“The Body Never Lies”: A Challenge

by Alice Miller

“The Body Never Lies”: A Challenge
Friday July 01, 2005

Almost all my books have aroused conflicting responses. But the emotional intensity with which the statements I make in my latest book have been affirmed or rejected is remarkable indeed. The impression I have is that this intensity of feeling is an indirect expression of the extent to which the readers in question are close to, or remote from, their own selves.

After the publication of the original German version of The Body Never Lies in March 2004, many readers wrote to me saying how relieved they were that they no longer had to feign feelings they did not really have, or to deny feelings that kept on reasserting themselves. But in other responses, notably in the press, I have found indications of a fundamental misunderstanding that I myself may have contributed to by using the word “mistreatment” in a much broader sense than is usually the case.
The image this word typically conjures up in our minds is that of a child whose whole body displays the tokens of the physical injuries he or she has been subjected to. But what I call “mistreatment” in my latest book has much more to do with violations of the child’s mental or psychical integrity. Initially those violations remain INVISIBLE. The consequences frequently appear decades later, and even then it is rare for the connections with the injuries suffered in childhood to be recognized and taken seriously. Both the victims themselves and society in general (physicians, lawyers, teachers, and unfortunately many therapists) prefer to close their eyes to the fact that the real causes of later “disorders” or “misguided behavior” are very often to be found in childhood.

My decision to call these invisible injuries “mis-treatment” sometimes arouses resistance and indignant protest. I find this attitude easy to understand because it is one that I shared for a very long time. Earlier, if someone had suggested that I had been cruelly treated as a child, I would have roundly denied the “insinuation”. But today I know quite definitely that in my childhood I was indeed exposed to mental cruelty for many years. My dreams, my painting, and not least the messages of my own body have told me this, but as an adult I refused to accept the fact for a very long time. Like many other people I thought: ” Me? I was never beaten. The few slaps I got were nothing special. And my mother took so much trouble with me.” (In my book the reader will find similar statements by others).

But we must not forget that the consequences of early, invisible injuries are so severe precisely because they derive from the trivialization of childhood suffering and the denial of its importance. Adults can easily imagine that they would be horrified and humiliated if they were suddenly attacked by a raging giant many times bigger than themselves. Yet we assume that small children will not react in the same way, although we have all kinds of evidence to indicate how sensitively and competently children respond to their environment (cf. Martin Dornes: Der kompetente Säugling; Jesper Juul: Your Competent Child). Parents believe that slaps and spanking do not hurt. Such treatment is designed to impress certain values on their children. And the children end up believing that themselves. Some even learn to laugh the whole thing off and to deride the pain they felt at the humiliations inflicted on them. As adults they adhere to this derision, they are proud of their own cynicism, sometimes even making literature out of it, as in the case of James Joyce, Frank McCourt, and many others. If they are assailed by symptoms like anxiety and depression, the unavoidable results of the repression of their genuine feelings, then they will easily find doctors who can give them medication that will help, for a while at least. In this way they can maintain their self-irony, that tried and trusted remedy against the feelings asserting themselves from the past. And in so doing they comply with the demands of a society that attaches supreme importance to considerate treatment for parents.

A woman therapist who read my last book very thoroughly and understood what it has to say told me that she has now taken a more forthright line in indicating to her clients the injuries inflicted on them by their parents. In almost all cases their response has been to resist the very idea. She asked me whether the Fourth Commandment is an adequate explanation of this obstinate attachment to their idealized parents.
My conviction is that, while the Fourth Commandment only really takes effect with older children, the reasons underlying the clients’ almost limitless tolerance of the treatment meted out to them by their parents (so limitless that outsiders sometimes find it hard to credit) goes back to a very much earlier stage in their development. Even very small children learn to deny the pain that their parents are so completely unaware of (“a slap doesn’t hurt”), to be ashamed of it, to blame themselves for it, or to deride it, as I mentioned above. At a later stage these victims cannot allow themselves to acknowledge that they were in fact victims. Thus in therapy the clients are unable to identify the true culprit. Even if they do experience a resurgence of their suppressed emotions, the truth will have a hard time asserting itself against the mechanisms internalized at such an early stage. After all, those mechanisms have done such long and sterling service in playing down the pain and apparently banishing it altogether. Relinquishing them means swimming against the tide, and that is not only frightening but initially arouses feelings of loneliness. It also exposes us to accusations of self-pity. Yet it is here that the path to genuine maturity, to the emotional honesty begins.

