A great thinker
Three weeks ago, in the middle of a research trip, I dropped into Barnes and Noble and checked out the psychology section. I found a relatively new book by one of my favorite thinkers, Alice Miller, The Body Never Lies, and sure enough, my physical reaction told me that I was in the mood for it. A few days later, googling, I made the shocking discovery that Dr. Miller had died last year, and that I had evidently skipped the Times obituaries that day. The book was a good one, although not one of her best, and it set me thinking not only about my own life, but about her crucial historical insights and their relevance to what we are going through today.
The obituary and other material that has been published since her death revealed some surprising facts about her life. She lived most of her adult life in Switzerland, but because she wrote in German and her work focused extensively on Germany, I had always assumed she was German herself. She was instead born in Lwow, in Poland, in 1923--earlier than I had imagined--and according to her Wikipedia entry, written by a woman who claims to have known her well, she was in fact Jewish. Although much of her work dealt with the holocaust and its origins, she never mentioned that in any of her books, although she had some scathing things to say about the influence of the Old Testament in one of my favorites, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware.
Miller's greatest insight, in my opinion, was that children simply have no choice but to love their parents, no matter what their parents do to them, physically, emotionally, or even sexually. Those of us fortunate to have parents who actually respect us and encourage us to have our own feelings do not have to learn denial to feel that love, but they, she argued, are surely a relatively small minority. For much of western history, and certainly as late as the 18th and 19th centuries, child-rearing consisted explicitly of compelling children to affirm certain feelings and deny certain others. And even today, millions of parents punish small children, if only by isolation, for expressing certain feelings. My own experience has taught me that this is not necessary. Fortunately, I had started reading her when my own children were small, and their mother and I allowed them to express absolutely anything inside our home. I found to my amazement that they could get the most furious anger out of their system if allowed to do so in just a few minutes, and I know now they will benefit from that all their lives.
Because of feelings about their parents they must deny, Miller argued, many, many people spend their entire lives denying their true feelings about almost everything. All of society, she thought, was terrified of peoples' feelings about their parents in particular, and that went for our own profession of psychoanalysts and psychotherapists as well. She was among several who realized that Freud, tragically, had turned away from his original findings of sexual abuse among his middle-class female patients because they were simply too threatening to the society around him. Instead he decided that his patients, driven by "infantile sexuality" and fantasies common to us all, had made up their stories, thus shifting the guilt from the abusive parent to the innocent child. Now, as she mentioned in her last book, the leaders of the psychiatric profession have gone in a completely different direction: they treat their patients with drugs rather than take much interest in what actually happened to them. That is not surprising. As I well know, the most powerful drug in our society, more powerful even than alcohol or cocaine, is success. Most of those who achieve it regard it as proof that nothing that could have happened to them as children was very significant in the long run--which is, actually, often the exact opposite of the truth. Had their parents given them a genuine sense of self-worth, they would not have had to spend the rest of their lives frantically proving it with achievement and money.
Miller's work had historical significance because she dared to apply her insights both to artists and writers and to political figures--most of all, to Adolf Hitler, whose childhood and life she treated at length in For Your Own Good. Many of Hitler's biographers mentioned that his father beat him frequently, but, as she noted, nearly all of them immediately added that such treatment was normal in those days and that of course it would be a mistake to blame his crimes upon it. And indeed, in Albert Speer's memoirs one can find Hitler not only mentioning the many beatings his father gave him, but affirming that they must have done him a great deal of good. (I myself ran into that kind of censorship in the 1990s when I reviewed one of Pat Buchanan's books for an obscure journal that no longer exists. Attempting to explain Buchanan, I pointed out, and documented, that Buchanan, like Hitler, was an abused child who bragged about the good his father's beatings had done him. The publisher of the journal refused to print that.) The opposite, as Miller showed, was true. They left Hitler both with an obsession with creating great and lasting monuments, and with an endless reservoir of hatred which he could only satisfy at the expense of the lives of Jews and Poles. Stalin was also repeatedly beaten by his father. So, Miller showed, were many of Hitler's collaborators, from top Nazis on down to concentration camp guards. The racism of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries gave them the excuse they needed to treat millions of people the way they had been treated themselves.
Typically, as soon as I had discovered Miller I found a way to work her into my teaching, in a course on historical fiction about the great crisis of the first haf of the twentieth century. For several years I made students write papers using her analysis on characters in the books we were reading, and then, finally, in 1989 I summoned the courage to offer them the choice of writing about themselves. The results were quite astonishing, and led to more than one long-term friendship. But sadly, I can see now that Miller's work was suited to the Awakening, when the world was relatively stable externally and we could all focus on our inner lives. It is probably more relevant today than it was then, but it is harder to retain her perspective in the midst of yet another great political crisis. Yet we must try.
To begin with, the whole Boomer-led revolt against the world we grew up in that began in the mid-1960s was an explosion of raw emotion, a reaction against the denial our parents had resorted to, inevitably, to endure the depression and the second world war. Rock 'n Roll in the 1950s was loud, occasionally angry, and full of feeling, and older generations immediately understood its menace to their world view. That however was only the beginning. Boomers actually did a remarkable job of suppressing their feelings as children, but they made up for it as adolescents. And from then until now, their own feelings have been more important than anything else. "If it feels good, do it," has remained their motto, and that has contributed to the decline of rationalism among Boomers of all political stripes.
But beyond that, denial obviously has a lot to do with right-wing political activism today. More than once we have discovered that right-wing Republican politicians or fundamentalist clerics railing about the danger of homosexuality were actually struggling with their own feelings. And where does the strength of the anti-tax movement come from? Could it be that richer Americans regard their wealth as proof of their superior moral worth, and that any government attempt to take more of it threatens to make them confront the issue of why they needed success so badly in the first place? Are their coping mechanisms threatened by the idea that their wealth does not stem entirely from their own efforts? The answer, I think, must be yes.
It was not long before I discovered Miller that I discovered Solzhenitsyn, and The First Circle was another key text in the course that I taught. It, too, had a powerful message: that prisoners, excluded from society's system of normal rewards and punishments, were the only citizens of the Soviet Union free to discover and express their essential humanity and their true feelings. Sadly, perhaps writers like Miller--and Orwell, if he is rightly understood--will always be primarily a source of comfort to outsiders. I am no exception. I have often thought that had my life gone more as I had imagined it, the drug of success might have spared me a long confrontation with various aspects of the truth about myself. Yet it would have also left me with much less insight about a great many things, and fortunately, I must have enjoyed what I do more for its own sake than for whatever success it might have brought me. I hope younger therapists, in particular, will have the courage to pick up where Alice Miller left off, even if work like hers is destined never to become orthodoxy.