Depression: Compulsive Self-Deception

by Alice Miller

Depression: Compulsive Self-Deception
Tuesday May 10, 2005

The Russian writer Anton Chekhov has been one of my favorite authors since my youth. I remember very clearly the avidity with which I read his story Ward No. 6 at the age of about 16, enthralled by his acuity, his psychological sensitivity, and above all by his courage in squaring up to the truth, calling it by its name, and never sparing anyone he had identified as a rogue. Very much later I read his Letters, which, together with numerous biographies, provided detailed information on his childhood. What struck me was the fact that Chekhov’s admirable courage in facing and telling the truth came up against its limits as soon as his father was involved. Here is one of his biographers, Elsbeth Wolffheim, on the subject of Chekhov’s father:

“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. Chekhov’s father … played a fanatically zealous role in the life of the church and conducted the choir in which his sons were also forced to sing.” (Elsbeth Wolffheim, Anton Tschechow, Rowohlt 2001, p. 13, trans. A.J.).

On one occasion Chekhov noted that in this choir he had felt like a convict in a penal servitude camp (ibid., p. 14). In a letter to his brother he devotes a few lines to a truthful description of his father, though this truth had no place in the rest of his life: “Despotism and lies have so thoroughly marred our childhood that it makes me feel sick and afraid to remember it.” (Wolffheim, p. 15) Such remarks by Chekhov are extremely rare. All his life he was greatly concerned for his father’s welfare, making major financial sacrifices to support him. No one in his immediate environment suspected that the suppression of the truth also demanded major psychic sacrifices of him. His attitude was generally considered to be that of a virtuous and dutiful son. But the denial of the authentic feelings caused by the extreme abuse he was exposed to as a child made huge demands on his strength and may have been responsible for the fact that Chekhov contracted tuberculosis at an early stage and also suffered from depression, referred to at the time as “melancholia.” Finally he died at the age of 44. (I have gone into these connections in more detail in The Body Never Lies).

From Ivan Bunin’s recently published book Tschechow (Friedenauer Presse, Berlin 2004) I learned that my ideas on this matter can in fact be substantiated by reference to Chekhov’s own words. In the following quote he expresses high praise for his parents, although deep down he must have known that this was a massive distortion of the truth:

“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.”

Bunin tells us that on various occasions Chekhov said to friends: “I have never trespassed against the Fourth Commandment.”

This betrayal of one’s own knowledge is no exception. Repressed fear causes many people to entertain similarly erroneous judgments about their parents throughout their lives. In reality, this fear is the fear a very small child has of its parents. They pay for such self-betrayal with depression, suicide, or severe illnesses leading to an early death. In almost all cases of suicide, it is possible to establish that cruel childhood memories have either been denied completely or never identified in the first place. These people reject the knowledge of their infant sufferings and live in a society equally oblivious of this kind of distress. Even today, there is still little or no room for knowledge about the fate of children and its significance for later life. This is why we are usually surprised when a celebrated star commits suicide, thus revealing that he or she suffered from severe depression. The typical reaction from all sides is that the person involved had everything that other people wish for so dearly. So what can have gone wrong?

The discrepancy between denied reality and the “happy” façade struck me once again when I saw a documentary about the singer Dalida, who suffered from severe depression for a long time and finally took her own life at the age of 54. Many people were interviewed on the matter, and they professed to know her very well, to be very fond of her, and to have been very close to her, either personally or professionally. Without exception, they all insisted that Dalida’s depression and her suicide were a complete mystery to them. Again and again they said: “She had everything most people dream of: beauty, intelligence, incredible success. So why these recurrent bouts of depression?”

This complete ignorance on the part of all Dalida’s closest friends and associates brought home to me the loneliness in which this star had spent her life, despite her many admirers. I assume that the story of her childhood would yield up an explanation for her suicide, but no mention was made of this aspect in the course of the documentary. Looking on the internet, I found the information one nearly always finds in such cases: Dalida had had a happy childhood and loving parents. The tragic destinies of famous people make it very clear just how widespread depression actually is. Yet there is hardly ever any inquiry into the causes, the roots of this suffering. This makes depression look like a trick of fate, something inexplicable and inevitable. The question of how Dalida may have responded to the fact that she grew up in a convent school was studiously avoided.