Accordingly clients aware at the outset of therapy that they were severely injured by their parents and able to take this fact seriously are very unusual indeed. People whose parents took their children’s feelings seriously from the beginning do not have to make such immense efforts at a later stage to take a serious view of their lives and their sufferings. In the majority of cases, however, the early mechanism remains active: these people obstinately trivialize their own sufferings, even if they are therapists themselves. They remain true to the spirit of Poisonous Pedagogy and to the dictates of the society they live in. But frequently they are very remote from their own selves. I believe that it is the goal of effective therapy to diminish such self-distance.

Many therapists – though I hope not all – are at pains to divert their clients’ attention from their childhood. In this book I show very clearly how and why this happens, though I do not know what percentage of them do this kind of thing. There are, after all, no statistics on the issue. My descriptions will help readers decide whether the therapies they are undergoing are encouraging self-companionship or exacerbating self-alienation. Unfortunately the second of these two alternatives is frequently the case. In one of his books, an author highly regarded in analytic circles goes so far as to say that there is no such thing as the “true self” and that it is misleading to talk about it. With therapeutic care based on such an attitude, what chance would adult clients have of identifying their childhood reality? How could they gain awareness of the powerlessness they experienced as children? How could they relive the despair they felt when those injuries were inflicted on them, over and over again, year after year, without being able to perceive their real situation because there was no one there to help them see it? These children had to try to save themselves, by taking refuge in confusion and sometimes in self-derision. Adults unable to resolve this confusion at a later stage in a form of therapy that does not impede all access to the feelings will remain prisoners of the derision of their own destinies.

But if they do manage to use their present feelings as a key to their simple, justified, and strong emotions as small children and to understand them as comprehensible responses to the (intentional or unintentional) cruelties of their parents or stand-in parents, then they will have nothing more to laugh at. The derision, the cynicism, and the self-irony will disappear – and with them, usually at least, the symptoms that have been the price for this luxury. Then the true self, the authentic feelings and needs of the individual, will become accessible. Looking back on my own life, I am astonished at the single-mindedness, the endurance, and the implacability with which my true self has prevailed against all external and internal resistance. And it continues to prevail, without the help of therapists, because I have become its Enlightened Witness.

Naturally, eschewing cynicism and self-irony is not sufficient in itself to come to terms with the consequences of childhood cruelty. But it is a necessary, indeed an indispensable, precondition for doing so. With an attitude of persistent self-derision we could go through a whole series of therapies without any appreciable progress because we would still be cut off from our genuine feelings and hence from any empathy for the children we once were. What we (or our health insurance) then pay for is a species of therapeutic care that, if anything, helps us to flee from our own reality. And we can hardly expect any change for the better to come about on that basis.

Over 100 years ago Sigmund Freud subjected himself without reserve to the prevailing idea of morality by putting all the blame on the child and sparing the parents. His successors did precisely the same. In my last three books I have pointed out that while psychoanalysis has become less prone to close itself off from the facts on cruelty to children and sexual abuse and is indeed making an effort to integrate these facts into its theoretical considerations, these attempts are still largely thwarted by the Fourth Commandment. As before, the role of parents in the development of symptomatologies in children is still played down and actively misrepresented. I have no way of knowing whether this so-called broadening of horizons has really changed the attitudes of the majority of therapists. But the impression I get from publications is that reflection on traditional morality has yet to take place. The behavior of parents continues to be defended both in practice and in theory, as was brought home to me by Eli Zaretsky’s book Secrets of the Soul (Knopf 2004) with its detailed history of psychoanalysis up to the present (and with no discussion of the Fourth Commandment). This is why my engagement with psychoanalysis is more marginal in The Body Never Lies.

Readers unfamiliar with my earlier books may find it difficult to recognize the huge difference between what I have written and the theories of psychoanalysis. After all, analysts focus their attention on childhood to a very large degree and are increasingly open to the idea that early traumas have an impact on later life. But the injuries inflicted by PARENTS are still frequently evaded. The traumas usually addressed are loss of the parents, severe illnesses, divorces, natural disasters, wars, and so forth. Here patients feel that they are no longer alone with these traumatic events. Analysts find it easy to empathize with their situation as children, and as Enlightened Witnesses they can provide effective aid in coming to terms with those childhood sufferings, not least because they rarely remind these analytic therapists of their own sufferings. But things are very different when it comes to the injuries that most people have been exposed to, when it comes to perceiving the hatred displayed by one’s own parents and later the hostility of adults toward their children.

