Alice Miller: Part III


Unrecognized and Unconscious Emotional Injuries of Childhood, Part III

Carl H. Shubs, Ph.D. © 2005

Alice Miller. Thou Shalt Not Be Aware. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux. 1984.

The third of these books (see Parts I and II in this series), Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, continues and further elaborates the thesis that Dr. Miller had set forth in her previous two books, Prisoners of Childhood and For Your Own Good.   As in those earlier books, she frequently refers to instances and histories of child abuse, but she is very clear that it is not only physical or psychological child abuse which have devastating consequences.  Similar results also occur when a child experiences a parent’s failed or inaccurate empathy.  Such breaches may happen because of a parent’s narcissism, but they may also occur even when parents have the best of intentions.  While she frequently discusses and refers to instances of child abuse, it is important for the reader to extrapolate beyond physical or sexual child abuse to also include emotional child abuse, neglect, and/or misattunements.  In this book she also addresses the situation in which early childhood emotional injuries sometimes become re-enacted in interactions in psychotherapy and particularly with the psychotherapist.  Most significant is the overriding premise that is underlying all of her perspective and that she states so clearly:  “… the mother who can give her child everything he or she needs doesn’t exist,” (p. 301) as she explained earlier in Prisoners of Childhood.

Once again, the following excerpts should help to further elaborate and clarify Dr. Miller’s important perceptions and insights.

The child’s consideration for and idealization of the parents during the first years of life can be understood as a result, on the one hand, of the child’s total dependence on them and, on the other, as a response to the parents’ need to be given that respect, acceptance, and attention of which they had been deprived as children.  (p. 3)

[Dr. Miller reiterates her definition of ”poisonous pedagogy” as] that tradition of child-rearing which attempts to suppress all vitality, creativity, and feeling in the child and maintains the autocratic, godlike position of the parents at all costs.   (p. 18)

The more less conscious goal of adults in rearing infants is to make sure they will never find out later in life that they were trained not to become aware of how they were manipulated.   (p. 20)

If a mother sees her infant as wicked and destructive, then she will have to bring him under control and train him.  But if she recognizes his rage and hatred as reactions to painful experiences, whose significance may still escape her, she will not try to train the child but will permit him to experience his feelings….  When the anger of early childhood and the ensuing grief have been experienced, affirmative feelings, which are not based on denial or feelings of duty or guilt, can emerge of their own accord, assuming the right preconditions are present.  These affirmative, more mature feelings must be clearly distinguished from the small child’s unconditional, dependent,  all-forgiving, and therefore tragic love for his or her parents.  (p. 23)

Only when we realize how powerless a child is in the face of parental expectations (that he control his drives, suppress his feelings, respect their defenses, and tolerate their outbursts) will we grasp the cruelty of parents’ threats to withdraw their love if the child fails to meet these impossible demands.  And this cruelty is perpetuated in the child….  But the subjective significance of being ignored, the narcissistic wounding and humiliation of the child can be measured fully only if narcissistic needs for respect, acceptance, and being taken seriously are given due consideration along with his physical needs….  For psychic wounds, humiliation, beatings, and other forms of mistreatment came from those very persons to whom the young child was most attached.  (p. 62-63)

[In discussing Flaubert’s novel, Madame Bovary, Miller states] the threatening factor in the patient’s early childhood was the mother’s inner sense of insecurity and resultant inflexibility; i.e., the son felt certain that if he went against his mother’s wishes in any way he would be totally rejected – in other words, he would lose her….  Behind what pretends to be freedom lies hidden a deep and very early dependency.  It is the dependency of someone who was not permitted to say no because his mother could not bear it, and who therefore refuses all his life to commit himself to his partners in the hope of making up for what was never possible with his mother  – namely, to say,” I am your child, but you have no right to my whole being and my whole life.” (p. 80)

Whether a person grows up to be honest seems to depend on how much truth the parents were able to bear and on what penalties they exacted from their child for being truthful…. [I came to] realize how useless the moral categories of cowardice and bravery are and the extent to which courage really has to do with the nature of the individual’s childhood….  The unconscious pain of a little child who had to disown his keen observations for the sake of the conformity required of him and for whom the ultimate honesty – openness toward the person closest to him – was always to remain his highest but unattainable ideal.  For in order to realize his ideal he would have had to be able to be honest with his mother and be allowed to leave her when the time was ripe…  It would also have meant not always having to think first of her needs and her depressions and not having to pay for his [or her] freedom….  The [child] keeps his [or her] feelings from his mother and is unable either to love or hate her.  He can recapture the intense feelings of his early childhood only by transferring them to his later partners, whom he both loves and hates.  (p. 82-83)

The nature of the initial relationship between parents and child will determine what forms the adolescent’s liberation will assume in adult life and whether his or her new sense of security turns into a second, and this time permanent, prison….  [I]t is not usual to experience ”several puberties….”  Above all, it will depend on a person’s earliest experiences whether he will be able to deal creatively with new theories and ultimately find his own point of view or whether he will cling anxiously to the orthodoxy of a school.  If this person was raised to be absolutely obedient, without ever being able to escape his parents’ watchful eyes, he will run the risk as an adult of making these theories into absolutes and becoming a slave to them, even though these theories abound with words like freedom, autonomy, and progress….  Defending liberal ideas by authoritarian, orthodox means and nurturing submissiveness and conformity in the name of intellectual progress play such a major role in our everyday life that we scarcely notice the contradiction involved here.

