For those of us who possessed intimate knowledge of her work, Alice Miller was not just an icon of psychological thought, but no less than a key part of our salvation from ourselves. Even though as she went on to be controversial in her support of literal interpretation of sexual abuse reports that turned out to be fantasy, her mark left by The Drama of the Gifted Child, first published as Prisoners of Childhood, stayed solidly crucial to our search for a cure to the malaise of emptiness and bowing to a narcissistic parent.
Even as she went on to say that if a child were treated with tenderness he/she would not have the aggression of abuse, a rather simplistic avoidance of the natural aggression of rivalry and frustration, her first book never lost its place of remembered and quotable parts. Her idea that many of us seek the re-creation of unconditional love throughout our adult lives can be said to be the pivotal piece of the awareness of co-dependency. See Gloria Steinem's book Revolution from Within or John Bradshaw's work and you will find Alice Miller quoted, as she is in almost anything clinical I myself have written as well as my book In the Midst of Parenting.
Alice Miller told us that what we did not have in our childhood could never be duplicated, and that even if it were, it would do no good because it was part of the supplies that are crucial at a certain moment in time. All we can expect if we are not truly seen and known early on is the brutal process of mourning. She made clear the importance of mourning for what we never had rather than to addictively and insistently look to complete ourselves through another in adulthood.
It is sad that she died, and it is sad that through her life she disowned her earlier adherence to the possibilities of healing through sensitive psychotherapy. But, she did see the bully in the psychoanalytic situation merely in the superior position of the unevenness of power. And it is also sad but true that many analysts and therapists have never gone deep enough in their own mourning processes to realize the fundamental equality that grief bestows on all of us.
None of us feel superior in grieving, and as I read her classic for the first time, its brevity and density sitting in my stomach, I vowed that I would never again see psychotherapy as merely "wonderful." I have learned since that it can be full of play and a kind of rebirth of play, but when it goes deep, the mourning time is never completely devoid of the heaviness of complete despair as losses are faced.
The New York Times obituary is entitled "Alice Miller, Psychoanalyst, Dies at 87; Laid Human Problems to Parental Acts" minimizes her and enables people to see her as the wacky person perceived as fighting child abuse much as Don Quixote flailed at windmills. She didn't, for those of us who used her writing in our lives and in our work, blame parents so much as rescue our esteem from the gutter when we had no "reason" for our persistent sadness. And while my son and others would remind me of the importance of biology, I recognize that too in the temperamental vulnerabilities of many of us with a depressive bent; of that there is no doubt.
But what Alice Miller did was to tell us that if we had in fact given our time, energy and souls, so to speak, to picking up on the cues and needs of parents in need, we had lost not only our way but the inner sense of what she called vitality. We lost -- or never found -- our own direction because we were spent. We were hooked on healing (and many of us would in fact become therapists) as a road to a self esteem that would always be ephemeral. We would wind up feeling empty without knowing why, amongst people who would tell us how lucky we were to have so much family or fame or fortune.
Without Alice Miller's contributions to our lives, we would have stayed more lonely. She didn't take the pain away, but she charted a course, and helped us make sense of it.
When someone validates the inner spirit of anyone, vulnerability begins to have the chance of being dignified and not merely to stay as a source of shame. Recent headlines bear evidence that too many of our children (as well as adults) , who are lost in cycles of bullying have undoubtedly lost the inner sense of vitality -- which as she pointed out is the capacity to feel all things. Once one arrives there, there is hardly the appetite to abuse others or to ever be abused again.
For that I thank her, and hope that her memory in our minds, doesn't lose a sense of what she did for so many of us.
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