From what I have read about such boarding schools I know that is by no means rare for children attending them to be exposed to sexual, physical, and mental abuse. They are instructed to understand this as a sign of love and care, which means they are enjoined to accept outright lies as something normal. I also know that attempts to publicize the scandalous conditions prevailing in such schools have been thwarted by the church institutions. Most of the former victims do everything they can to forget the torments inflicted on them in childhood, particularly as they know that in our society they will hardly find Enlightened Witnesses prepared to take their sufferings seriously. Only the indignation of society could help them to feel their own horror and rebel against these lies. But if assistance of this kind is so hard to come by, if all the authorities declare their solidarity with these lies, then depression is thrust upon the victims. Like that of many celebrities, Dalida’s unhappy end remains mysterious, and this is what the public appears to find so fascinating.

Many world-famous stars who are envied and idolized are in fact profoundly lonely people. As the example of Dalida indicates, they were misunderstood precisely because they could not understand themselves. And they were not able to understand themselves because their environment responded to them with admiration rather than understanding. Finally they took their own lives. This vortex tells us a lot about the mechanisms of depression. People seek understanding by pinning their hopes to success, they take endless trouble to achieve such success and to arouse the admiration of an ever larger audience. But this admiration cannot provide any real sustenance as long as understanding is absent. Despite the success they have made of their careers, life is meaningless because they remain strangers to themselves. And this self-alienation persists because they want to completely forget what happened to them in their early lives and to deny the sufferings of childhood. As this is the way society functions, these stars were bound to remain misunderstood and suffered the torments of chronic loneliness.

The categorical denial of the pain we suffered at the beginning of our lives is harmful in the extreme. Suppose someone setting out on a long walk sprains an ankle right at the outset. That person may decide to ignore the pain and to soldier on because he/she has been looking forward to the outing, but sooner or later others will notice that they are limping and will ask what has happened. When they hear the whole story they will understand why this person is limping and advise him/her to go for treatment. But in connection with the sufferings of childhood, which play a similar role in our lives to a sprained ankle at the beginning of a long hike, then things are different. Those sufferings cannot be “played down,” they will leave their mark on the whole enterprise. The crucial difference in this case is that normally no one will take any notice. The whole of society is, as it were, in unison with the sufferer, who cannot say what has happened. It may well be that, despite the violation of their integrity, people who have been injured in this way really have no memories. If they have to spend their whole lives with people who play down the traumas of childhood, then they have no choice but to connive in this self-delusion. Their lives will progress in much the same way as the outing of the hiker who has sprained his ankle but pretends that nothing has happened. Should they, however, encounter people who know about the long-term effects of childhood traumas, then they will have the chance to abandon their denial and good prospects of healing the wounds they have been carrying around with them.

Most people are not so fortunate. The celebrities among them are surrounded by hosts of unsuspecting admirers, none of whom recognize the distress afflicting the stars they idolize. This is in fact the last thing they want to know about. Examples are legion. We may recall the fate of the enchanting Marilyn Monroe, who was put in a home by her mother, was raped at the age of nine, and was sexually harassed by her stepfather when she returned to her family. Right to the end she trusted in her charm, and finally she was killed by depression and drugs. Her own account of her childhood is frequently quoted on the internet:

“I was not an orphan. An orphan has no parents. All the other children in the orphanage had lost their parents. I still had a mother. But she didn’t want me. I was ashamed to explain this to the other children…”

Some may wish for similar success in their lives and cannot understand why celebrities cannot simply enjoy their stardom. If a person is especially gifted, they can use that gift to reinforce the refusal of the truth and keep it away from themselves and others.

Exceptions in this context are people who suffered childhood traumas that were not caused by their parents. These people are more likely to encounter empathy in society because everyone can at least imagine what it must be like to grow up in a concentration camp or to spend horrifying days at the mercy of terrorists. The former victims of such traumas can expect understanding and sympathy, say from foster-parents, or from friends and relatives.

