Concerning Primal Self -Therapy

by Alice Miller

Concerning Primal Self -Therapy
Friday June 01, 2001

I am frequently asked what I consider to be the decisive factor in psychotherapy today. Is it the recognition of the truth, liberation from the enforced vow of silence and from idealization of one’s parents, or is it the presence of an Enlightened Witness? My view is that it is not a question of either-or but of both-and. Without the Enlightened Witness it is impossible to bear the truth of what happened to us in early infancy. But by the term Enlightened Witness I do not mean anyone who has studied psychology or has been through primal experiences with a guru and has remained in his thrall. For me, Enlightened Witnesses are therapists with the courage to face up to their own histories and to gain their autonomy in doing so, rather than seeking to offset their own repressed feelings of ineffectuality by exerting power over their patients.

The adult needs assistance in coping with the present situations as an adult, while at the same time maintaining contact with the suffering and knowing child he once was, the child he could not muster the courage to listen to for so long but now, with help, can finally pay heed to. The body knows everything that has happened to it but it has no language to express that knowledge. It is like the child we once were, the child that sees all but without the aid of the adults remains helpless and alone. Accordingly, whenever the emotions from the past rise to the surface they are invariably accompanied by the fears of the helpless child, dependent on the understanding or at least the reassurances of the caregivers.

Unlike the body, our cognitive system knows little of the events far back in the past; conscious memories are fragmentary, brittle, unreliable. But the cognitive system has a huge fund of knowledge at its disposal, a fully developed mind, and the life experience a child cannot yet have. As adults are no longer powerless, they can offer the child within them (the body) protection and an attentive ear so that it can express itself in its own way and tell its own story. It is in the light of these stories that the looming, incomprehensible fears and emotions of the adult take on meaning. Finally they stand in a recognizable context and are no longer so obscurely menacing.

In a society with a receptive attitude to the distress of children no one will be alone with his/her history. The same is true of therapists. Because then everyone will know that it is not the children who are responsible for their sufferings but the adults.

I recently wrote a letter in French to the forum that I am quoting in English below:

Dear Franck, I understand well your fascination for the manual of Stettbacher. When I read this manuscript in 1989 I thought that it contained the solution for a lot of readers who, after having read my books, were looking, like you, for the sources of their sufferings and fears in the history of their childhood. As I had never had the luck to be understood and helped in my childhood nor in my therapies (it was always me who had to help others) I found the idea of a primal self – therapy at first quite normal and acceptable. It is after some years that I grasped the big importance and even necessity of an enlightened and empathic therapist in the process of recovery. Especially thanks to letters of people that failed to help themselves and who blamed themselves for their plight ( trying to do more and more therapy and turning around alone with their fears and pains) that I understood that the primal self – therapy can indeed trigger easily the old pent-up emotions but can reactivate the situation of the child that was always alone with his/her pains and fears. This repetition of the old trauma is the opposite of a therapy.
Today, I share the opinion of Arthur Janov who always affirmed, that primal therapy without the assistance of a well informed and compassionate therapist can be very dangerous. (cf. his homepage). In addition, I think that it contains (1) a contradiction in itself by reactivating a situation of which one want to get rid of and (2) a perpetuation of the violence directed toward oneself.
I don’t have any contact with Mister Stettbacher since 1994 when I stopped to recommend his method but I suppose that the information on its negative effects reached him too and that it already motivated him to stop recommending it. Since the release of his book there is a lot of new information on this topic available that are easily accessible thanks to the internet. Maybe, a next book by Stettbacher will bring the necessary corrections to his present work, published 12 years ago.