Six Top Alice Miller Themes

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

Alice Miller’s many ideas are worth exploring in more detail, but here are a few of the most influential ones in trauma recovery and in our cultural. For many people who are recovering from abuse, it may even come as a surprise that these are theories of one woman and a subsequent school of therapy—and not agreed-to by a consensus of all experts.

Child Trauma as Universal

For Alice Miller, the drama of the child unfolded as each child faced trauma early in life and tapped his or her gift for ways to adapt and survive. The dignity of the child is given primacy in this paradigm, but the world in which each child is raised is marked by violent social norms, cruel punishment, and parents damaged psychologically by an earlier generation’s norms of abuse. While some chose to see this as applying to select adults, Miller tended to universalize the trauma of childhood.

Generational Cycles of Abuse

Miller described each child as forced to deny his or her own authentic self to anticipate the needs and expectations of those able to protect and feed him or her. Self was exchanged for survival in a feral world. The price of parental love in this world was very high. The cycle seemed hard-wired. Children would grow into adults with their own unresolved subconscious conflicts, which as adults they would inflict or act out on the next generation ad nauseum. The outcome of this generational legacy explained repressed anger, pain, depression, and mental illness.[1] And sexual abuse.

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

Rampant Abuse in Every Life

Miller broadened the idea of child abuse beyond physical violence and sexual abuse. They were not all illegal, such as the death of a parent. They were, for whole generations of certain regions, experienced due to war, persecution, or famine. Miller claimed that societies rationalized or suppressed trauma in children—whether legal or not; whether physical, sexual, or psychological. For example, corporal punishment was sanctioned, and emotional or psychological abuse was rampant and ignored completely.

Damaged Adults Everywhere

Trauma from abuse created damaged adults especially where the experiences remained unresolved, unspoken, alienated from the conscious self. Miller broke with both Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytic theory by insisting that this unresolved childhood trauma is the root cause of all mental illnesses, compulsions, addictions, crime, and war. For her, the child and adult were and remained victims whom she saw Freud and Jung as blaming and strapping with the obligation to forgive.

Universalized Trauma

Alice Miller universalized her theories. As truth, she believed they transcended time and space and culture. Children all over the world were indeed victims of parental beatings and other violence. She explained that, from a child’s point of view, the pain worse than abuse is the pain of the abandonment and exposure to abuse. It threatened some ideal which children have of parents (and any caregiving adults). An unbroken cycle of victimization in the home passed down generations, in every era and every culture, with each parent displacing unresolved trauma upon their child.

Sanctioned Abuse

Miller criticized her profession relentlessly, along with other societally dominant paradigms like Judeo-Christianity. She criticized them all for having made “sparing parents is our supreme law.” Therapists were guilty of abiding by this law when they applied diagnoses which blamed the victim or rationalized abuse. The Judeo-Christian admonition to forgive (which Jungians also recommended) was just another way to give abusers a pass and to force the victim to assume responsibility for evil perpetrated by the abuser and all those complicit in empowering the abuser.[2] She also criticized the Fourth Commandment by name, saying the command to “honor thy father and thy mother” was tantamount to excusing parental abuse of children.

Something worth noticing is how Miller saw her theories applying universally—to all individuals and all societies. She was speaking about the imprint of a capacity for evil in every person and how that altered whole societies and, as we’ll see in the next installment of The Healing Voices Series on Alice Miller: Icon & Ideas, all of history.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Wedge, Marilyn. The Drama of the Gifted Child. Psychology Today (February 12, 2006, Updated June 27, 2012). Accessed July 29, 2020 https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/suffer-the-children/201206/the-drama-the-gifted-child

[2] Miller, Alice. Abbruch der Schweigemauer (The Demolition of Silence), and multiple other works.

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