One such example is the French author Boris Cyrulnik, a well-known advocate of the theory of resilience. Apparently he was deported to a concentration camp at the age of seven, but after his liberation he was looked after by many caring people and thanks to their knowledge of the horrors he had been through he was able to come to terms with those appalling experiences. In his books he now insists that every child has the strength to overcome a traumatic childhood without falling ill. He calls this strength “innate resilience.”

In my eyes, this theory contains a dangerous fallacy. It is true that as children we have many resources we can draw upon to survive even severe harm. But to heal the consequences of this harm we need Enlightened Witnesses in society. Such witness are usually conspicuous by their absence when the injuries in question were inflicted on the child by its parents. As adults, children abused by their parents are without witnesses and remain isolated, not only from others, but also from themselves, because they have repressed the truth and there is no one to help them perceive the reality of their childhood. Society is always on the parents’ side. Everyone knows that this is so, so they will hardly venture to seek out their own truth. But if successful therapy helps them to experience and express their anger and resentment, they may well be confronted by the hostility of their families and friends. The readiness to attack them for violating this social taboo has to do with the fact that the violation of that taboo is a source of major alarm for others too. These people will sometimes mobilize all the forces at their command to discredit the former victim and thus keep their own repressions intact.

There are very few survivors of childhood abuse who are able to withstand such aggression and have the fortitude to accept the isolation involved in refusing to betray their own truth. But as knowledge of the emotional dynamics involved in these processes increases, things may hopefully change, and the formation of more enlightened groups will mean that total isolation is not the only possible consequence. The reason why I believe resilience theory is dangerous is that it is liable to reduce rather than increase the number of Enlightened Witnesses. If innate resilience were enough to resolve the severe consequences of traumatization, the empathy of Enlightened Witnesses would be unnecessary. Indifference to child abuse is already widespread enough, there is certainly no need to reinforce it.

But enlightened individuals are still rare, even among the experts. Anyone seeking information about Virginia Woolf on the internet will be told by renowned psychiatrists that she was “mentally ill” and that this had nothing to do with the sexual violence inflicted on her for years by her half-brothers when she was young. Although Virginia Woolf’s autobiographical writings give a harrowing account of the horrors of her childhood, the connections between these severe traumas and her later depression are still roundly denied in the year 2004.

During her lifetime there was of course even less chance of their being recognized. Although Virginia read these texts to a circle of artistic friends, she was still doomed to her lonely fate because neither she nor her environment, not even her husband Leonard (as his memories of his wife reveal) possessed the key to the significance of her early experiences. She was surrounded by people who shared and encouraged her artistic ambitions, but she was unable to understand the subjective experience of total isolation that kept on assailing her. Such an experience can ultimately pave the way to suicide because the present sense of isolation constantly recalls the potentially lethal abandonment we experienced as little children.

So-called mental illnesses leading to suicide are almost invariably traced back to genetic causes. Biographers provide us with the minutest details of the later lives of their protagonists, but their childhood rarely finds the interest it so richly deserves.

Recently the French publisher Fayard published a large-scale biography of film-star Jean Seberg in novel form by Alain Absire under the title Jean S. (2004). Jean Seberg starred in 35 movies, some of them major successes (e.g. Godard’s Breathless). As a child she displayed a passion for the theater and suffered greatly from the puritanical attitude of her Lutheran father, whom she later idealized. When still at school, she was selected for her first film from thousands of candidates. Instead of sharing her elation at this success her father merely uttered dark warnings. He displayed the same reaction whenever she was successful, preaching moral sermons at her in the name of paternal love. All her life she was unable to admit how much her father’s attitude had wounded her and suffered horribly from the torments inflicted on her by partners she chose in accordance with a specific, recurring pattern.

