Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Alice Miller, née Rostovski

Polish Psychologist, Psychoanalyst and Author

"A child too, can never grasp the fact that the same mother who cooks so well, is so concerned about his cough, and helps so kindly with his homework, in some circumstance has no more feeling than a wall of his hidden inner world."

"A child who has been breast-fed for nine months and no longer wants to drink from the breast does not have to be taught to give it up. And a child who has been allowed to be egoistic, greedy, and asocial long enough will develop spontaneous pleasure in sharing and giving. But a child trained in accordance with his parents' needs may never experience this pleasure, even while he gives and shares in a dutiful and exemplary way, and suffers because others are not as good as he is. Adults who were so brought up will try to teach their children this same altruism as early as possible."

"Abortion can, indeed, be seen as the most powerful symbol of the psychic annihilation and mutilation practiced since time immemorial on children. But to combat this evil merely at the symbolic level deflects us from the reality we should not evade for a moment longer: the reality of the abused and humiliated child, which, as the result of its disavowed and unresolved injuries, will insidiously become, either openly or aided by hypocrisy, a danger to society."

"A little reflection soon shows how inconceivable it is really to love others (not merely to need them), if one cannot love oneself as one really is. And how could a person do that if, from the very beginning, he has had no chance to experience his true feelings and to learn to know himself? For the majority of sensitive people, the true self remains deeply and thoroughly hidden. But how can you love something you do not know, something that has never been loved? So it is that many a gifted person lives without any notion of his or her true self. Such people are enamored of an idealized, conforming, false self. They will shun their hidden and lost true self, unless depression makes them aware of its loss or psychosis confronts them harshly with that true self, whom they now have to face and to whom they are delivered up, helplessly, as to a threatening stranger. In the following pages I am trying to come closer to the origins of this loss of the self. While doing so, I shall not use the term narcissism. However, in my clinical descriptions, I shall speak occasionally of a healthy narcissism and depict the ideal case of a person who is genuinely alive, with free access to the true self and his authentic feelings. I shall contrast this with narcissistic disorders, with the true self's solitary confinement within the prison of the false self. This I see less as an illness than as tragedy, and it is my aim in this book to break away from judgmental, isolating, and therefore discriminating terminology."

"Apart from these extreme cases, there are large numbers of people who suffer from narcissistic disorders, who often had sensitive and caring parents from whom they received much encouragement; yet, these people are suffering from severe depressions. They enter analysis in the belief, with which they grew up, that their childhood was happy and protected. Quite often we are faced here with gifted patients who have been praised and admired for their talents and their achievements. Almost all of these analysands were toilet-trained in the first year of their infancy, and many of them at the age of one and a half to five, had helped capably to take care of their younger siblings."

"But parents who have had to repress the fact of having been abused [which Alice Miller has admitted was the case with her at the time she was a mother of her young daughter] and who have never consciously relived it can become very confused in this regard where their children are concerned. They will either suppress their genuine feelings of affection for fear of seducing their child or they will unconsciously do the same to the child that was done to them, without having any idea of how much harm they are causing, since they themselves always had to distance themselves from their suffering."

"As I think back over my last twenty years' work, in the light of my present understanding, I can find no patient who ability to experience his true feelings was not seriously impaired. Yet, without this basic ability, all our work with the patient's instinctual conflicts is illusory: we might increase his intellectual knowledge, and in some circumstances strengthen his resistance, but we shall not touch the world of his feelings."

"Because I do not place blame on the parents, I apparently create difficulties for many of my readers. It would be so much simpler to say it is all the child’s fault, or the parents’, or the blame can be divided. This is exactly what I don’t want to do, because as an adult I know it is not a question of blame but of not being able to do any differently."

"Did I know that I had begun my life in a totalitarian state? How could I have? I didn’t even realize that I was being treated in a cruel and confusing way, something I would never have dreamed of suggesting. So rather than question my mother’s behavior, I cast doubt on the rightness of my own feeling that I was being unjustly treated. As I had no point of comparison of her behavior with that of other mothers, and as she constantly portrayed herself as the embodiment of duty and self-sacrifice, I had no choice but to believe her. And, anyway, I had to believe her. To have realized the truth would have killed me."

"Contempt is the weapon of the weak and a defense against one's own despised and unwanted feelings."

"Children who become too aware of things are punished for it and internalize the coercion to such an extent that as adults they give up the search for awareness. But because some people cannot renounce this search in spite of coercion, there is justifiable hope that regardless of the ever-increasing application of technology to the field of psychological knowledge, Kafka's vision of the penal colony with its efficient, scientifically minded persecutors and their passive victims is valid only for certain areas of our live and perhaps not forever. For the human soul is virtually indestructible, and its ability to rise from the ashes remains as long as the body draws breath."

"Don't ever dare to take your college as a matter of course - because, like democracy and freedom, many people you'll never know have broken their hearts to get it for you."

"Do they not know that no less than one hundred percent of all seriously abused children are unwanted? Do they not know what that can lead to? Do they not know that mistreatment is a parent’s way of taking revenge on the children they never wanted? Shouldn’t the authorities do everything in their power, in the light of this information, to see to it that the only children who are born are wanted, planned for, and loved? If they did, then we could put an end to the creation and continuation of evil in our world."

