The Feeling Child | An Interview With Alice Miller

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Interview with Alice Miller by Diane Connors for OMNI Publications International March 1987: “Alice Miller’s stories portray abused and silenced children who later become destructive to themselves and to others.

. . . ‘The way we were treated as small children is the way we treat ourselves the rest of our lives: with cruelty or with tenderness and protection,’ [Miller says]. ‘We often impose our most agonizing suffering upon ourselves and, later, on our children.’

In 1979 Miller’s first book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, was published in Germany. First titled Prisoners of Childhood, its three short essays described how parents project their feelings, ideas, and dreams upon their children. To survive and be loved, a child learns to obey. In repressing his or her feelings, the child stifles attempts to be herself or himself. The result, said Miller, is all too often depression, ebbing of vitality, the loss of self.

. . . there is hope in therapy if the therapist is a true advocate of the patient. Respect for the child within the patient and his discovery of his real history must play a role in the treatment process. The child undergoes a long inner struggle ‘between the fear of losing the person he loves if he remains true to himself, and panic at the prospect of losing himself if he has to deny who he is. A child cannot resolve a conflict of this nature and is forced to conform because he cannot survive by himself. Therapy should not repeat this condition.’

. . . Why do some professionals deny what you’re saying?

Because they are not allowed to face reality. You know, it was interesting. The first time I talked on these ideas was when I spoke to about three hundred analysts on the narcissism of psychoanalysts. They were so surprised, because it was very unusual to hear a colleague side with the child. First they reacted naturally, were just grateful and did not show much resistance to their feelings. They thanked me and said, ‘But how did you know it was my life you described?’ And I said, ‘It was my own life I described.’ Many men had tears in their eyes. Then I tried to publish this article in a German professional review, but the editors refused it. Resistance was already established. They sent it back because they had to see everything as Freud would have; otherwise it is frightening or dangerous. The International Analytic Society published it in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis. But the German review, Psyche, did not. It was too provoking for the Germans.

What were the provocative issues?

That neurosis and psychosis result from repressed feelings that are a reaction to trauma. The child’s anger and all the other feelings we don’t like are reactions to child abuse.

Today we know that we have a lot of child abuse. It was silenced before. The child must repress the memory of this abuse and deny the pain in order to survive; otherwise he would be killed by the pain.

Might this happen so early in the child’s development that he lacks words, understanding, or permission to express the pain?

The words have to be found. A good therapy should help the patient evolve from a ‘silent child’ to a ‘talking child.’ The child couldn’t have found the words if the trauma were too early, or the environment too hostile. But now, in therapy, if you have a therapist who is really your advocate, your conscious witness for when you experienced your trauma for the first time, then you become a talking child. Therapy exists to help you find the words to tell your mother or father how you felt at that time when they hurt you or how you felt when you could not talk — even that.

What do you mean by advocate?

One who sides with the child. Always. The therapist must not say the parents were disturbed but well-meaning, because he is then siding with the grown-ups. If the child thinks that the parents who behaved so strangely and humiliated him were well-meaning, he cannot feel his pain, and he sympathizes instead with his parents . . . A battered child feels humiliated, confused, isolated; and he is made to feel guilty because he is told he is bad. We are afraid to say that child abuse is a crime because we want to protect the parent from his guilt. But we really fail to help them when we support their blindness, because in this way we also betray the child in the parent.

How do you deal with pain in the healing process?

Pain is the way to the truth. By denying that you were unloved as a child, you spare yourself some pain, but you are not with your own truth. And throughout your whole life you’ll try to earn love. In therapy, avoiding pain causes blockage. Yet nobody can confront being neglected or hated without feeling guilty. ‘It is my fault that my mother is cruel,’ he thinks. ‘I made my mother furious; what can I do to make her loving?’ So he will continue trying to make her love him. The guilt is really protection against the terrible realization that you are fated to have a mother who cannot love. This is much more painful than to think, ‘Oh, she is a good mother, it’s only me who’s bad.’ Because then you can try to do something to get love. But it’s not true; you cannot earn love. And feeling guilty for what has been done to you only supports your blindness and your neurosis.