Of course we cannot say that her father’s character was the cause of the unhappiness that marred her life. It was Jean’s denial of what she suffered at her father’s hands that sparked off her bouts of severe depression. This denial dominated her life and drove her to put herself in the power of men who neither understood nor respected her. The compulsive repetition of self-destructive partner choices derived from her inability to identify the feelings her father’s attitude had aroused in her. As soon as she found a man who did not treat her destructively she felt impelled to leave him. She longed for nothing more than recognition from her father for all the successes she had achieved. But all she got from him was criticism.

Obviously Jean Seberg had absolutely no insight into the tragedy of her childhood, otherwise she would not have become slavishly addicted to alcohol and cigarettes and would not have had to commit suicide. She shared this fate with many stars who tried to run away from their true feelings by resorting to drugs or died early from an overdose, like Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, or Janis Joplin.

The lives (and deaths) of all these successful stars indicate that depression is not a form of suffering that relates to the present, which after all has bestowed on them the fulfillment of all their dreams. Instead it is the suffering caused by the separation from one’s own self, abandoned early on, never mourned for, and accordingly doomed to despair and death. It is as if the body used depression as a form of protest against this self-betrayal, against the lies and the dissociation of genuine feelings, because authentic feelings are something it cannot live without. It needs the free flow of emotions in constant flux: rage, grief, joy. If these are blocked by denial the body cannot function normally.

People resort to all kinds of “remedies” to compel the body to function normally all the same: drugs, alcohol, nicotine, tablets, immersion in work. It is an attempt to avoid understanding the revolt of the body, to prevent ourselves from experiencing the fact that feelings will not kill us but, on the contrary, can free us from the prison we call depression. Depression may reassert itself once we revert to ignoring our feelings and needs, but in time we can learn to deal with it more effectively. As our feelings tell us what happened to us in childhood, we can learn to understand them, we no longer need to fear them as we did before, the anxiety recedes, and we are better equipped to face the next depressive phase. But we can only admit those feelings if we no longer fear our internalized parents.

The assumption I proceed from is this: for most people the idea that they were not loved by their parents is unbearable. The more evidence there is for this deprivation, the more strongly these people cling to the illusion of having been loved. They also cling to their feelings of guilt, which provide misleading confirmation that if their parents did not treat them lovingly then it was all their own fault, the fault of their mistakes and failings. Depression is the body’s rebellion against this lie. Many people would prefer to die (either literally or symbolically by killing off their feelings), rather than experience the helplessness of the little child exploited by the parents for their own ambitions or used as a projection screen for their pent-up feelings of hatred.

The fact that depression is one of the most widespread disorders of the present day is well known to experts. The media also address the problem regularly, with discussions on the causes and the various kinds of treatment available. In most cases the sole concern appears to be finding the best psychoactive agents for individual patients. Today, psychiatrists assert that at last medicines have been developed that are not addictive and have no side-effects. So the problem would appear to have been solved. But if the solution is so simple why are there so many people complaining about recurrent depression? Naturally some simply refuse to take tablets on principle, but even among those who do there are many who are repeatedly afflicted by bouts of depression and are apparently unable to free themselves of this disorder, even after decades of psychoanalysis, other kinds of psychotherapeutic care, or recurrent hospitalization.

What does depression involve? In the first place hopelessness, loss of energy, extreme fatigue, anxiety, lack of impetus and interest. Access to one’s own feelings is blocked. These symptoms may materialize in unison or in isolation, and they can afflict a person otherwise functioning normally, doing well at work, sometimes even taking an active interest in therapy and attempting to help others. But these people cannot help themselves. Why?

In my book The Drama of the Gifted Child (1979) I describe how some people manage to fend off depression with the aid of grandiose fantasies or extraordinary achievements. This applies very conspicuously to psychoanalysts and other therapists who in their training have learned to understand others but not themselves. In the book I trace this phenomenon back to the childhood histories of those who elect to go in for this line of work and indicate that they were forced at a very early stage to feel the distress of their mothers and fathers, to empathize with it, and to abandon their own feelings and needs in the process. Depression is the price the adult pays for this early self-abandonment. These are people who have always asked themselves what others need from them, thus not only neglecting their own feelings and needs, but never even making contact with them. But the body is aware of them and insists that the individual should be allowed to live out his/her authentic feelings and to claim the right to express them. This is anything but easy for people who in infancy were used exclusively to satisfy the needs of their parents.

