How did I do it?
Wednesday November 12, 2008
Dear Alice Miller,
I am curious to know more about how you were able to begin and pursue the
rediscovery of your childhood. From what I remember of your writings, you have
mentioned several factors that contributed to your ability to do this. These
include, that you had substantial academic and professional accomplishments,
your interactions with your children, and your painting. Would you be willing
to share more about what you felt during this time? Were you afraid to go
against your parents? Had anything else happened that had previously caused you
to begin to question your parents or the absolute respect for them? How did you
know to begin to trust your repressed feelings? What were all of the supports
that your relied on psychologically to enable you to do this? What did the
whole thing feel like?
It seems that even with all the supporting factors, this must have been
something that you did with great fear and hesitation. This is especially
interesting to me because you, unlike myself and all of your other readers, did
not have your writings for encouragement, information, and to provoke the long
healing process by reading and then thinking and feeling about the readings.
And you had the further complicating factor of having “learned” so
much psychoanalysis and academic philosophy.
So, how did you do it?
AM: To answer your questions I am sending you a part of the Preface to my next book that I recently wrote:
When I was very young, I was an avid reader of Sigmund Freud. But I lost my interest in psychoanalysis when I started working with patients. I found that the concepts and theories I had been confronted with during my psychoanalytical training were an invitation to blame individuals themselves for their distress. Those theories were in fact designed to “repair” them or “put them straight.” In this approach I detected elements of the disastrous and highly abusive ideal of education and upbringing known in German as schwarze Pädagogik (“poisonous pedagogy”).
What interested me was how this distress had come about, the childhood factors that might explain the sufferings of these adults, and the ways in which they might be able to free themselves from the severe consequences of cruel parenting. None of the theories I came across seemed genuinely willing to engage with childhood reality, and this put them fully in line with the attitude of society in general.
It was my patients themselves who provided indirect answers to my questions. Their reports on what they had been through in childhood revealed facts that had hardly ever been addressed during my training: the severe cruelty inflicted on children by their own parents.
At the same time, I became aware of my patients’ deeply entrenched resistance to remembering these painful events: they were extremely reluctant to feel the tragic situation they had been in as children and to take it seriously. Some of them described acts of monstrous cruelty with a complete lack of emotion, as if they were something that was only to be expected. They believed their parents had loved them and that as children they had richly deserved severe punishment because they were so insufferable. The regularity with which true feelings were denied or split off made me realize that almost all of us tend to deny, or at least play down, the pain caused by the injuries we suffered in childhood. We do this because we still fear punishment at the hands of our parents, who could not bear to accept us as we truly were. These childhood fears live on in the adult. If they remain unconscious, that is if they are not identified as such, then they will retain their virulence to the end of our lives. Unfortunately, these fears also live on in those who advance theories that camouflage childhood reality and that concentrate instead on the nature of “psychical structures.” This approach began with Freud and was later taken over by C.G. Jung and others. Like present-day “spiritualist” interpretations, these theories all served one purpose: to allay the fears of the maltreated children these therapists still were.
As almost everyone on this planet received beatings when they were small and do their best to repress the fear of punishment at the hands of their parents, it is difficult to make this unconscious dynamic apparent. After all, no one wants to be told about sufferings they have been fighting to suppress for decades, sometimes sacrificing their health in the process. After listening to the tragic stories of my patients for 20 years without letting myself be confused by the theories of Freud and others, I wrote The Drama of the Gifted Child, in which I pointed the finger at facts that almost everyone knows but strongly denies. Subsequently, I published For Your Own Good, referring to three biographies to indicate the social consequences that cruel parenting can have. One of the things the book revealed was the way in which the complete and utter eradication of empathy from the earliest years and constant persecution by the father turned the former child Adolf Hitler into a mass murderer with the blood of millions of people on his hands. In my later books I have repeatedly demonstrated how the political careers of mass murderers like Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Milosevic, and others were rooted in the denial of the humiliations inflicted on them in childhood.
I received a great deal of praise for my investigations, and yet no one followed in my footsteps. Why? Presumably because almost all of us are victims of more or less severe cruelty, but this is something we either cannot or will not acknowledge until we have finally faced up to the fact.