Fallen Idols: Alice Miller & Me

It seemed inconsequential describing this experience during my interview of a woman who would become my long-term counselor. A few months later she handed me The Drama of the Gifted Child and suggested I read it and share what I thought. It was a bestselling book, so I assumed she was asking for my publishing opinion. Why else would she suggest I read it as we worked on a different, unrelated problem? I put the book aside.

Soon I was meeting my therapist two to three times each week. I was attending anonymous peer support meetings once or twice every day. It was a very, very, very difficult time. Here was the first shocking loss of the many, many losses we suffer in recovery. I realized this would be no easy fix. This would be no short course of therapy. No one can reverse the impact of abuse. Simultaneously learning to believe I was not responsible for being abused, I was accepting full responsibility for surviving its effects. Nothing could be more unjust. There was no choice except to excavate the buried trauma, feel it all, and accept it into my identity. There was no turning back. In therapy I had found sanctuary after all these years. Dark memories were already pouring out of the ruins.

Eventually, I read The Drama of the Gifted Child. It was a watershed to encounter someone who knew my suffering. Alice Miller’s unlikely credibility seemed drawn from her patients and her trauma during the war. Miller’s courage confronting the past became my courage. Her vision of breaking a cycle of pain became my vision. Like millions of readers, I went from victim to empowered. With the permission I found in her writing, I started to share bits of memories with my therapist.

In the 1980s, Alice Miller became a champion for survivors of clergy abuse too wounded previously to contradict the public look of a blameless Church. She exemplified speaking the truth about abuse no matter the cost. Her rejection of powerful established authorities like Freud and Jung made us braver about rejecting other authority worth questioning. By revealing a little bit about her life in each new book, she taught us a confessional style of piecemeal storytelling, just like her many psychological biographical sketches did.

For me, it was very personal. My struggle to name the truth began in the first instance of abuse. I had been up against a web of abusers and enablers, some of whom held power over my eternal life. The more I understood what happened to me, the more I saw multiple adults complicit in an act of collective cruelty so damaging that it left many victims dead from addictions or other damaging means by which we obediently destroy ourselves rather than reveal the banished facts. This wall of silence in the sanctuary has left many victims dead spiritually. Every one of these fates I came very close to sharing.

Alice Miller became for me an important part of a protective wedge against Catholicism. My rejection of the Church’s moral authority had been notional since junior high, but my contempt grew deeper as memories of abusers became clear. I faced a dire choice between truth and the lies of abuse, between sanity and the denial of abuse. Choosing to reject the Church’s denials and lies became easier each day. Gilbert Gauthe[1] was making headlines in New York City news. Then, more allegations hit. Child abuse turned out to be commonplace. The wedge was firmly placed between me and any possible return to the faith of my childhood.

Alice Miller’s ideas were very helpful sorting all this out. Oddly, her ideas felt credible because, in retrospect, I see they were familiar. They echoed my Catholic worldview. We are born with dignity and innocence and beauty. My parents, educators, pediatrician, clergy, nuns, bishop, law enforcement had failed because they were all fallen. We are all fallen. The sins might be mortal for some, but it’s not as if human beings could be expected to exceed their nature in a godless setting. Miller’s crushing, universal cycle of generational trauma notably lacked an interventionist God. Its view of man’s fate seemed Calvinist, not Catholic. The salvation I understood was an individual choice to break the chains of what, in Miller’s worldview, seemed to be a mechanistic description of original sin. Poisonous pedagogy would be natural in this post-Eden world, along with the perversion of theology and forgiveness for sinister ends. Sorting all this out took decades.

My Catholicism also created a wedge between Miller’s ideas and my choices. The defining break came over the idea that “sparing parents is our supreme law.” The logical conclusion was one had to reject parents to reject the abuse they passed along. I had tried that before reading Miller. Years had passed since I had communicated with my parents, but every day my heart hurt with the rupture between us. How could I ignore my own heart when I was learning during recovery to believe my own feelings and truth? Alice Miller denounced forgiving parents for their conspiracy with societal forces hiding abuse for generations, but weren’t my parents also victims of harm worthy of an enlightened listener? I knew enough of family history to know they had worked without faltering to give me a better life than they had. I was ready to reconcile if not forgive, ready to let my parents retire as idols of my childhood and become humans whom I loved. It was a very big step away from what Alice Miller represented to renew my connection with my parents, but I did anyway.

Despite my ambivalence toward her vision, Alice Miller’s influence was strong enough to catalyze my recovery from abuse, and it saved my life. In the 1980s, with my newly found truthful voice, I shared my abuse background with my physician, who wrote it in my file. As my health started to deteriorate, specialist after specialist examined me, reviewed my file, and dismissed my symptoms as nothing more than depression common in victims. Clinging to a fragile belief in my story and confirmed by Miller in the potential failure of experts like Freud and Jung, I visited almost two dozen specialists over two years. They all dismissed the symptoms as a concoction in my head. The last specialist proved them right. She discovered that I had a brain tumor. It was all in my head. Without believing myself over world-class authorities, I would have become a victim of experts as surely and Miller was describing, and as surely as the founders of AA had faced. If even medical expertise could fail me, was there any authority that would not falter or waver? Surviving the first brain tumor would bring me back to the One who is not subject to the fall of icons.

My therapist hung in there with me through the illness and surgery. Soon after I ended therapy. As a parting gift, I found her a first edition of The Drama of the Gifted Child in which I inscribed a thank-you for being the “enlightened listener” who had offered me the safety and consistency I needed to survive the worst of recovery. By then I had stopped reading Miller. Not until last year did I read her book The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Hurtful Parenting, after a friend suggested I would like Miller’s take on the lifelong physiological impact of abuse. I did, but I also recognized her familiar admonitions against forgiveness and the fourth commandment.

In 2010, Alice Miller suffered an untimely death. Remembrances appeared in print news and journals which had, thirty years before, refrained from reviewing her first book. She had become a legend in psychology and in the culture. She also earned legendary status within publishing circles as mercurial and difficult. It was like a family secret, well-kept. A few years after her death, Alice Miller’s son would reveal he shocking details about the public and private faces of his mother. Most people in publishing with any memory of her rise to fame would not share the public shock that ensued.

Estranged from her own son, Miller died by her own hand after having learned she had terminal pancreatic cancer. Like any idol bound to the temporal world, Alice Miller deserves my respect, love, grief, and forgiveness for her fragile humanity. She also deserves nothing less than my recognizing the truth that she could not save me, even though nothing can eclipse the influence her ideas and bold voice had in my healing, including from the physiological impact of abuse on my brain. My therapy was rich with her insights and courage for which I remain grateful. The best way to express a caveat is to describe how, while Alice Miller was still in the spotlight of my esteem, my actions remained incongruous for one who really agreed with her rejection of the Church. My therapist cautioned against returning to the scene of the crime as I regularly slipped into the back pew of St. Francis of Assisi in midtown Manhattan to pray in peace during Adoration. For all she gave the field of recovery and trauma care, Alice Miller had missed something defining for me—the emotional damage of an unreconciled rupture, first between me and my parents, even more between me and my God.


[1] Gilbert Gauthe of Louisiana was the first priest arrested for abusing boys. He confessed to harming 37 victims and, in 1985, was sentenced to 20 years in prison, of which he served ten years. (Editor’s Note: This article was originally published with an auto-correct error, naming Gauthe as Gaugin. Apologies to Gaugin fans, and to those for whom accuracy in spelling the other name is important.)

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