In this way many lose contact in the course of their lives with the children they once were. In fact, this contact was never established in the first place, and access becomes increasingly difficult as time goes on. In the later stages the increasing helplessness of old age becomes a searing physical reminder of the situation they found themselves in as children. This is referred to as old-age depression and regarded as something inevitable that we simply have to live with.

But this is not true. There is no reason why people who are aware of their own stories should lapse into depression in old age. And if they do experience depressive phases, it suffices for them to admit their true feelings and the depression will be resolved. At any age depression is nothing other than the escape from all those feelings that might bring the injuries of childhood back to mind. This leaves a vacuum inside us. If we have to avoid mental pain at all costs, then there is basically not much left to sustain our vitality. Though we may distinguish ourselves with unusual intellectual achievements, our inner life will still be that of an emotionally underdeveloped child. This is true whatever age we may be.

As we have seen, the depression reflecting this inner vacuum results from the avoidance of all the emotions bound up with the injuries inflicted on us in early life. The upshot is that a depressive person can hardly experience conscious feelings of any kind. The only exception is the case where external events may overwhelm us with feelings that remain completely incomprehensible because we have no knowledge of the true, un-idealized story of our childhood years. We may experience such a sudden outburst of feeling as an inexplicable catastrophe.

Patients turning to a psychotherapeutic hospital for help are repeatedly told that they must not think back to their childhood, that they will not find any answers there, that they should forget everything else and concentrate on coming to terms with their present situation. Highly significant is the care taken to ensure that these patients do not get upset and to prohibit visits from their relatives. Precisely because they act like an emotional charge for the patient, such encounters can have a revitalizing effect. The point is that the emotions thus triggered off are not harmful but in fact beneficial. But in the hospitals this view finds little response. Reading the correspondence between the poet Paul Celan and his wife, we sense the tragedy that such categorical directives can cause in the lives of individuals. Celan was categorically denied visits from his wife in hospital, which only served to exacerbate his loneliness and the severity of his illness.

A spectacular way of shrieking out his loneliness to the world and telling the story of his childhood was devised by King Ludwig II of Bavaria. It is a well-known fact that this king ordered the construction of a number of opulent castles he never used. He spent a total of 11 days in one of them and never saw the others from the inside. These fantastic edifices were built with immense care and in accordance with the very latest principles of engineering. Today they are visited by countless tourists, admired by some, dismissed as kitsch by others, regarded by others again as bizarre excrescences spawned by a sick mind. During his lifetime Ludwig was labeled “schizophrenic,” and this verdict has survived to the present day, although its explanatory power is in fact nil. What it suggests in effect is that absurd behavior is the consequence of a genetic defect and hence cannot be expected to make any sense.

Armed with this misguided knowledge, the tourists shuffle through the halls of these luxurious castles built by a “sick” king who misappropriated the taxpayers’ money for his lunatic purposes. So far no one appears to have asked what happened at the outset of this royal life. Why did he build castles he never lived in? What was he trying to say? Was he trying to tell a story his body had registered only too well but his conscious mind had dissociated on the grounds that we must never accuse our own parents?

As first-born son, Ludwig was subjected from the outset to a strict and rigid upbringing that made him into a lonely child starved of affection and human contact. The main problem was that no one understood him. This highly sensitive child was refused a spiritual home by his parents. He was considered stupid and left to the care of the servants. They at least gave him the food he was denied at the castle with the intention of making him learn to discipline his hunger. No child can understand the fact that such parenting methods are quite simply sadistic and reflect the course taken by the parents’ own childhood. And even if the victim of such an upbringing should be able to understand these connections at a later stage, it would not do him much good: his body will insist that he actually feel his way through to his individual biography, to the genuine emotions that have been repressed. Throughout his life Ludwig II was unable to do that, hence his absurd behavior which was dismissed as “schizophrenia.” The king respected his parents, as is right and proper. He could never admit to his feelings of frustration and later directed his anger vicariously at his servants. The unacknowledged impotence of the child deprived of food in luxurious surroundings left him with one feeling only: anxiety.

