Timeline: Alice Miller’s Top Books

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

Over the course of her prolific career, Alice Miller coined terms we find in therapy and along other paths toward recovery from abuse and trauma. The term often is exactly as coined, but sometimes the concept is unnamed but can still lead us back to one of Miller’s books. To prove the point, what follows is the timeline for the most famous of Miller’s books after The Drama of the Gifted Child. The nugget in each is often a term but always a concept that will be very familiar to most readers.

Poisonous Pedagogy

For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence appeared in the U.S. in 1983.[1] Following The Drama of the Gifted Child, Miller wrote a book focused on two men in particular—Adolf Hitler and a contemporary serial murderer—and how (what she believed were) universal child-rearing practices created these and all violent personalities. Here she coined the term “poisonous pedagogy,” to describe how societies perpetuated cycles of abuse and violence in the way children were raised. Survivors continued to find in her work the permission to seek dignity harmed in abuse and to lay blame outside themselves for the tragedy and violence of abuse in their lives and their families.

Personal Truth

Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society’s Betrayal of the Child was published in the U.S. in 1984.[2] By now, Miller had made a very public break with Freudian and Jungian schools of psychoanalysis. Here she explained her view that these schools reinforced society’s betrayal of children, blaming children at times implicitly and other times explicitly for being abused. She continued popularize the idea that victims were entitled to have a voice and a “truth” that did not match those of their parents, of society, or of the psychiatric establishment. Victims should be believed and not further silenced by efforts to quell or otherwise channel their feelings of rage or hurt. Only by owning those feelings could the cycle of generational abuse in all societies be broken. (While people now sometimes mock the idea of “my truth,” I notice the critics are usually young enough not to have lived when trauma and abuse was never mentioned and individual understanding of life’s agonies was not typical even in the spiritual life.)

The Enlightened Listener

Banished Knowledge[3] considered Miller’s view of poisonous pedagogy from the point of view of a child victim who typically blames him- or herself and tries to forget (or banish) the memory of the trauma, becoming complicit with parental and societal secrecy about abuse. Keeping this secret into adulthood creates misery and perpetuates abuse, except for hope in a process for feeling loved and cherished as a healing adult. Here Miller introduced the figure of the “enlightened listener” who provides that safe place to reveal banished knowledge and heal—breaking the generational cycle of abuse. Miller’s revelation that she had been abused by her mother created a sensation about this book among her readers and in the press.

Creativity as Therapeutic

The Untouched Key was published in English in 1991[4] as a way to resolve the tension between Miller’s idea of the “gifted” or creative child (victim) and what readers were seeing as an almost inevitable brutish or destructive adulthood. Here she provided a compilation of psycho-biographies for artists and madmen, from Picasso to Nietzsche to Buster Keaton. The profiles included factual and speculative information about damaging parenting, with a description of how the damage was channeled by each person into a creative or destructive madness.

Wall of Silence

Breaking Down the Wall of Silence: The Liberating Experience of Facing Painful Truth[5] was published in 1993 as Miller’s response to the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989). She presented psycho-biographies of Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Nicolae Ceausecu to show how their brutal upbringings led to their brutal roles in history. Returning to her fundamental theories, she argued that all humanity is complicit in a “wall of silence,” fashioned and maintained by clinicians, academics, media and others who sought to banish the reality of child abuse.

Illness & Forgiveness

The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Hurtful Parenting was published in English in 2006[6] to incorporate recent years’ of research into the lifelong physiological impact of buried memories of abuse and trauma on victims. Psycho-biographies were mostly on literary greats like Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and Franz Kafka. Here Miller focused on the danger of forgiveness and the commandment to honor one’s father and mother. She argued that the trade-off in forgiving one’s parents and honoring them despite their cruelty was a happy adult life and a liberation from the generational cycles of abuse.

Storytelling

Alice Miller published groundbreaking books over the course of 32 years. One of her routine approaches was to retell the psycho-biography of known historical and contemporary figures, offering accurate and speculative detail about their upbringing and those motives that drove their behavior. This style provided ample case studies to prove her theories, and also sparked critics who said she was proving theory with theories about people she did not interview. She, the champion of victims speaking their truths for themselves, was taking away their voices. Yet, with her storytelling license, Miller popularized many of her ideas and themes at a moment when the culture was making big shifts–and doing so using her easily accessible pedagogy about recovering from childhood trauma. Meanwhile, the number of her critics was growing, and it included her psychoanalyst son, Martin Miller.


FOOTNOTES

[1] For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence was first published in German in 1980 by Suhrkamp Verlag and published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1983.

[2] Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society’s Betrayal of the Child was first published in German by Suhrkamp Verlag and first released in the U.S. in 1984 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[3] Banished Knowledge: Facing Childhood Memories was first published in German in 1988 by Suhrkamp Verlag and released in English by Nan Talese/Doubleday in 1990.

[4] The Untouched Key: Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness was published in English by Doubleday in 1990 and in German by Suhrkamp Verlag in 1991.

[5] Breaking Down the Wall of Silence: The Liberating Experience of Facing Painful Truth (1990) was published in German by Hoffmann und Campe Verlag in 1990 and in English by Meridian (Dutton Signet) in 1993.

[6] The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Hurtful Parenting was published in German in 2004 and by Norton in 2006.

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