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Meet the Parents

A critical look at parent abuse.

The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Bad Parenting

By Alice Miller

Translated by Andrew Jenkins

(W.W. Norton, 207 pp., $23.95)

A decade or so ago, in The Culture of Complaint, Robert Hughes cited various cultural phenomena as symptoms of a rampant idiocy in American public life. He reserved particular scorn for the popular movement known as "recovery":

     As John Bradshaw, Melody Beattie and other gurus
     of the twelve-step program are quick to point out
     on no evidence whatsoever, 96 percent of American
     families are dysfunctional. We have been given imperfect
     role models, or starved of affection, or beaten, or
     perhaps subjected to the goatish lusts of Papa; and if we
     don't think we have, it is only because we have repressed
     the memory.… The number of Americans who were abused
     as children and hence absolved from all blame for anything
     they might now do is more or less equal to the number who,
     a few years ago, had once been Cleopatra or Henry VIII.

Reading this now, it is tempting to feel that Hughes's outrage was a little disproportionate, that he wasted his considerable talent for vituperation on what turned out to be a passing and insignificant fad. Twelve years on, the gurus to whom he refers have sunk back into obscurity, and most of the distinctively unbeautiful language of recovery ("inner child," "personal truth," "denial") has come to seem as dated and quaint as shoulder pads.

Yet it would be wrong to deduce that the tenets of recovery have been decisively discredited. The fact that recovery's jargon is now passe may merely be an indication of how efficiently its ideas have been absorbed into the general culture. As anyone who has had cause to visit a shrink in recent years can attest, the idea that all our adult difficulties are traceable to physical and psychic wounds inflicted upon us by our parents is far from extinct. Frederick Crews and a few others continue valiantly to contest the scientific pretensions of classical Freudian psychoanalysis, but in truth the sort of pop therapy to which most Americans repair for self-discovery these days is far less interested in interpreting dreams and unlocking the Oedipal fantasies of childhood than it is in establishing "personal truth" and exploring memories of actual childhood trauma.

If one wants to understand the theory underpinning these therapeutic priorities, the work of the psychoanalyst Alice Miller is a good place to start. Recovery has never been a very precise or even coherent creed, but Miller's work represents perhaps its strongest claim to a serious framework of ideas. Miller, who was born in Poland in 1923, has spent most of her adult life as a practicing psychoanalyst in Switzerland. Her new book is the tenth in a series of passionate treatises on child abuse that she has been steadily turning out since the late 1970s. Like most of its predecessors, its thoughts on the enduring effects of childhood suffering are largely a reiteration of the thesis advanced in Miller's first and most famous book, The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self. Originally published in America in 1981 as Prisoners of Childhood, this short and pungent volume has since sold more than one million copies and may be reasonably regarded as the unofficial Urtext of the recovery school.

Its title--a rare and possibly unique instance of irony in Miller's work--refers not to exceptional intellectual or physical abilities, but rather to the innate talent for repressing rage and hurt that Miller believes all abused children must cultivate in order to survive the cruelty of their parents. Cruelty, as Miller defines it, is an extremely wide-ranging category of behavior. It includes not only severe instances of corporal punishment and sexual molestation, but a slew of more subtle impositions such as sleep training (getting a child to sleep through the night), "value selection" (making distinctions between a child's "good" and "bad" behavior), and the more general failure to provide a nurturing climate of respect and tolerance for a child's feelings. Indeed, by her own admission, Miller's chief interest lies in honoring the injuries that are sustained during ostensibly happy childhoods.