This anxiety was the cause of his loneliness as an adult. He avoided other people, suffered from nightmares, feared that he might suddenly be attacked. It is more than likely that these fears can be traced back to real experiences in his childhood. Ludwig lived out his sexuality in secret. He was sent photos of handsome youths who believed they had been selected as models for drawing classes. But once these young men entered the king’s chambers they were sexually abused by him. Such abuse and deceit is unusual if the abuser himself was not abused in his youth. Accordingly the conclusion that suggests itself is that Ludwig suffered sexual violence as a child. This need not necessarily have happened in the family. We know from the memoirs of the court physician Horoard what the French king Louis XIII was subjected to by courtiers in his childhood (cf. Alice Miller, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware).

None of this need have culminated in “schizophrenia” if there had been anyone in the vicinity of the adolescent king who could have helped him to recognize his situation, to realize the cruelty of his parents’ attitude and either defend himself against it or at least admit his anger. Nor was there anyone to ask him at a later stage what it was that prompted him to have the castles built. Maybe he sought a creative way of referring to something he could never have allowed into his conscious awareness: the fact that as a child he was forced to live like a nobody despite all the luxury surrounding him. He was not perceived by his parents, his gifts were unappreciated (his father did not consider him interesting enough to be a suitable companion on his walks), and he was given so little to eat that he occasionally had to turn to peasants outside the castle in order to eat his fill.

In the extensive documentation available on the internet about the life of Ludwig II we find the following report on his childhood:

“Both the princes led very simple lives. One of the fallacies of aristocratic upbringing at the time was the conviction that children should not be allowed to eat their fill, and the future king was very glad when his faithful maid Lisi and other servants brought him food from the town or shared their own rather more generous rations with him.
The princes were severely punished if they indulged in practical jokes or neglected their duties. Ludwig’s father, King Max II, saw this strict upbringing as a way of making his sons hard-working and conscientious …
Max II was unable to establish a trusting relationship with his sons. He felt little affection for the crown prince, who was so different from himself, and took little interest in his development. In his memoirs, Franz von Pfistermeister, the long-serving cabinet secretary to Max II and Ludwig II, comments as follows:
‘The king saw his two little sons, the princes Ludwig and Otto, only once or twice a day, at late breakfast around noon and at the court repast in the evening. Only rarely did he visit them in the quarters where they grew up. If he did, it was only to give them a brief handshake and then retire again forthwith. Shortly before the crown prince came of age, it took considerable effort to persuade the king to take his older son with him on his morning walks in the English Garden (9-10 a.m.). The joint walks were soon abandoned. The king said: “What am I supposed to talk to the young man about? He is not interested in anything I suggest.”‘
Ludwig was troubled all his life by memories of his unfortunate upbringing and the cool relationship with his father. At the age of 30 he wrote the following to crown prince Rudolf of Austria:
‘You are much to be congratulated on having received such a thoroughly excellent and understanding upbringing. And you are very fortunate in having the Emperor take such a vital, personal interest in your education. These things were unfortunately very different with my father, he always looked down on me, and the most I received from him were a few cold, patronizing words. He affected this strange attitude and his other upbringing methods for the peculiar reason that his father had done the same thing to him.’
A much-feted beauty in her youth, Ludwig’s mother, Queen Marie, was a kindly lady of limited intelligence who took no interest at all in the life of the mind. Paul Heyse, a member of the Munich literary circle associated with Max II, had this to say about her:
‘Despite all our efforts we failed completely to arouse her interest in literature and poetry. She only felt really comfortable when engaging in superficial chat … .’
Queen Marie was unable to inspire any genuine affection in her children. In his memoirs Franz von Pfistermeister recalls:
‘The queen was almost entirely unable to win the hearts of her little princes. Though she frequently visited them in their quarters, she had little skill in treating them the way children expect to be treated. Accordingly, her sons felt little real attachment to their mother.’

