p. 13; Miller, “Depression: Compulsive Self-Deception,” alice-miller.com).
Chekhov contracted tuberculosis at an early stage, Miller adds, and also suffered from depression.
Miller’s clinical experience actually illustrates how an abused child, rather than becoming “narcissistic,” ends up denying themselves and, as we have seen elsewhere, thinking only of the interests of the parent; just as they were always brought up to do.
She quotes one patient describing her nightmare:
“I see a green meadow, on which there is a white coffin. I am afraid that my mother is in it, but I open the lid and, luckily, it is not my mother but me (Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child, p. 13).”
Thank God it was only I who died, and not my mother!
So too with Chekhov: “All his life,” says Miller, “he was greatly concerned for his father’s welfare, making major financial sacrifices to support him.” (Miller, “Depression: Compulsive Self-Deception,” alice-miller.com).
Another patient’s dream illustrates what it feels like living with a possessive, manipulative parent, like Polonius:
“I lived in a glass house into which my mother could look at any time. In a glass house, however, you cannot conceal anything without giving yourself away, except by hiding it under the ground. And then you cannot see it yourself either” (Drama, p. 21).It turns out that Miller herself was just such a parent:
“Martin [her son] endured another traumatic experience in the wake of being sent to a psychoanalyst by his mother. What he didn’t know was that his mother had arranged for the therapist to record the sessions with her son and play them back to her” (Sela, op. cit.). “I wanted to be autonomous,” he says, “and my mother was angry at me for that” (ibid).
In 1979, Miller fils began studies to become a psychoanalyst. His mother “did not appreciate that,” he explains. “She said I had to learn everything from her, and I said I wanted to follow my own path. She wanted me to be dependent on her both economically and conceptually. She told me, ‘You are so talented that you don’t have to study at university, you can learn everything from me.’ But that would have made me the slave of Alice Miller” (ibid.).
Miller uncovers in her patients the same extreme concern with morality and righteousness we have seen in Hamlet and Oedipus. But, characteristically, rather than seeing this as a silver lining, she considers it morbid. She calls it “moral masochism”:
“The repressed or split-off fantasies of grandiosity of the depressive are easily discovered, for example, in his moral masochism. He has especially severe standards that apply only to himself. In other people he accepts without question thoughts and actions that, in himself, he would consider mean or bad when measured against his high ego ideal. Others are allowed to be ‘ordinary,’ but that he can never be (pp. 44-5).”
In other words, they are behaving just as Jesus told us to behave, not judging others but minding the motes in their own eyes. And this is wrong.
|"The wise and profound bestseller"|
It is hard to conceive of the harm such a stance might cause to a true depressive: it turns out, says to the analyst, that the hypocrites and Pharisees were right all along, and he is the egotist for craving sincerity and righteousness.
It is shocking how popular Miller and her assertions have been. This implies that there are a lot of people out there who, rather than being appalled at child abuse, are prepared to sympathize with the abuser and not with the child.
Miller’s writing introduces another concern as well: in her case, it seems, people suffering PTSD from abused childhoods were going for help to someone who was herself a child abuser, and able and perhaps willing to practice the same methods and attitudes on them. Miller herself points out the danger:
“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 [sic]. This can be done most easily with one's own children, or with patients, who at times are as dependent on their analysts as children are on their parents” (Miller, Drama, p. 23).
Exactly. A born bully is one type of person who will be naturally drawn to the profession of analyst. Other than parenthood, what better opportunity for manipulation could there be?
And as a result, many patients, instead of being given medicine for what ails them, are being fed more poison.
Kendler, K; et al. (2000). "Childhood sexual abuse and adult psychiatric and substance use disorders in women". Archives of General Psychiatry. 57 (10): 953–959.
Mullen, P. E.; et al. (1993). "Childhood sexual abuse and mental health in adult life". British Journal of Psychiatry. 163 (6): 721–32.
Davies, Emma; Jim Burdett (2004). "Preventing 'schizophrenia': creating the conditions for saner societies" in Read et al., Models of Madness. Routledge.
Read J, van Os J, Morrison AP, Ross CA (November 2005). "Childhood trauma, psychosis and schizophrenia: a literature review with theoretical and clinical implications". Acta Psychiatr Scand. 112 (5): 330–50.
iiMartin Miller, The True ‘Drama of the Gifted Child, Kreuz-Verlag, Freiburg, 2013.