To my mind, Martin Dornes’ interesting and enlightening book (Der kompetente Säugling, 1993/2004) shows clearly how difficult it is to reconcile the notions guiding most analysts with the latest research on infancy, although the author is greatly concerned to convince the reader of the opposite. There are many causes for this, and I have indicated them in my books. But I believe that the main reasons are to be found in the effects of thought blockades (cf. AM, The Truth Will Set You Free, pp. 115-145). Together with the Fourth Commandment, these barriers divert our attention from childhood reality. Sigmund Freud himself, and above all Melanie Klein, Otto Kernberg, their successors, and the ego-psychology of Heinz Hartmann have all ascribed to the child what was dictated to them by an upbringing in the spirit of Poisonous Pedagogy: children are evil by nature, or “polymorphically perverse.” (In Banished Knowledge I have quoted an extensive passage by the highly respected analyst Glover on his view of children). All this has very little to do with childhood reality, and certainly with the reality of an injured and suffering child. And as long as corporal punishment and other forms of mental cruelty are almost universally considered to be a legitimate feature of “proper” upbringing, there can be no doubt that the majority of children come under this heading.

Other analysts like Ferenczi, Bowlby and Kohut, openly addressed this reality. The result was that they have remained on the margins of psychoanalysis because their research was in crass contradiction to the drive theory. Yet as far as I know, none of them left the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA). Why? Because like so many others today, they all hoped that psychoanalysis was an open rather than a dogmatic system and that it would be in a position to integrate the findings of modern research. While I do not wish to say that this will never be the case, I do believe that the indispensable prerequisite for such an opening-up is the freedom to perceive the real mental injuries incurred in infancy (“cruelty”) and to recognize the trivializing attitude of parents to the sufferings of their children. This will only be possible when work on the emotions finds its way into psychoanalytic practice, when there is no longer a fear of the revelatory power of the emotions. Such a development would by no means be necessarily identical with primal therapy. But psychoanalysis must recognize the revelatory power of emotions. Once this happens, the survivors can face up to their early injuries and carve out a path to their origins and true selves with the help of an Enlightened Witness and the messages from their own bodies. As far as I know, this has yet to take place in the framework of psychoanalysis.

In my book The Truth Will Set You Free (2001), I illustrate my criticism of psychoanalysis with reference to a concrete example (pp. 157-165). Here I was able to show that even the very creative analyst Winnicott, could not really help his colleague Harry Guntrip because he was unable to perceive or denied the hatred that Harry’s mother had felt for her son. This example stronglypoints up the limitations of psychoanalysis, that protects the parents, and it was those limits that prompted me to leave the Psychoanalytic Association and go my own way. This got me branded as a heretic, what I undoubtlessly have been. Unpleasant as it is to be rejected and misunderstood, the situation of a heretic also brought me major benefits. It proved very fruitful for my research, as it gave me the freedom I needed to follow up the issues I really cared about. Suddenly all avenues were mine to explore, and no one could tell me what to think, or dictate what I was allowed to see and what problems I must on no account address. I relish this freedom of thought very much.

Thanks to this freedom I could afford to take an unsparing view of parents who ruin their children’s lives. This meant violating a major taboo. Not only in psychoanalysis but also in society as a whole, such a step is still considered a scandal. “Parents” and “the family” must on no account be presented as a source of violence and suffering. The fear of this knowledge manifests itself quite obviously in most television programs on the subject of violence. (In the recent past I have expressed my views on these issues in various articles on my website).

Statistical surveys on cruelty to children and also the many clients who have reported on their childhood experiences in therapy have led to the establishment of new forms of therapy outside the domain of psychoanalysis. These concentrate on the treatment of trauma and are employed in many hospitals. But even in these forms of therapy (despite the best of intentions about providing empathic care for the patients) the individual’s genuine feelings and the true nature of his/her parents can still be disguised, notably with the aid of imaginative and cognitive exercises or spiritual consolation. These so-called therapeutic interventions divert attention from the authentic feelings of clients and the reality of their childhood experiences. But clients require both access to their feelings and to their real experiences if they are to find the way to their own selves and thus dispel their depression. If this is not the case, some symptoms may disappear only to recur in the form of physical ailments as long as childhood reality is ignored. This reality can also be left out of account in body therapy, particularly if the therapist still fears his/her own parents and is thus forced to go on idealizing them.