Even when details about a person’s childhood are well-known, it is extremely rare for any connection to be drawn between these details and the adult’s later sufferings. We speak of a tragic destiny, but we have little interest in understanding the nature of this tragedy. No one in Ludwig’s entourage appears ever to have inquired into the deeper meaning of his castles. Though several films have been made about the “mad king,” no inquiry has been made into the origins of his so-called schizophrenia in childhood. Numerous scholars have conscientiously sifted all the details available about his building mania and published books about it. The culmination of a person’s delusions arouse keen interest, but the genesis of such disorders is passed over in profound silence. The reason is that we cannot understand such a process without pointing to the parents’ cruelty and lack of affection. And this strikes fear into the hearts of most people because it threatens to remind them of their own fates.

This fear is the fear felt by neglected or tyrannized children at looking into the true, undisguised faces of their parents. It is the fear that incites us to self-deception and hence depression – not only isolated individuals, but almost all the members of a society that believes that medication has solved the problem once and for all. But how could this be possible? Most of the suicides I have mentioned took medication, but their bodies were not to be deceived. The body refuses to accept a life that hardly deserves the name. Most people keep the story of their childhood carefully buried away in their unconscious. Without suitable assistance they will find it difficult indeed to establish contact with their early lives, should they wish to do so. They are dependent on experts to help them reveal the self-deception and free them from the chains of traditional morality (in one of his letters, Chekhov wrote: “I am afraid of our morality,” Bunin, p. 263). But if those experts merely prescribe medication, they are helping to cement that fear and also blocking off their patients’ access to their own feelings, thus depriving them of the liberating potential implicit in this discovery.

Personally speaking, I owe my own awakening to spontaneous painting more than anything else. But this is not to suggest that painting can be recommended as a sure-fire remedy for depression. One painter I once greatly admired, Nicolas de Stael, painted 354 large pictures in the last six months of his life. He went to Antibes to work on his paintings, devoting himself to them with searing intensity and forsaking his family for the purpose. Then “he plunged to his death from the terrace that had been his studio in those last six months.” (Nicolas de Stael, Edition Centre Pompidou, 2003). At the time he was only 40 years old. The skill that so many painters envied him for did not save him from depression. Perhaps a few questions might have sufficed to set off a train of reflection in him. His father, a general in the years prior to the Russian Revolution, never acknowledged his gifts as a painter. It may well be that in his despair de Stael hoped that one day he might paint the decisive picture that would earn him his father’s respect and love. Conceivably there is a connection between his gargantuan efforts at the end of his life and this personal distress. Only de Stael himself could have found this out, if he had not been forbidden to ask the decisive questions. Then he might have realized that his father’s lack of esteem had nothing to do with his son’s accomplishments but merely with his own inability to appreciate the qualities of a picture.

In my own case the decisive breakthrough came because I insisted on asking myself such questions. I let my pictures tell me my own submerged story. More precisely, it was my hand that did this, as it obviously knew the whole story and was only waiting until I was ready to feel with the little child I once was. Then I kept on seeing that little child, used by her parents but never perceived, respected, or encouraged, a little child forced to hide her creativity so as not to be punished for living it out.

We do not need to analyze paintings from the outside. This would be of little help for the painter. But pictures can stir up feelings in their creators. If they are allowed to experience those feelings and take them seriously, then they can get closer to themselves and overcome the barriers of morality. They can face up to their past and their internalized parents and can engage with these things differently – on the basis of their growing awareness, not of their infant fear.

If I allow myself to feel what pains or gladdens me, what annoys or enrages me, and why this is the case, if I know what I need and what I do not want at all costs, then I will know myself well enough to love my life and find it interesting, regardless of age or social status. Then I will hardly feel the need to terminate my life, unless the process of aging and the increasing frailty of the body should set off such thoughts in me. But even then I will know that I have lived my own, true life.