A child's "gift" for becoming numb to his deprivations results, Miller believes, in the profound impairment of his "integrity" and a lifetime of destructive syndromes. Should a gifted child become a parent, he will unconsciously seek revenge for his earlier trauma by mistreating his own offspring. With or without children, he is bound to suffer a variety of dysfunctions ranging from depression, "fragile self-esteem," and "restlessness," to drug addiction, prostitution, and mass murder. For Miller, there is almost no limit to the range of adult behavior for which child abuse can be held responsible. Rather in the manner of astrological character profiles, her checklist of gifted child "symptoms" offers something for almost everybody. Even nipple piercing sends up a flare:

     Women who allow their nipples to be pierced
     in order to hang rings from them can then pose
     for newspaper photographs, proudly saying that
     they felt no pain when having it done and that it
     was even fun for them. One need not doubt the
     truth of their statements; they had to learn very
     early in life not to feel pain, and today they would
     go to any lengths not to feel the pain of the little
     girl who was once sexually exploited by her father
     and had to imagine that it was fun for her.

The only way to combat "gifted child" behaviors, Miller argues, is to come to grips with their root causes. For this, "an enlightened witness" is required--a therapist willing to share the horror and indignation that will inevitably arise as a person confronts the truth about his childhood. In place of the neutral silence of the traditional analyst, Miller proposes a therapeutic stance of unswerving credulousness. Out with bearded old gents parked lugubriously in their Knoll chairs, in with warm and sympathetic "companions." Miller's disenchantment with classical Freudian theory--in particular, with its refusal to accept patients' tales of childhood abuse as confessions of a literal truth--led her to resign from the International Psychoanalytic Association in the late 1980s; and she has since gone on to claim that Freud's cancer of the jaw was a psychosomatic response to his self-censorship on the subject of child molestation.

Of course, not all gifted patients will enter therapy ready to deliver juicy tales of abuse. The nipple-piercer may swear up and down that her father was a prince. But an initial paucity of traumatic memory does not daunt Miller. Gifted children, she writes, are characterized by their lack of "real emotional understanding or serious appreciation of their own childhood vicissitudes." This is why they need therapists--smiling friends ready to unburden them of any lingering faith in the decency of their parents and to help them to disinter their true childhood despair. At this point in Miller's narrative, the gap between Hughes's parody of recovery principles and the principles themselves would appear to have grown alarmingly narrow. As she writes in The Drama of the Gifted Child:

     If a person is able, during this long process, to
     experience the reality that he was never loved
     as a child for what he was but was instead
     needed and exploited for his achievements,
     success, and good qualities--and that he sacrificed
     his childhood for this form of love--he will be very
     deeply shaken, but one day he will feel the desire
     to end these efforts. He will discover in himself a
     need to live according to his true self and no longer
     be forced to earn "love" that always leaves him
     empty-handed, since it is given to his false self--
     something he has begun to identify and relinquish.

The Drama of the Gifted Child is a strange and strangely gripping book. Much of it reads like the first draft of an essay to which the necessary qualifications and footnotes have yet to be added. A skeptical reader who starts out underlining each of Miller's unsubstantiated generalizations, rash guarantees, and suspiciously reductive case histories will eventually be forced to give up: the book is very little but dubious assertion. And this, it seems, is precisely the source of its enduring emotional appeal. To read Miller is like taking refuge with a fiercely protective aunt after a row with your mother. Her indignation on your behalf is bizarrely overstated--you have the dim but persistent sense that she has axes of her own to grind; and yet how warm and pleasant it is to be clutched to her heaving bosom, to hear your darkest filial rage so absolutely vindicated!

Miller's admirers sometimes defend the intemperate tone of The Drama of the Gifted Child as a deliberate stylistic device--a shock tactic that Miller felt obliged to deploy in order to shake her readers out of their complacency. If this were true, one might expect her later books to offer some corrective to the unbridled passion of her original argument. But such has not been the case. On the contrary, Miller's subsequent work has only repeated and in many cases amplified the shrillness of her first book.

