Trauma-Wisdom Pioneer

A Healing Voices Series on Alice Miller: Icon & Ideas

Dr. Alice Miller provides a great introduction to the roots of trauma-informed care. From her work came key foundational ideas along with lingering controversies. This look at her life, and subsequent articles about her primary works, offer snapshots in case you don’t have time to delve into her work more fully, or just might enjoy a refresher from the survivor point of view.

Why the spotlight on Alice Miller?

Dr. Alice Miller (1923-2010) is the world-renowned psychoanalyst, researcher, and author of classic works who challenged deeply entrenched, traditional psychological protocols regarding mental illness. She is the leader in popularizing the idea of childhood trauma as the driver in the life stories of most (if not all) adults with mental illness, addiction, compulsion, criminal and violent behavior. Miller drew on her substantial suffering as a child and teen to create this new kind of clinical empathy that turned the practice of therapy upside down in the 20th century.

Later in her life, Miller revealed psychological abuse within her home. This domestic abuse shows up in her works, but her lived experience during the worst violence in 20th century Europe also had to have had an impact on Miller’s view of trauma.

20th Century Europe

Born Jewish in Poland in 1924, Alice Miller was a child living in Berlin with her parents when the National Socialists (Nazis) rose to power. Her family fled home to Poland. While escaping fatality in death camps, they were interred in a Jewish ghetto. There disease, hunger, fear, and terror were constant. Miller escaped and assumed a false identity living as a Pole in Warsaw. She managed to smuggle her mother and sisters out, but her father and other family perished.

After the war, Miller married and moved to Switzerland.[1] She earned degrees in philosophy, psychology and sociology. She set up a practice in psychoanalysis. Then in the late 1970s, she published The Drama of the Gifted Child in French and English. She soon made a public break from both Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytic schools[2] whose dominance in the practice of mental health care at that time cannot be overstated. Of the psychoanalysis which she had practiced until then, Miller recalled: “For twenty years I observed people denying their childhood traumas, idealizing their parents and resisting the truth about their childhood by any means.[3]

Impact

For twenty years, Miller was a prolific writer, selling millions of copies of books and being translated into many languages. The ideas she explored begot ideas in many other books in the self-help and recovery publishing niches, as well as a stream of articles and studies among academic and clinical researchers. Even those taking issue with Miller amplified her ideas as they were forced to refute hers to advance their own.

Miller’s ideas were diverse and far-reaching, even believing the patterns she observed were found in every culture on earth. Her signature approach, however, might be described as a theory and practice by which “former victims of child abuse <could> recognize the violations inflicted on them and … resolve the consequences of the abuse.”[4] This was a step into freedom from “the old tradition of blaming the child and protecting the parents.”[5] There were excesses and abuses of the idea, but there was a great new wave of clinical care that became more effective in establishing well-being among patients freed of the burden of hiding past trauma.

Contemporaries

Miller’s contemporaries offer insight into a wave of new thought on which she road, and which she helped to make. Among these contemporaries was R.D. Laing (1927-1989), a Scottish psychiatrist who rejected chemical and electric shock protocols then in broad use, including for psychosis. Miller would explicitly join Laing to denounce electroconvulsive therapy as “a campaign against the act of remembering.”[6] The theories of both and others challenged colleagues’ detachment as potentially dangerous. They cast a spotlight on the inherent failure of practitioners to respect what the patient had suffered and had to say. They brought a new level of humane consideration into mental health care.

Alice Miller also had contemporaries in Elie Wiesel and Francois Mauriac. Wiesel’s experience of the urban Jewish ghetto and two concentration camps was a story of trauma he did not share until a dramatic encounter with Francois Mauriac (see last week’s Maybe Talk About It). The therapeutic impact of this encounter, which unfolded as friendship and not a clinical exchange, reflects how Miller’s concept of the “enlightened witness” captured a de facto healing process of a traumatized European generation. Though supported with research, there was nothing academic about what Miller offered her patients or her reading public, and her readers took her wisdom with all its controversies into the real world outside personal psychoanalysis.

The search for the “enlightened witness” framed expectations of one’s therapist and highlighted the power of peer support and mentoring which was already flourishing in 12 Step programs.

Teresa Pitt Green

Wounded Healer

Admittedly using a Jungian term to describe a scholar who denounced Jungian theory, I see in Miller a wounded healer. Her childhood home and the violent world affected every aspect of her life. They also became the source of discomfort with paradigms framed in another prior age. It was both her suffering and her discomfort with an outdated process made her who she was. She helped free millions of people from well-meaning help that imposed answers rather than cultivated well-being. She helped thousands of clinicians achieve their highest dream of practicing ably.

The positive impact of Miller’s work cannot be overstated, and with that came excesses against which she warned but could not prevail. Her ideas changed the very nature of the counseling for abuse I received in the 1980s and 1990s. For that I am very grateful, indeed breathe a sigh of relief when I compare what I might have encountered. Then again, I also, with the decades that have followed, reflect how my experience also proves how her ideas could be unably applied in haste by practitioners not grounded enough to be the “enlightened witness” Miller imagined to be the seraph in healing.


In the coming weeks, summaries of a few of Miller’s most influential books will be appearing in The Healing Voices Magazine.


SOURCES: Facts were checked and drawn from Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gift Child and Wikipedia contributors. (June 20, 2020). Alice Miller (psychologist). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 8/29/2020 https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Alice_Miller_(psychologist)&oldid=965275019 along with the following sources:

  • [1] In his writing and interviews, Miller’s ex-husband was fluent in how his own childhood trauma had unfolded, echoing his dialogue with Miller as well as raising the question in some scholars’ view that he helped formulate  her theories about childhood abuse effecting development and adult lives.
  • [2] From Wikipedia: Psychologie Heute, date 4-1987, article ‘Wie Psychotherapien das Kind verraten’, authors Alice Miller, Barbara Vögler, pages 20-31, Beltz publishers. (Translated by Google)
  • [3] From WikiPedia: Bilder einer Kindheit. Aquarelle und ein Essay, First Edition. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. 1985. p. 12.
  • [4] Alice Miller: About the author book covers.
  • [6] From Miller, Alice. For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence. (1980. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.).

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