Polish Psychologist, Psychoanalyst and Author
Alice Miller, née Rostovski
Polish Psychologist, Psychoanalyst and Author
Recollection, Repetition, and Working Through. Take, for example, the feeling of being abandoned-not that the adult, who feels lonely and therefore takes tablets or drugs, goes to the movies, visits friends, or telephones unnecessarily, in order to bridge the gap somehow. No, I mean the original feeling in the small infant, who had none of these chances of distraction and whose communication, verbal or proverbial, did not reach the mother. This was not the case because his mother was bad, but because she herself was narcissistically deprived, dependent on a specific echo from the child that was so essential to her, or she herself was a child in search of an object that could be available to her. However paradoxical this may seem, a child is at the mother's disposal A child cannot run away from her as her own mother once did. A child can be so brought up that it becomes what she want it to be. A child can be made to show respect, she can impose her own feelings on him, see herself mirrored in his love and admiration, and feel strong in his presence, but when he becomes too much she can abandon that child to a stranger. The mother can feel herself the center of attention, for her child's eyes follow her everywhere. When a woman had to suppress and repress all these needs in relation to her own mother, they rise from the depth of her unconscious and seek gratification through her own child, however well-educated and well-intentioned she may be, and however much she is aware of what a child needs. The child feels this clearly and very soon forgoes the expression of his own distress. Later, when there feeling of being deserted begin to emerge in analysis of the adult, they are accompanied by such intensity of pain and despair that it is quite clear that these people could not have survived so much pain. That would only have been possible in an empathic, attentive environment, and this they lacked. The same holds true for emotions connected with the Oedipal drama and the entire drive development of the child. All this had to be warded off. But to say that it was absent would be a denial of the empirical evidence we have gained in analysis.
One serious consequence of this early adaptation is the impossibility of consciously experiencing certain feelings of his own (such as jealousy, envy, anger, loneliness, impotence, anxiety) either in childhood or later in adulthood. This is all the more tragic since we are here concerned with lively people who are especially capable of differentiated feelings. This is noticeable at those times in their analyses when they describe childhood experiences that were free of conflict. Usually these concern experiences with nature, which they could enjoy without hurting the mother or making her feel insecure, without reducing her power or endangering her equilibrium. But it is remarkable how these attentive, lively, and sensitive children who can, for example, remember exactly how they discovered the sunlight in bright grass at the age of four, yet at eight might be unable to notice anything or to show any curiosity about the pregnant mother or, similarly, were not at all jealous at the birth of a sibling. Again, at the age of two, one of them could be left alone while soldiers had been good, suffering this quietly and without crying. They have all developed the art of not experiencing feelings, for a child can only experience his feeling when there is somebody there who accepts him fully, understands and supports him. If that is missing, if the child must risk losing the mother's love, or that of her substitute, then he cannot experience these feelings secretly just for himself but fails to experience them at all. But nevertheless....something remains.
Naturally, I do not believe that a course of formal training is any guarantee of a therapist’s infallibility and integrity. But I do think that such training is absolutely indispensable. Without supervision and membership of a reputable professional association defining the ethical standards it expects its members to live up to and empowering an ethics commission to uphold those standards, therapists can indulge more or less at will in the abuse of the patients dependent upon them.
My father avoided any confrontation with my mother and failed to see what was going on before his eyes. Although he didn’t apply my mother’s passionate pedagogic methods – on the rare occasions of his presence he even showed me some warmth and tenderness – he never stood up for my rights. He never gave me the feeling that I had any rights at all; he never confirmed my observations and admitted my mother’s cruelty.
My daughter’s direct, spontaneous, and affectionate nature released me from many of the protective mechanisms I had developed, above all the fear that my love might be exploited. With her I had no need to protect myself. At last I could love, trust, and be tender without any apprehensions about my openness being misused for corrective educational purposes – as was the case with my mother – or my feelings being hurt. As I did not have the good fortune of enjoying an open and warmhearted relationship with my mother, this new opportunity for communication – for all its tragic aspects and the restrictions it brought with it – was more of a blessing than anything else… The spontaneity with which my daughter expressed her childlike, innocent, affectionate nature at whatever age she happened to be, and her sensitivity to insincerity and disingenuousness in whatever form, gave my life new dimensions and new objectives.
Learning is a result of listening, which in turn leads to even better listening and attentiveness to the other person. In other words, to learn from the child, we must have empathy, and empathy grows as we learn.
It may be considered indiscreet to open the doors of someone else’s house and rummage around in other people’s family histories. Since so many of us still have the tendency to idealize our parents, my undertaking may even be regarded as improper. And yet it is something that I think must be done, for the amazing knowledge that comes to light from behind those previously locked doors contributes substantially toward helping people rescue themselves from their dangerous sleep and all its grave consequences.