In volume after volume, Miller has continued to ignore the most basic standards of academic procedure, regularly substituting the regal locution "experience has taught us" for any more substantive evidence or elaboration, and adducing satisfied-patient testimonies in the brash manner of a late-night infomercial host shilling for treadmills. Her faith in the presence of an eternal "authentic self" that may be plucked at any time from the "false self," like a nut from its shell, has remained unexamined, as has her hair-raising confidence in the reliability of repressed memory. Her contention that child abuse is a widespread cause of misery has slowly evolved into the conviction that child abuse is the sole cause of all misery. Factors of race, nation, class, and politics have all become irrelevant in Miller's relentless privatization of global pain, so that by now there is not a single despot in world history whose murderous career cannot be traced to a dread moment in his childhood when he was sent to bed without his supper.

Meanwhile, the troubling grandiosity that was once merely latent in Miller's prose has burst into crazy flower. In her last book, The Truth Will Set You Free, Miller complained that a letter she had written to Pope John Paul II in 2002, seeking support for her campaign against spanking children, had failed to elicit a sufficiently sympathetic response. "Obviously," she writes, "the person I had asked to forward my letter and whose job it is to screen the mail was unable to relate to its contents. It is also conceivable that the information it contained aroused in them memories of their own upbringing, prompting them to dismiss my request out of hand."

Well, yes. So many things are conceivable. It is conceivable, for example, that a religious institution embroiled in its own sexual abuse scandal did not consider the catastrophic effects of spanking to be very high on its list of priorities. But never mind. Three years on, the anger inspired by the papal secretary's "denial" apparently still lingers. In The Body Never Lies, Miller, now eighty-two, revisits the unhappy episode. In this retelling, it emerges that she wrote several letters to the Vatican and not a single cardinal rose to the challenge of her insights. They are all, she concludes, of the devil's party without knowing it. "Indifference is a way of preserving them from opening their eyes to reality," she writes. "In this way they become advocates of evil, however convinced they may be of their humane intentions."

The Catholic Church notwithstanding, social attitudes toward spanking and other forms of corporal punishment have changed quite drastically in Western countries over the last fifty years. Miller is not averse to taking credit for this. (In The Body Never Lies, she goes so far as to compare herself to Galileo, another iconoclast whose "once-forbidden" statements have since achieved widespread acceptance.) For the most part, however, she is oddly resistant to losing her status as a lonely voice in the wilderness. When she isn't fixating on the Holy Father's indifference to her important work, she is further guaranteeing her isolation by upping the ante on the strategies that she deems necessary for overcoming childhood wounds.

Now, for example, she insists that the healing of gifted children cannot be effected without a complete renunciation of the Fourth Commandment ("Honor thy father and thy mother"). It is no longer enough to locate one's "personal truth." One must go further and stamp out all vestiges of compassion or love for one's sinning parents. Therapists who are unwilling to promote this uncompromising parricidal rage are, Miller claims, worse than useless.

     The path to adulthood lies not in tolerance for
     the cruelties we have been exposed to but in
     the realization of our own truth and the
     development of empathy for the maltreated child.
     It lies in the appreciation of the way in which
     cruelties have handicapped our whole lives as
     adults, the way in which so many opportunities
     have been destroyed and so much misery passed
     on unintentionally to the next generation. This tragic
     realization is only possible if we stop weighing the
     good points of our parents against the bad. If we
     persist in doing that, we will relapse into compassion,
     into the denial of the cruelties we have been subjected
     to, all because we believe we must take a "balanced"
     view of things.

To illustrate the health hazards of compassion, Miller offers several potted biographies of notoriously sickly writers and artists, whose physical ailments and premature deaths she blames on their inability to reject abusive parents. Schiller's convulsions and cramps, Woolf's nervous breakdowns and eventual suicide, Rimbaud's drug addiction and cancer--all are offered up as the grim results of misguided filial loyalty.

Miller's reasoning manifests a fairly high degree of ludicrousness throughout this section of her book, but arguably her most arrestingly dotty claims are to be found in her chapter on Proust. The writer's famous childhood longing for his mother's good-night kiss is confidently attributed to his having been born in France "on a night full of clamor and uproar caused by the fact that the population was still reeling from the shock of the Prussian invasion." Madame Proust's "nervous tension" during and after childbirth implanted in her infant son lifelong doubts "about whether he was wanted or not." Later in life, Proust's fear of losing his mother's tenuous affection rendered him incapable of resisting her controlling personality--a dilemma that found its physical expression in his asthmatic condition: "He breathed in too much air (love) and was not allowed to exhale the superfluous air (control)--that is, to rebel against his mother's engulfing claims."

