Unrecognized and Unconscious Emotional Injuries of Childhood, Part I

In Memoriam: Alice Miller
One of the great advocates of children and their struggles against unrecognized mistreatment has died. “Alice Miller, a psychoanalyst who repositioned the family as a locus of dysfunction with her theory that parental power and punishment lay at the root of nearly all human problems, died at her home in Provence on April 14. She was 87” (New York Times, April 26, 2010). “The author of a dozen books, Miller was best known for her first endeavor, ‘The Drama of the Gifted Child and the Search for the True Self.’ Published in the U.S. in 1981 as ‘Prisoners of Childhood,’ it sold more than a million copies with its shocking thesis that nearly all children are abused but repress the pain and are likely to repeat the unhealthy patterns with the next generation” (Los Angeles Times, May 1, 2010). “There is not any doubt that Mrs. Alice Miller’s greatest wish in her life was that everybody does fully understand that maltreating a child has a disastrous impact on his future life and finally will reflect negatively on the entire society” (Brigitte Oriol, Official Notice, Alice Miller website [], April 23, 2010)
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Alice Miller wrote three wonderful and powerful books about the dilemma of children who grow up with parents who had experienced emotional hurt and/or deprivation from their own parents. We often tend to think that the emotional injuries suffered by children occur only in an environment of parental malice, but unfortunately that is not the case. Often, as Dr. Miller so eloquently and poignantly portrays, a parent’s emotional inadequacies, deficiencies, insecurities, injuries, and incomplete emotional and psychological development are unconsciously passed on to or perpetrated upon their children. She draws upon historical figures, such as Adolph Hitler, case studies that are well known in the psychoanalytic literature such as The Wolf Man, and figures from literature and mythology to illustrate her points. She frequently focuses on issues concerning physical and sexual abuse, but she clearly recognizes and asserts how childhood experiences of psychological and emotional hurts can be just as damaging, even when those hurts and injuries may have been inflicted unconsciously and even when their purveyor may have had the best of intentions.
Alice Miller. Prisoners of Childhood: The Drama of the Gifted Child and the Search for the True Self. New York: Basic Books. 1981.
————– For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux. 1983.
————– Thou Shalt Not Be Aware. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux. 1984.
While it may be helpful for the reader to have a psychological background, it is certainly not necessary in order to fully appreciate what Miller is saying. In fact, before I read these books, I had heard so much about them from people who are not themselves psychotherapists, that I had the impression that the books were all written for the layperson.
These three books will be excerpted here separately. This article begins with the first of her books as Part I. Parts II and III will each follow in later postings.
From the book jacket (Prisoners of Childhood: The Drama of the Gifted Child and the Search for the True Self):
“The ‘drama’ of the gifted – i.e., sensitive, alert – child consists of his recognition at a very early age of his parents’ needs and of his adaptation to those needs. In the process, he learns to repress rather than to acknowledge his own intense feelings because they are unacceptable to his parents. Although it will not always be possible to avoid these “ugly” feelings (e.g., anger, indignation, despair, jealousy, fear) in the future, they will split off, i.e., the most vital part of the ‘true self’ (a key phrase in Alice Miller’s works) will not be integrated into the personality. This leads to emotional insecurity and loss of self, which are revealed in depression or concealed behind the facade of grandiosity.
“Alice Miller defines the ideal state of genuine vitality, of free access to the true self, and to authentic individual feelings that have their roots in childhood, as ‘healthy narcissism.’ Narcissistic disturbances, on the other hand, represent for her solitary confinement of the true self within the prison of the false self. This is regarded less as an illness than a tragedy.
“The examples Alice Miller presents make us aware of the child’s unarticulated suffering and of the tragedy of parents who are unavailable to their children – the same parents who, when they were children, were unavailable to fill their parents’ needs. In her psychoanalytical work, Dr. Miller found that her patients’ ability to experience authentic feelings, especially feelings of sadness, had been for the most part destroyed; it was her task to help her patients try to regain that long-lost capacity for genuine feelings, which is the source of natural vitality.”
Prisoners of Childhood lays the groundwork that is carried through in her next two books. The following quotes from this book will explain her orientation of understanding and perspective.