"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. "

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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 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. "

"Had just one person understood what was happening and come to my defense, it might have changed my entire life."

"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."

"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 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 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."

"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. "

"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 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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"Quite unconsciously, and despite her own good intentions, the mother then tries to assuage her own narcissistic needs through her child, that is, she cathects [i.e. engulfs] him narcissistically. This does not rule out strong affection. On the contrary, the mother often loves her child as her self-object, passionately, but not in the way he needs to be loved."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"Regression to the stage of early infancy is not a suitable method in and of itself. Such a regression can only be effective if it happens in the natural course of therapy and if the client is able to maintain adult consciousness at the same time. "

"Open Letter to the Holy Father. I take the liberty to write to You again… I can’t imagine that any other person in the world would have Your courage, Your credibility, as well as Your personal talent and God's grace to be able to speak up against an old tradition [of parents beating their children]… I am asking You again to make an appeal to all parents urging them to no longer beat their children, and to tell them that it is highly dangerous. If the Church continues to ignore the new scientific information and to stay silent about this issue in spite of the lessons of Jesus, who else can be asked to open the parents’ eyes in order to prevent the blind escalation of violence? I am sure that if my letters succeed to reach You personally You will not stay indifferent to the knowledge they are trying to pass on to you. With my most profound respect, Alice Miller."

"Sadism is not an infectious disease that strikes a person all of a sudden. It has a long prehistory in childhood and always originates in the desperate fantasies of a child who is searching for a way out of a hopeless situation. "

"Our contempt for egoists begins very early in life. Children who fulfill their parents' conscious or unconscious wishes are good, but if they ever refuse to do so or express wishes of their own that go against those of their parents they are called egoistic and inconsiderate. It usually does not occur to the parents that they might need and use the child to fulfill their own egoistic wishes. They often are convinced that they must teach their child how to behave because it is their duty to help him along on the road to socialization. If a child bought up this way does not wish to lose his parents' love (And what child can risk that?), he must learn very early to share, to give, to make sacrifices, and to be willing to do without and forgo gratification-long before he is capable of true sharing or of the real willingness to do without."

"Sanctions deriving from it could take the form of parents being obligated to internalize information on the consequences of corporal punishment, in much the same way as drivers of motor vehicles are required by state law to be familiar with the highway code. In the case of our children, the point at issue is not only the welfare of individual families-- the vital interests of society as a whole are at stake. Physical cruelty and emotional humiliation not only leave their marks on children, they also inflict a disastrous imprint of the future of our society. Information on the effects of the well-meant smack should therefore be part and parcel of courses for expectant mothers and of counseling for parents. Hitler, Stalin, Mao and other dictators were exposed to severe physical mistreatment in childhood and refused to face up to the fact later. Instead of seeing and feeling what had happened to them, they avenged themselves vicariously by killing millions of people. And millions of others helped them to do so. If the legislation we are advocating had existed the time, those millions would simply have refused to perpetrate acts of cruelty at the command of crazed political leaders."

"Taking a closer look, we no longer find the meaning of the word egoism so clear-cut and unequivocal. It will be much the same when we examine respect for others, which is often said to be missing in self-centered people. If a mother respects both herself and her child from his very first day onward, she will never need to teach him respect for others. He will, of course, take both himself and others seriously-he couldn't do otherwise. But a mother who, as a child, was herself not taken seriously by her mother as the person she really was will try to get it by training him to give it to her. The tragic fate that is the result of such training and such respect is described in this book."

"The claim that mild punishments (slaps or smacks) have no detrimental effect is still widespread because we got this message very early from our parents who had taken it over from their own parents. Unfortunately, the main damage it causes is precisely the broad dissemination of this conviction. The result of which is that each successive generation is subjected to the tragic effects of so called physical correction."

"That was where the story of my childhood finally broke through. Today, I am convinced that I have only been willing and able to face up to my true feelings thanks to the existence of my daughter. She would tell me frankly and uninhibitedly what she saw in my pictures and what she felt about them, something that otherwise only very few people did. It was a kind of emotional communication which I found very precious… Without the relationship with my daughter I would have been even more remote from myself that I already was… In many ways it is only now, in retrospect, that I begin to appreciate something like the full extent of the boon my daughter has been to me."

"The capacity of the human organism to bear pain is, for our own protection, limited. All attempts to overstep this natural threshold by resolving repression in a violent manner will, as with every other form of violation, have negative and often dangerous consequences."

"The description of the method that gave me what I had been seeking throughout my life – namely, an approach to self-knowledge by which my own life history would be revealed to me – has by now been published in many languages, so that many people have already been able to help themselves by applying it. This self-therapy method, enacted in four steps, is devoted solely to the truth and therefore dispenses with all mystification and ideology."

"The expressionistic painters and poets active at the beginning of this century demonstrated more understanding of the neuroses of their day (or at any rate unconsciously imparted more information about them) than did the contemporary professors of psychiatry."