Most of this book's crude notions about art--that all artistic endeavor is driven by childhood pain, and that all art is a more or less cryptic effusion of that pain--have been amply expounded in Miller's previous work. If there is anything of novelty here, it is Miller's late-blooming hostility toward art and artists. The sentimental fondness for art's cathartic capacities that Miller has formerly evinced is nowhere to be seen here. Instead, having proposed the grotesque notion that physical illness is a result of moral failure (failure, that is, to hate one's parents with the appropriate intensity), she admonishes art for its cowardly "enabling" of that failure. "Writers are concerned to produce good literature," she observes. "They make no attempt to recognize the unconscious sources of their creativity, of their urge for expression and communication.… In their work they do indeed make an effort to communicate, but at a level that serves the denial of their childhood experiences by calling itself art."

Quoting from one of James Joyce's letters, in which he expresses ambivalent affection for his late father, she chastises the writer for his idealization of a "violent alcoholic." That a son might have complicated feelings toward his complicated father is an outrage to Miller, for whom nothing but unadulterated loathing would be sufficient. She concludes her summary dismissal of Joyce by identifying the dishonest manner in which his fiction uses "brilliant prose" to evade suffering. "I attribute the great success of these novels," she notes coolly, "to the fact that very many people admire and appreciate this particular form of emotional defense."

However thorough a bashing artists receive in The Body Never Lies, it is still safe to say that parents come out worse. Parents are--and have always been--the arch-villains in Miller's narrative. Not even her vehement philistinism can compete with her abiding animosity toward Mom and Dad. The relentlessness with which Miller catalogues parental sin has often led her to be described as a "bleak" or "pessimistic" writer. But this characterization, while understandable, is not strictly accurate. Miller has never discounted the possibility of good parenting. Quite the opposite: her ten books are all based on the conviction that a happy childhood--a childhood in which parents respond lovingly and openly to the truth of their child's unique personality--is entirely achievable. "Even alert parents cannot always understand their children," she writes, "but they will respect their childrens' feelings even when they cannot understand them." The strategy that she recommends for attaining the parental ideal is not so very complicated, either. Simply find an enlightened witness, and learn to hate your forebears with healthy zeal, and presto!--all the difficulties and the frustrations you have encountered in dealing with little Johnny will vanish into the ether.

The challenge of Miller's work is not, then, its bleakness, but its Pollyannaish optimism. Whatever salutary effects we are prepared to grant psychotherapy, we must doubt whether any amount of time spent on the couch will stop parents from shouting at their kids when they leave their bedrooms in a mess. And while Miller's Romantic faith in the noble innocence of childhood has its charms, who among us is willing to put it to the test by banishing "value selection" from his household?

Being a child is hard: Miller does not entirely exaggerate when she compares the experiences of children, even in apparently kind and peaceable homes, to "life in a totalitarian regime." Her mistake is to believe that the tyrannical aspects of nuclear family life are curable. Bossing one's children around--squashing their desires and thwarting their pleasures-- is not a symptom of dysfunction, but an inevitable part of what it means to be an engaged parent. Some parents are more benign than others, to be sure, but all are, in some degree, dictators. Historically, we have tended to rationalize our family arrangements on the ground that their advantages for a child (love, guidance, protection) outweigh their miseries (indoctrination, oppression, and so forth.) As defenses of tyranny go, this seems pretty solid. But perhaps we can go further and hazard that the miseries themselves serve a higher psychological or even evolutionary purpose. Yes, they fuck you up, your mum and dad (or at the very least they bug you intensely), but why else would you ever grow up and leave them?

Zoe Heller is the author, most recently, of What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal (Henry Holt).

By Zoe Heller