“Children who fulfill their parents’ conscious or unconscious wishes are ‘good,’ but if they ever refuse to do so or express wishes of their own that go against those of their parents, they are called egoistic and inconsiderate. It usually does not occur to the parents that they might need and use the child to fulfill their own egoistic wishes. (p. vii)
“[A] mother who, as a child, was herself not taken seriously by her mother as the person she really was will crave this respect from her child as a substitute; and she will try to get it by training him to give it to her. (p. viii)
“How inconceivable it is really to love others (not merely to need them), if one cannot love oneself as one really is. And how could a person do that if, from the very beginning, he has had no chance to experience his true feelings and to learn to know himself? (p. viii-ix)
“A child is at the mother’s disposal…. A child can be so brought up that it becomes what she [mother] wants it to be. A child can be made to show respect, she can impose her own feelings on him, see herself mirrored in his love and admiration, and feel strong in his presence, but when he becomes too much she can abandon that child to a stranger. The mother can feel herself the center of attention, for her child’s eyes follow her everywhere. When a woman had to suppress and repress all these needs in relation to her own mother, they rise from the depths of her unconscious and seek gratification through her own child, however well-educated and well-intentioned she may be, and however much she is aware of what a child needs. The child feels this clearly and very soon forgoes the expression of his own play fallout shelter hacked distress. (p. 11)
“True liberation can only be found beyond the deep ambivalence of infantile dependence…. But a child can never see through unconscious manipulation. It is like the air he breathes; he knows no other, and it appears to him to be the only normal possibility. (p. 23-24)
“One is totally defenseless against this sort of manipulation in childhood. The tragedy is that the parents have no defense against it, since they do not know what is happening, and even if they have some inkling can do nothing to change it. Their conscious aims are genuinely quite different, even giving every possible support; but unconsciously the parents’ childhood tragedy is continued in their children. (p. 25)
“Probably everybody has a more or less concealed inner chamber that he hides even from himself and in which the props of his childhood drama are to be found…. The only ones who will certainly gained entrance to this hidden chamber are his children…. The props may well have frightened him at times…. They represented the split-off, unintegrated part of the parents. But the child cannot experience this contradiction consciously; he simply accepts everything and, at the most, develops symptoms. (p. 25- 26)
“I understand a healthy self-feeling to mean the unquestioned certainty that the feelings and wishes one experiences are a part of one’s self…. This automatic, natural contact with his own emotions and wishes gives an individual strength and self-esteem. He may live out his feelings, be sad, despairing, or in need of help, without fear of making the introjected mother insecure. He can allow himself to be afraid when he is threatened, or angry when his wishes are not fulfilled. He knows not only what he does not want but also what he wants and is able to express this, irrespective of whether he will be loved or hated for it. (p.33)
“The true opposition of depression is not gaiety or absence of pain, but vitality: the freedom to experience spontaneous feelings. It is part of the kaleidoscope of life that these feelings are not only cheerful, “beautiful,” and “good;” they also can display the whole scale of human experience, including envy, jealousy, rage, disgust, greed, despair, and mourning…. The “true self” is thus only possible when he no longer has to be afraid of the intense… emotional world of his early childhood. (p. 57)
“When our children can consciously experience their early helplessness and narcissistic rage, they will no longer need to ward off their helplessness, in turn, with exercise of power over others. In most cases, however, one’s own childhood suffering remains affectively inaccessible and thus forms the hidden source of new and sometimes very subtle humiliation for the next generation. (p. 70)
“[T]here are needs that can and should be satisfied in the present…. Among these is every human being’s central need to express himself – to show himself to the world as he really is – in word, in gesture, in behavior, in every genuine utterance from the baby’s cry to the artist’s creation. (p. 81-82)
“A mother can have the best intentions to respect her child and yet be unable to do so, so long as she does not realize what deep shame she causes him with an ironic remark, intended only to cover her own uncertainty. Indeed, she cannot be aware of how deeply humiliated, despised, and devalued her child feels, if she herself has never consciously suffered these feelings, if she tries to fend them off with irony…. One can, however, develop sensitivity toward recognizing it and can experience it consciously, and thus gain control over it. (p. 90)
“Often a child’s very gift, his great intensity of feeling, depth of experience, curiosity, intelligence, quickness – and his ability to be critical – will confront his parents with conflicts that they have long sought to keep at bay with rules and regulations. These regulations must then be rescued at the cost of the child’s development. (p. 97)
“When the patient has truly emotionally worked through the history of his childhood, and he has so regained his sense of being alive – then the goal of the analysis has been reached…. When the patient, in the course of his analysis, has consciously repeatedly experienced (and share this site not only learned from the analyst’s interpretations) how the whole process of his bringing up did manipulate him in his childhood, and what desires for revenge this has left him with, then he will see through manipulation quicker than before and will himself have less need to manipulate others…. He will be in less danger of idealizing people or systems if he has realized clearly enough how as a child he has taken every word uttered by mother or father for the deepest wisdom… Finally, a person who has consciously worked through the whole tragedy of his own fate will recognize another’s suffering more clearly and quickly, though the other may still have to try to hide it. He will not be scornful of others’ feelings, whatever their nature, because he can take his own feelings seriously. He surely will not help to keep the vicious circle of contempt turning. (p. 111-113)”
Alice Miller was a source share this website of inspiration and support for many of my patients. Her books have stood as a beacon in the dark to many people who grew up in the kinds of homes she describes and who felt invisible in their struggles with hurt, pain, and suffering because their injuries were emotional, not physical, and had occurred in regular parent child interactions and not as a result of physical or sexual abuse, though that may have also happened. As one of my patients said, in contrasting her to his own mother, “She was like the mother I wanted but never had.”
She will be greatly missed, but her legacy stands strong and will continue to provide an anchor for those people who grew up in the midst of emotional abuse that was never recognized. She stands witness to those invisible scars and proclaims their damage. Those children who had to endure such injuries no longer have to stand alone, because she stands with them and says, “I know. I understand.”