My Afterword 2007 to “Path of Life”

by Alice Miller

My Afterword 2007 to “Path of Life”
Saturday September 15, 2007

Revising this book for the paperback edition, I have decided to omit one of the case studies after receiving from its protagonist an account of the way her story has developed in the meantime. In the hardback version of Paths of Life (1998) a grown-up daughter, whom I call Sandra, proudly relates that she has succeeded in persuading herself to visit her elderly father and, with relative equanimity, to confront him with the fact that he abused her sexually when she was small. She was proud that she had not allowed herself to be swamped by strong feelings and had calmly told him about what she had found out in the course of therapy. As her father could not deny these facts, Sandra felt confident that she could look forward to a complete recovery from her residual symptoms. But to her amazement these symptoms actually became more acute in the space of only a few years. At the same time, new memories and distressing dreams assailed her, revealing her father’s extreme sadism, which she had been unaware of up to that point. She now realized that her father’s jovial “confession” had deceived her about the whole truth, and this realization provoked a towering rage in her. It was the rage of a small girl at her omnipotent father, who had sacrificed her at such an early stage to his pedophiliac leanings. The intense feelings, dreams, and physical responses aroused by all this revealed a man who had nothing to do with the well-meaning father who had so easily confessed to his abusive behavior when she met him in Toronto. At that meeting he must have known that Sandra’s memories revealed only part of the truth. So he continued to play the part of the nice, rather patronizing daddy whose sincerity she so dearly wanted to believe in. Only now did she realize that he had left no trace of empathy for his little child in her memory.

It was this long pent-up, immeasurable rage that freed the adult Sandra from her idealization of her father and her “love” for him. At long last she was able to relinquish the compassion she had cultivated within herself since her childhood as a token of her own generosity. She could finally perceive the full extent of the cruelty done to her as a child, and her migraine attacks and insomnia disappeared as a result.

My book Paths of Life was already in the bookshops when I heard of the turn these events had taken. In the meantime, the reader mail addressed to my website has shown me that many women are unable to sever the bonds attaching them to their fathers, though they are clear in their minds about the brutality with which they were beaten and humiliated. Some of them even suffer from multiple sclerosis or fibromyalgia, chronic pain disorders indicating the beatings they received from their parents and the child’s suppressed rage. Yet they still adhere unswervingly to the conviction that they love their parents and are loved by them in return. In childhood, acceptance and expression of that rage would have involved severe punishment or total abandonment, and the fear of these consequences lives on in the adult children. But as soon as they realize that they are no longer in danger, they will be able to understand the situation they were in as children and to rebel inwardly against the cruelties perpetrated on them, instead of continuing to forgive them “generously.” Normally, this will bring relief, and the body will no longer need to avail itself of the symptoms that are its only way of expressing itself.

I soon realized that Sandra’s wishes had deceived me into thinking – like many therapists – that a “beneficial” heart-to-heart talk with the parents can help to alleviate the injuries inflicted in childhood. Today, nine years later, I doubt that this should be true. Even if Sandra’s father had “come clean,” even if he had sincerely admitted to his sadistic games (and this rarely if ever happens), he could still not have relieved her of the work she had to do. In my latest book Saving Your Life (2007), I describe this “work” and the inner processes it involves. The reality of childhood will never go away. Even if these parents were suddenly all transformed into angels, the memories of their cruelties, their hatred, their rejection remain as knowledge stored in the bodies of their children. The task devolving on the adult children is to free themselves of those memories, not by forgiving and forgetting, but by accepting the logical response to torture, the experience of rage they have denied themselves for so long. Medication can do nothing to reveal this truth. All it can do is to camouflage it, often for decades, without bringing any genuine relief.

Like Sandra, most of us are adamant in refusing to believe that parents can be so cruel to their little innocent children, despite the appalling facts we read about in the papers every day. This refusal leads to a deceptive idealization of our own childhood and hence to an unconscious repetition of that cruelty. The only thing that can help us to relinquish our blindness and spare our children the same fate is the courage to accept this truth.