We now have many reports in which mothers (and, in the ourchildhood forums on the Internet, also fathers) give honest accounts of how they have been prevented from loving their children as a result of the injuries inflicted on them in their own childhood. We can learn from them, and if we do, we will cease to idealize motherly love at all costs. Then we will no longer be forced to analyze infants as screaming monsters. Instead we will begin to understand their inner worlds, to grasp the loneliness and impotence of children growing up with parents that deny them any kind of loving communication because they themselves have never experienced it. Then we will recognize in the screams of the infant a logical and justified response to the usually unconscious but none the less factual and real cruelties of the parents, which have yet to be appreciated as such by society. An equally natural response is the despair of individuals about their damaged lives, a despair that some trauma therapies attempt to alleviate with the aid of “positive thinking”. But it is precisely these strong “negative” emotions that enable us to recognize how we must have felt when we were ignored or treated cruelly by our parents. We absolutely need this recognition to eventually overcome the painful effects of the traumas.

Parental cruelty does not always take a physical form (though about 90% of the population of the world are beaten in childhood). It can manifest itself above all in the absence of kindness and communication, in oblivion to the needs of the child and its psychic torments, in senseless, perverse punishment, in sexual abuse, in the exploitation of the child’s unconditional affection, in emotional blackmail, in the destruction of selfhood, and in countless variations in the exercise of power. The list is endless. And the worst thing is that children have to learn to see this as quite normal behavior because they know nothing else. Children always love their parents unstintingly, whatever they do to them.

In one of his books, ethologist Konrad Lorenz gives a very sensitive description of the love of one of his geese for a boot. This was the first thing the gosling had laid eyes on at birth. An attachment of this kind is instinctive. But if we humans were to follow this natural instinct all our lives (useful as it is at the outset), then we would remain well-behaved little children and never enjoy the benefits of adulthood. Among those benefits are awareness, freedom of thought, access to our own feelings, the ability to compare. The fact that churches and governments have a major interest in impeding this development and leaving individuals in dependency on parent figures is generally well-known. What is less well-known is the price the body has to pay for it. After all, what would happen if we were to see through the enormities committed by our parents? And what would become of those parent figures if the exercise of their power no longer had any effect?

This is why “parents” as an institution still enjoy total immunity. If that changes one day (as this book postulates), then we will be in a position to feel what our parents’ cruelties have done to us. We will have a better understanding of the signals emitted by our bodies and we can live in peace with them, not as the beloved children we never were and can never become, but as open-minded, aware, and perhaps loving adults who no longer have to fear our own biographies because we know all about them.

In the responses to my book I have also come across other misunderstandings, two of which I should like to take up here. They are related to the question of distance over and against cruel parents in cases of severe depression, and to my own personal biography.

First of all I must point out that in the book I repeatedly speak of introjected parents, rarely of real parents, and nowhere of “evil” parents. I give no advice to “Hansel and Gretel,” who of course would have to flee their wicked parents. But children can’t do this anyway. What I advocate is that we take seriously the genuine feelings that have been suppressed since childhood and that go on eking out an existence in the cellar of the soul. It is understandable that some reviewers who are not familiar with this kind of inner work believe that I am inciting my readers against their “wicked parents.” But I hope that readers with slightly more psychological awareness will not overlook the term “introjected.”

Naturally I would be glad if the account of my own childhood were to be read with discernment rather than superficially. Ever since I started engaging with the phenomenon of cruelty to children, my critics have accused me of finding it everywhere because I was exposed to it myself. My first reaction to this was astonishment because I knew very little about my early biography at the time. Today I can imagine that the sufferings I fended off may indeed have prompted me to investigate the topic. But what I discovered when I started exploring this subject was not only my own destiny but that of very many others. In fact they were my guides, it was thanks to their accounts that I started dismantling my own defenses, looking around, drawing conclusions from the obstinate denial of childhood suffering that have helped me to understand myself. For this I am of course very grateful to those people.