There are some treatments where the patients cry a lot — they really suffer — but do not talk. I saw a videocassette where for one hour the patient relived the pain of birth but didn’t talk about it. Only later did he report on what he had felt. But in my opinion it is important to speak, to verbalize, during the experience of pain. Even if the patient felt as if he were in the womb, he should try to talk to the mother and tell her how he feels. The link between feelings and their verbal expression is crucial to the healing process. But he can’t do it without assistance; he has to know someone is there who understands how he feels, who supports and confirms him. If a child has been molested and the therapist doesn’t deny this fact, many things can open up in the patient. The therapist must not preach forgiveness, or the patient will repress the pain. He won’t change, and the repressed rage will look for a scapegoat.

. . . In The Drama you connect repressed feeling with loss of vitality. Was that your experience here?

Yes, experiencing the pain of my life gave me back my vitality. First pain, then vitality. The price of repressing feelings is depression.

. . . Behind every act of violence there is a history. A history of being molested, a history of denying. The denial is a law governing us, but it is ignored by society and still not investigated by the professionals. Yet it holds the keys to our understanding why pure nonsense can be still held in high esteem in our culture, such nonsense as Sigmund Freud’s idea that a child would invent traumas.

Are there cultures that have a different attitude toward parenting?

Despite variations in cultures, abuse is found in almost every one. But there are some that are different. For instance, there are people on an island of Malaysia called Senoi who have a nonviolent culture. They talk with their children about dreams each morning. They never have had war. Our culture is so violent because as children we learned not to feel.

What, in general, are your thoughts about dreams?

Dreams tell me the story of childhood, but childhood transformed. The problems of the previous day are mixed in. Dreams sometimes reveal repressed traumas, but they also help the dreamer to master them. Dreams are a creative force everybody has each night when the control is lessened.

Can therapy effect a change?

Yes, but only if the therapy will come to the pain, which is blocked in our feelings of guilt. The idea ‘I was guilty for what happened to me’ is a blockage. Since I discovered that Freud’s drive theory not accidentally but necessarily conceals the reality of child abuse, I have looked for a new form of psychotherapy, an effective therapy to be based on the whole knowledge of child abuse available to us today.

One can find plenty of irresponsible and harmful techniques and mixtures of techniques that don’t provide a systematic confrontation with the past. Some leave people alone with their unresolved pain. These patients are victims first of child abuse and finally of therapy abuse. And they try to ‘help’ themselves by taking drugs, joining sects or gurus, or looking for other ways of denying reality and killing pain. Political activity can be one of these ways.

What advice would you give today to a therapist in training?

First try to discover your own childhood, then take the experience seriously. Listen to the patient and not to any theory; with your theory you are not free to listen. Forget it. Do not analyze the patient like an object. Try to feel, and help the patient to feel instead of talking to the patient about the feelings of others.

The child needs fantasies to survive, to not suffer. Believe what the patient tells you, and don’t forget that repressed reality is always worse than a fantasy. No one invents traumas, because we don’t need traumas in order to survive. But neither do we need their denial. Some of us pay with severe symptoms for this denial. Study the history of childhood. Therapy has to open you as well as the patient for feeling in your whole life. It has to awaken you from a sleep.

It is tragic to go to therapy and find, instead of help, confusion. I have a letter from a seventy-nine-year-old woman saying that for ‘forty years of my life I went to psychoanalysis. I saw eight analysts. But for the first time, after reading your book, I didn’t feel guilty for what happened to me. I always tried, and the analysts were nice people. They wanted to help me. But they never doubted that my parents were good to me. I am so grateful now that I don’t feel guilty since I read your books. I now see how terribly they abused me. It was first my parents and then my analysts who made me feel wrong and guilty.’ This insight came from a seventy-nine-year-old woman! Then she quoted from the last line of For Your Own Good: ‘For the human spirit is virtually indestructible, and its ability to rise from the ashes remains as long as the body draws breath.’

. . . Can society learn to understand the child’s language?

I hope so. Otherwise we will commit a mass suicide with the help of technology. The child’s language is often very clear, but we refuse to listen to it. Children can endure terrible abuse and cruelty from the first moment of their lives, thanks to the technology in hospitals. The abuse is stored up in the mind, and it can remain active the whole life. Therefore, a mother maltreating her small baby can repeat exactly what happened to her without having any knowledge, any conscious memories. But the stored-up memories in her body will compel her to repeat the same trauma.”

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