It is very difficult for people to believe the simple fact that every persecutor was once a victim. Yet it should be very obvious that someone who was allowed to feel free and strong from childhood does not have the need to humiliate another person.
It is possible to resolve childhood repression safely and without confusion - something that has always been disputed by the most respected schools of thought.
It is not the psychologists but the literary writers who are ahead of their time. In the last ten years there has been an increase in the number of autobiographical works being written, and it is apparent that this younger generation of writers is less and less inclined to idealize their parents. There has been a marked increase in the willingness of the postwar generation to seek the truth of their childhood and in their ability to bear the truth once they have discovered it.
In the short term, corporal punishment may produce obedience. But it is a fact documented by research that in the long term the results are inability to learn, violence and rage, bullying, cruelty, inability to feel another's pain, especially that of one's own children, even drug addiction and suicide, unless there are enlightened or at least helping witnesses on hand to prevent that development.
In the same decade in which writers are discovering the emotional importance of childhood and are unmasking the devastating consequences of the way power is secretly exercised under the disguise of child-rearing, students of psychology are spending four years at the universities learning to regard human beings as machines in order to gain a better understanding of how they function. When we consider how much time and energy is devoted during these best years to wasting the last opportunities of adolescence and to suppressing, by means of the intellectual disciplines, the feelings that emerge with particular force at this age, then it is no wonder that the people who have made this sacrifice victimize their patients and clients in turn, treating them as mere objects of knowledge instead of as autonomous, creative beings. There are some authors of so-called objective, scientific publications in the field of psychology who remind me of the officer in Kafka's Penal Colony in their zeal and their consistent self-destructiveness. In the unsuspecting, trusting attitude of Kafka's convicted prisoner, on the other hand, we can see the students of today who are so eager to believe that the only thing that counts in their four years of study is their academic performance and that human commitment is not required.
If we have never consciously lived through this despair and the resulting narcissistic rage [that is inherent in the process of healing childhood traumas], and have therefore never been able to work through it, we can be in danger of transferring this situation, which then would have remained unconscious, onto our patients. It would not be surprising if our unconscious anger should find no better way than once more to make use of a weaker person and to make him take the unavailable parents’ place. This can be done most easily with one’s own children.
If we are willing to open our eyes to the suffering of the child we will soon see that it lies within us as adults either to turn the newborn into a monsters by the way we treat them, or to let them grow up into feeling -- and therefore responsible -- human beings.
If it's very painful for you to criticize your friends - you're safe in doing it. But if you take the slightest pleasure in it, that's the time to hold your tongue.
If a mother can make it clear to her child that at that particular moment when she slapped him her love for him deserted her and she was dominated by other feelings that had nothing to do with the child, the child can keep a clear head, feel respected, and not be disoriented in his relationship with his mother.
I was not out to paint beautiful pictures; even painting good pictures was not important to me. I wanted only to help the truth burst forth.
I see great hope as a step along the road to truth and at the same time as confirmation that even a minimal loosening up of child-rearing principles by enabling at least our writers to become aware. That the academic disciplines must lag behind is an unfortunate but well-known fact.
I have frequently pointed out in a variety of contexts that it is far from my intention to cast blame on parents… I have also carefully explained that I do not regard external circumstances as the cause of neurosis but rather the child’s psychological situation – that is, the impossibility of articulating his or her strong feelings caused by traumatic experiences.
Had just one person understood what was happening and come to my defense, it might have changed my entire life.
Genuine forgiveness does not deny anger but faces it head-on.
Fundamentalists propagate beating children because they disavow their own painful experiences and are unaware of the fact that they are using children as scapegoats. It is imperative for us to launch this kind of preventive legislation in the major countries of Europe and the USA before the fundamentalists gain any further control of the political arena. It is designed to have a protective and informative function for parents. It does not set out to incriminate anyone.
Few insights gained in the last 20 years are so securely established as the realization that what we do to children when they are small, good things and bad things, will later form a part of their behavioral repertoire. Battered children will batter others, punished children act punitively, children lied to become liars themselves.
Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery and emotional acceptance of the truth in the individual and unique history of our childhood. Is it possible then, with the help of psychoanalysis, to free ourselves altogether from illusions? History demonstrates that they sneak in everywhere, that every life is full of them-perhaps because the truth often would be unbearable. And yet for many people the truth is so essential that they must pay dearly for its loss with grave illness. On the path of analysis we try, in a long process, to discover our own personal truth. This truth always causes much pain before giving us a new sphere of freedom-unless we content ourselves with already conceptualized, intellectual wisdom based on other people's painful experiences, for example that of Sigmund Freud. But then we shall remain in the sphere of illusion and self-deception.
Every association of professional psychotherapists will require its members to have studied psychology, to have been through a period of therapy training, and to undertake the treatment of their first patients under supervision. Thanks to these regulations clients can be more or less reliably protected from any blind spots or unconscious acting-out tendencies that their therapists may have.