Alice Miller, 1923–2010

The therapist who explored childhood trauma

Alice Miller’s books on the psychology of childhood were extraordinarily popular, which was surprising considering that their message was so harrowing. In books such as Prisoners of Childhood (1981), Miller argued that all children are permanently, traumatically scarred by abuse and neglect at the hands of their parents, who are themselves passing on the maltreatment they endured at the hands of their own parents. Bleak as it was, her vision resonated with lay readers and practicing therapists alike, and scholars regard her as a key figure in 20th-century psychology.

Miller, who died in France last week, got in touch with her own childhood trauma in 1973, when “she impulsively picked up a paintbrush” for the first time in her life, said The Washington Post. Her paintings revealed to her, she said, “the terrorism that was exerted by my mother.” Born in a Polish town that’s now part of Ukraine, Miller grew up in what she described as a “quite ordinary, middle-class” household, the daughter of a banker and a homemaker. Throughout the 1930s, she witnessed Hitler’s rise to power, and was bewildered, she said, that millions of people “enthusiastically allowed a primitive, arrogant monster to lead them to murder their fellow human beings.”

Hitler and Stalin were among the subjects of her 1983 book For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Childhood and the Roots of Violence, in which she argued that the two dictators had been abused as children. She expanded on this thesis in other books, arguing that all children were victims of abuse, which in her definition ranged from spanking and circumcision to outright sexual exploitation. These views clashed with the prevailing Freudian orthodoxy, prompting Miller to quit the International Psychoanalytical Association in 1988.

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Miller’s books polarized psychologists and intellectuals, said The New York Times. Supporters such as critic Daphne Merkin wrote that Miller “could be said to be the missing link between Freud and Oprah,” bringing the mysteries of the inner life out of the therapist’s office “and into a wider, user-friendly context.” Detractors like psychologist Carol Tavris complained that Miller kept writing the same book over and over, all of them reinforcing the “parent-blaming, recovered-memory culture of victimization.”

Miller, who had two children, didn’t exempt herself from the ranks of abusive parents. Speaking of her son, Martin, and daughter, Julika, Miller recalled that “I never hit them, but I was sometimes careless and neglecting to my first child out of ignorance. It is very painful to realize that, but this realization can also be liberating.”

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