A Whole New Era of Therapy

This continues The Healing Voices Series on Alice Miller: Icon & Ideas

Alice Miller’s book, now known as The Drama of the Gifted Child, became an icon of the self-help and recovery book market. One reason is that it hit the market when new cultural trends were developing–and converging. Her book appealed to readers who were driving these trends. That’s what made it a catalyst, too, and what made her an icon. What were these trends? How did they connect with Alice Miller’s ideas with such impact? The first trend was a whole new therapy.

Psychotherapy as currently practiced in the clinical setting began in the late 19th and at turn of the 20th century. It was aligned with ideas of Sigmund Freud, including that mental illness was caused by suppressed memories and unresolved issues. Until the 1950s, methods and interpretations from Freud and Jung dominated treatment protocols for mental illness. Their ideas and their proteges comprised the establishment which Alice Miller would reject.

In the 1950s, while Miller was immersed in her study of psychoanalysis, a radical idea appeared that rejected Freudian and Jungian thought. These experts pointed to behavior and its modification as a way to treat mental illness. Psychoanalysts focused on root causes psychologically which, if affected in some way, would cure the illness. Behavior therapy, which was radically distinct from inward-looking psychoanalysis, had no interest in retrospection. With time it would include experts who incorporated analysis by modifying feelings and thoughts with modifying behavior (some eventually evolving into cognitive-behavioral therapy). But, at its inception, this was a behaviorist approach, based on scientific studies of primate and human behavior. It was antithetical to Freud and Jung and would continue to be so even as Miller made her own professional break.[1]

As schools and different methods of psychology were proliferating, therapy was becoming more widespread too. Once psychoanalysis was affordable mostly to the wealthy class, but that was changing. Baby boomers were coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s. The post-war economy had stabilized and was growing. It needed workers. To attract candidates, some employers enriched professional compensation with mental-health insurance benefits. Graduates, with new degrees and jobs, did not abandon the zeitgeist of the 1960s but sought to continue self-actualization in therapy. They were less interested in the indefinite process of classical psychoanalysis, and insurers were happy to shift to less expensive protocols offered by well-qualified psychology doctorates and masters, or social workers.[2] My first therapist was a licensed social worker. She is the one who handed me my first copy of The Drama of the Gifted Child.


[1] Now, over 60 different schools of psychotherapy, including types of behavioral psychology, exist. Among them are those influenced by Alice Miller.

[2] Historical dates have been confirmed using two sources: Haggerty, Jim. History of Psychotherapy. PsychCentral.com. April 20, 2020. Accessed https://psychcentral.com/lib/history-of-psychotherapy/ https://psychcentral.com/lib/history-of-psychotherapy/ and Wikipedia contributors. (2020, July 14). History of psychotherapy. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 02:30, September 18, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=History_of_psychotherapy&oldid=967695131

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