As adults we don’t need the denial
Saturday July 11, 2009
Dear Alice Miller,
I’d like to share part of my story with you, to thank you for your help, and to ask a questions. For over 20 years your books have accompanied me on my journey to truth and have also deeply informed my work as a teacher as I try to be either a helpful or enlightened witness whenever possible. Certainly when I taught at a high school for “troubled” teens 20 years ago, your books allowed me to rip away much of my own delusion and to see what the real roots of my students problems were–and how the so-called educators both refused to see what was plain as day (especially when we met the parents, it was an “internat”) and how they were often re-inflicting their own drama upon the students in the name of education. What brought me an early sense of liberation was your insistance that you don’t have to forgive–and I have struggled against the so-called “moral” precept of forgiving. The emotions of rage and hatred can wane without a false forgiveness taking their place.
In my own childhood, I and my brother suffered intense neglect from both parents and I later sexualized enmeshment on the part of my mother. I was hardly allowed to be angry and suffered much under my father’s beatings and my mother’s contempt and refusal to allow me to express anger or dissatisfaction. I became “sweet” and compliant and wanted at an early age to be just like Jesus–I used to cry and cry and pray for my innocence to be given back to me until I was a teenager. I was chosen by my mother to be her emotional substitute for the love she wasn’t able to achieve with my father and although I was sensitive to the sexualized dynamic and rebelled against it as a teenager, when I was about 15, she actually asked me to come share her bed when we were on vacation and my father wasn’t with us. For a few years I had been giving her and her friends backrubs and I was also the confidant to my mother’s suffering. I refused to go to bed–I stayed on the couch and it disturbed me deeply. I was lucky in a sense that this memory does not have to come through the body to be remembered, but the few people I have shared it with, including one therapist, resisted seeing my interpretation, trying to find another, less troubling interpretation. The therapist, however, was able to shake off her blindness and agree with and support me fully–which also reinforced my determination to find my own truth–the therapist is a helpful witness and guide and I have had deeply cathartic breakthroughs in my confrontation with the past but I am not dependent on her as I can trust my own feelings and experiences to guide me.
Recently, in my first year as a professor, I had a breakdown (while continuing to teach successfully–the strength of resiliance!) when I left my boyfriend, had trouble at work and my mother’s cancer was confirmed. I entered therapy and one of the first things they recommended was your books. The breakdown of grandiosity provoked a severe and deep depression (a familiar one, unfortunately) that you have described so well. I rediscovered your perspective and am seeing how in various ways I have continued repeating my traumatization in both gross and subtle ways, through my personal relationships and my professional work as an anthropologist. Recently I was able to identify consciously deep rage and fear as I was feeling it over three days and because of your support (I kept reading your books during the day as I went through this) I have come out on the other side with a determination to keep identifying my disassociation and their roots in childhood and to keep integrating feelings with thoughts. I even woke up the other day with the song “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine” in my head.
Alice, I have never ever felt so whole and I thank you for your own courage to face the truth bravely helps to liberate others. Intellectually I was able to confront these aspects of my past (and even, using the discredited therapy that you used to recommend) was able to achieve a kind of relief by profoundly confronting my introjected parents–mother and father and allowing myself to feel hurt and angry. By returning to this process, I am now able to make deeper connections between the whole structure of my life as I see it now and the traumas I experienced (which even surprised my therapists). Earlier, I had intellectualized compassion for my earlier self as I was not invested in protecting my parents but I had little access to this feeling. Now, I am also able to really feel deep compassion and empathy for the boy I was, who was so terrified and isolated from others and who has lived within the dynamics of contempt and approval and mistaken them so often for love.
So, my question for you: what exactly do you mean in your books by “perversions” in regards to sexuality? I can certainly see that in cases where power relations are sexualized (such as in BDSM), people are replaying power dynamics from childhood in explicitly charged form. But do you believe that only a heterosexual love object is possible if one is free from childhood trauma? I would tend to think that for humans it may be more flexible than that. In fact, I think that the deep homophobia and even hatred of homosociality one sees in American men (compared to many Europeans) has historical roots in childhood trauma and repression combined with religious fanaticism and patterns of hyper-vigilance. These men often hate their fathers for the overt abuse and use their heterosexual relationships to repeat their trauma with their mothers. Is that not “perversion?”
Both as a gay man and anthropologist, I’m skeptical of certain Freudian views of sexuality, and while I can trace out some aspects of my sexuality in light of the early lack of masculine love and a sense that my father, even if he didn’t protect me was somehow “safer” than my mother, I don’t think it can all be reduced to that given other aspects of my inner life. Rather, as I have worked on seeing and expressing my truth, I find the shame and guilt gone, leaving me free to love and appreciate men in new and happier ways. I also love women, but not in the same way. Also, seeing the childhood dramas of abuse pervasively played out among my heterosexual friends, I have had much healthier relationships in terms of communication and being and having a loving witness than I see many of them having–relationships often fraught with emotional abuse and attachment rage. What do you think?
Also, the last thing–instead of so much attention on the very beginnings of life and on constraining women’s choices, I want to support campaigns now to “Protect the Born” children and raise awareness of everyday abuse. Once a child leaves the womb, they are at the mercy of adults who in society appear to care much much less about their welfare than the moment before.
Thank you so much. Best,
AM: Since you have been reading my books for 20 years you certainly know that I think EVERYTHING we become is in some way connected to our childhood. This does not mean that in my opinion heterosexuality is better or healthier than homosexuality, not at all. What I do think is that only the DENIAL of this connection to one’s history, the denial of the endured injury to protect the abuser (out of fear) is indeed unhealthy. This is true for people of BOTH kind of sexual orientation. But you don’t deny your history, you are thus free of shame and guilt, as you say, you can enjoy the good communication with your partners and don’t need ideologies to justify your choice.