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How I Found Alice Miller, and Lost Her

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Tuesday's New York Times carried the obituary of Alice Miller, the Swiss psychoanalyst and author. Of her life story, the Times said, she was not forthcoming. This much was known: she lived in Warsaw during the war and studied there. Alice Miller's fame in America began with the publication of The Drama of the Gifted Child, originally entitled Prisoners of Childhood.

I can contribute some detail about her life and the American publication of the book. I was her editor. It all happened because my good friends at Harper & Row, Mike and Cornelia Bessie brought back the manuscript from the Frankfurt Book Fair. They thought I might like it. Fortunately, it had been translated into English, and so I packed it in my briefcase and read it on the train home to New Haven.

It amazed me, by its honesty, passion, and clarity. As someone who had published books in psychoanalysis for over a decade, I felt that Alice Miller had something original to say--not just about childhood and narcissism, but about the human condition. She was also pretty hard on the community of therapists, and I agreed thoroughly. My colleague Martin Kessler and I decided to offer an advance of $10,000, and we got the book. It carried the unwieldy title of The Drama of the Gifted Child and The Search for the True Self, so I struggled to come up with a simpler title that would encapsulate her message. Prisoners of Childhood was perfect, I thought, and Dr. Miller and the agent agreed.

It was a difficult book to publish: Miller was unknown in America, and although I was well connected in the psychoanalytic world, I couldn't get anyone to blurb it. Even at Basic Books, we couldn't get the professional journals to review it, and the book was too high level for the popular media. It looked like a bust. So when the book began to sell, we didn't know why. Then a tiny item appeared in New York Magazine, a report from Book Hampton, describing excellent sales there and calling it "the book patients are bringing to their therapists."

By the time Dr. Miller came to New York, we were selling 1,000 a week, which was a lot for us. She and I had an extremely pleasant visit, during which she told me the story of her childhood. Her family lived in Warsaw, and they were sent to the Ghetto when the Germans came. This daughter was smuggled out and given a new name. She lived "under water," with a Christian family as a public Catholic and a secret Jew. Some nights, she would sneak to the Ghetto and bring food to her family, but she could not save them. It was a devastating story.

Dr. Miller had a purpose in telling me this secret. She had come to believe that changing her name was a betrayal of her very being, and she wasn't going to do it any more. She wanted every edition of her book to be known as The Drama of the Gifted Child and the Search for the True Self, and she wanted me to change it that day! As a publisher I had a problem: at the time, you couldn't change the title of a book just like that. The computers wouldn't know to turn orders of Prisoners of Childhood into orders for The Drama of the Gifted Child, and we didn't want to kill the excellent sales of the hardcover. So I refused.

She was not happy. We argued in person and on the phone. At one point she said to me, "Mrs. Isay, you are treating me like a psychotic child!" I had no reply. But I did promise to re-title the book for the paperback edition, which has sold more than a million copies.

Miller was so angry at me that she took her next book to Farrar Straus. It was OK; she had exhausted me. But I got a laugh when I saw the jacket of the FSG book sporting the identification of Alice Miller as author of Prisoners of Childhood.

She was a compelling woman who changed the way millions of readers thought about their lives. I have no way of knowing if the story she told me was true, but I did learn that making an author believe you think she's acting like a psychotic child is no way to nurture a publishing relationship.

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Alice Miller, psychoanalyst and author, dies at 87