This continues The Healing Voices Series on Alice Miller: Icon & Ideas
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.Alice Miller
Alice Miller was quite secretive about her life details. Revelations in each of her new books created a sense of intimacy with readers, but a review of the full picture of her story suggested someone adept at remaining hidden. In 2010, following her death by suicide, remembrances made passing note of a characteristic guardedness, which survivors interpreted as a fellow survivor’s reticence. For many, Miller’s silence seemed authentic, not incongruous. Even publishing types understated their hints of her difficulty as author.
The fact is that few people knew much about Alice Miller. In publications and interviews, she managed to share little. Her husband, some years after they divorced, was said to have shared a belief he had suffered abuse as a child which, in vague terms, he admitted having passed on. Her son, Martin, remained out of the spotlight until after her death. Alice Miller’s childhood and youth remained equally unknown. It is not hard to imagine that era. There are ample historical records. Miller was one among thousands upon thousands of Europeans—Jews and Gentiles alike—who survived atrocities rampant during both world wars, as had Elie Wiesel and Francois Mauriac. War crimes had occurred everywhere, including in occupied private homes and villages. It was easy to speculate, but impossible to know. Yet it seemed to suffice for those wondering if, besides abuse revealed in Banished Knowledge, Miller, a pioneer in trauma care, had suffered other trauma.
That changed when, several years after Miller’s death, her son, Dr. Martin Miller, published her biography, The True ‘Drama of the Gifted Child.’ Martin Miller’s book was not readily accepted in U.S. media, which seldom shies away from downbeat revelations. It was an ironic twist reminiscent of the establishment response to Alice Miller’s first book in 1980. Outside the U.S. there was more interest in Martin’s biography, although the psychology profession retained a notable silence in response to it. Some international publications took on the topic and published full transcripts from long interviews with Martin. Based on two of these interviews (see footnote), Martin Miller’s story is related here. It is, as Israeli journalist Maya Sela said, truly the trauma of a gifted child whose abusive mother happened to be Alice Miller.
Martin claims were astonishing. For example, while Alice Miller, a Jew, was living under an assumed identity as a Christian in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation of Poland, her true identity was discovered by a member of the Gestapo. In return for protecting her from certain death in the camps, she agreed to live with him as a couple. After the war, they continued as husband and wife, moving together to Switzerland and giving birth to their only child, Martin, who described his life as being “born into this ‘Nazi Holocaust situation.’” His father was brutal, violent, and demeaning toward his half-Jewish son. Despite Martin’s constant appeals for help, Alice Miller remained passive. Martin recalled how devastating it was to hear his mother forcefully denounce in public all violence against children, while at home he suffered merciless abuse without advocate or protection.
Martin recalled his parents working in concert to hide the truth of their relationship and his identity. They spoke in Polish, which they forbid him to learn. Once he became an independent adult, he managed to reconstruct his own story—and so, theirs too—through memories of comments by his mother and extensive research. Martin described the process as an exercise in his own recovery from a violent and traumatic past. Writing the book also liberated him from the pain of all of Miller’s fans, who would gush over the public persona of his mother while he was left tormented knowing the secrets and lies at work.
It confirms how important it is to do this kind of work. It gives you orientation, you know who you are, where you stand.Martin Miller
Martin, a practicing psychotherapist, described his own experience of therapy as very different from what Alice Miller helped many survivors enjoy. Martin tried and fled from therapy 14 times, explaining that no therapist was brave enough to listen to him and affirm his life’s story for fear of his mother. He described ways Alice Miller bullied therapists or conspired to have them talk him out of his descriptions of abuse. At one point, Alice Miller would spy on everything he divulged during therapy by having sessions secretly taped. At other times she threatened to denounce him publicly if he went public with the story of his childhood of abuse.
The son ultimately relied on Alice Miller’s ideas to make peace with what he had suffered. He described how constructing the full, hidden story helped him come out of hiding and make sense of what happened in his family and to him. Reconstructing the true story and revealing that history was his act of justice on his own behalf. It permitted him, one might say, to break the wall of silence and speak the banished facts of his childhood. He wanted to stop the lies and talk about how war affects generations but also how it is possible to heal from the wounds of abuse and of one’s parent’s trauma. It is really possible “to leave the past behind.”
It was hard for Alice Miller’s fans and proteges to take Martin Miller’s story in and integrate it with the champion Alice Miller had been for decades. It saddened me, but by the time I read the interview of Martin I understood the trauma bond Alice Miller may have felt, and surmised with others she may have been in a state of constant disassociation. In one way, Martin followed suit with his mother, who made her reputation writing the psycho-biographies of all sorts of historical figures based on a blend of fact and speculation. For that reason alone, I felt I could not dismiss Martin’s story.
The news of Alice Miller’s possibly lifelong traumatized state and devious behavior hit me long after I had made peace with Alice Miller. I had retired my ambivalence toward her ideas and their effect on my recovery. I had already restored my esteem for her by accepting she was a stepping stone and a fallen idol. By the time I learned of ruptured relationships in Alice Miller’s life, I had already found something far more sure than the fruits of her approach to long-term recovery. It was far more sure and incomparably better as a focus for a thriving life. Ironically, it was something given to me by my parents, whom I long ago forgave. Even more ironically, if one can say such a thing, it was my Catholic faith.
The point is to look at one’s story, how one has experienced it, to deal with that kind of reality. To look, to have the courage to look. That is not about revenge. It is about beginning to understand things which used to be forbidden, which were impossible to understand.Martin Miller
Blohm, Uta. Interview: Martin Miller. Contemporary Psychotherapy, Volume 7, Number 1, Summer 2015.
Sela, Maya. The Trauma of a Gifted Child Whose Mother Was Alice Miller. Haaretz.com. October 4, 2018. Accessed 9/15/20.