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Summer 2005
ALICE MILLER EXCERPTED: Unrecognized and Unconscious Emotional Injuries of Childhood,
Part I
Carl H. Shubs, Ph.D.

Alice Miller. Prisoners of Childhood: The Drama of the Gifted Child and the Search for the True Self. New York: Basic Books. 1981.

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, parents 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.
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 this books, I had heard so much about it from people who are not themselves psychotherapists, that I had the impression that the book was all written for the layperson.

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…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.

Prisoners of Childhood lays the groundwork that is carried through in her next two books. The following quotes from that 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)

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 child feels this clearly and very soon forgoes the expression of his own distress. (p. 11)

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)

I understand a healthy self-feeling to mean the unquestioned certainty that the feelings and wishes one experiences are a part of ones self.... This automatic, natural contact with his 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. (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, ones 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)

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 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)

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