Even very brief contact with a group can give one a feeling of maternal warmth, of a good symbiosis [joining/connection] with the mother, never experienced before, which makes one feel secure yet at the same time free and comfortable and able to express oneself satisfactorily.  This is how it actually would have been had there been a good symbiosis with the mother.  But since the group is only a substitute, the search for what is missing can never stop.  In order for this to happen, a process of mourning would have to take place.  Every form of addiction, instead of doing away with the old longing, simply perpetuates the tragedy by repeating it.  A glass of whisky or a cigarette that can be held in the hand, set aside when not needed, and immediately reached for when needed, establishes the comfortable feeling that an available mother can give….  The addictive substance thus provides not only a feeling of comfort but also the torments of dependency….

But the group, chosen in adolescence of his own free will and seemingly so promising, will end up intimidating him in the same non-verbal way his mother’s expectations did during the first year of life.  Just the thought of having opinions deviating completely from those prevailing in the group can evoke such a strong anxiety that at first such opinions cannot even be formed….  The group need not be located in one specific place; it can also take the form of an ideology, a political party, or a school representing certain theories…. Frequently, although not always, the group reacts with the same rejection and hostility the parents once showed, because the defense mechanisms are threatened if one of them deviates from the required conformity.  (p. 84-86)

A child who is preached to learns only to preach and a child who is beaten learns to beat others….  A child raised in accordance with traditional principles, who knows nothing else from the start, is not able to detect hypocrisy because he lacks a basis for comparison.  Someone who knows only such an atmosphere from childhood will perceive it as normal in all situations….  Children who are respected learn respect.  Children who are cared for learn to care for those weaker than themselves.  Children who are loved for what they are cannot learn intolerance.  (p. 96-97)

If children have been accustomed from the start to having their world respected, they will have not have trouble later recognizing disrespect directed against them in any form (including authoritarian behavior) and will rebel against it on their own….  And children who have experienced tenderness do not need to be taught to be tender in sexual matters; they will be that way as a matter of course.  (p. 152)

In the beginning, children are the mute receivers of our projections.  Unable to defend themselves against them, unable to give them back to us or interpret them for us, they are able only to serve as their bearers.  (p. 156)

The principles of “poisonous pedagogy” insist that parents’ actions toward their children be regarded as loving and beneficial and that children be denied the right to protest.  (p. 160)

If… feelings associated with the child’s first attachment figures can be experienced, they will no longer need to be abreacted [emotionally expressed] in the repetition compulsion with substitute objects.  Paradoxical as it may sound, if the impotent hatred of early childhood can be experienced, destructive and self-destructive behavior will come to an end.  (p. 177)

An unacknowledged trauma is like a wound that never heals over and may start to bleed again at any time.  In a supportive environment the wound can become visible and finally heal completely…. [It is] a difficult task, but at the same time [it can be done], providing we keep… in mind:

1.  To be sensitive to the child’s narcissistic needs for echoing, mirroring, understanding, respect, and support, and to the ensuing traumatizations if these needs are not met.

2.  To have understanding, proceeding for the foregoing sensitivity, for the reactive significance of the child’s narcissistic rage.

3.  To know that even unintentional cruelty hurts and that the [person] must experience [with us] the anger and pain of his or her early childhood in order to be set free, even though as an adult the [person] knows that the parents were victims as well.

4.  To realize that children will pay for their parents’ silence with pathological symptoms.

5.  To recognize that grief leads to reconciliation, whereas guilt feelings are divisive.

6.  To make the conscious decision not to assume a judgmental role, which would be colored by the moral precepts of our own upbringing.

7.  To identify the [person’s] taboos, peculiar to his or her country and family.   (p. 184-185)

[A] child’s psychological nourishment derives from the understanding and respect provided by his or her first attachment figures and … child-rearing and manipulations cannot take the place of this nourishment.  (p. 296)

Children cannot achieve integration by themselves.  They have no choice but to repress the experience, because the pain caused by their fear, isolation, betrayed expectation of receiving love, helplessness, and feelings of shame and guilt is unbearable….  If children are talked out of what they perceive, then the experience they undergo will later be seen in a diffuse hazy light; its reality will remain uncertain and indistinct, laden with feelings of guilt and shame, and as adults these children either will know nothing of what happened or will question their memory of it.  This will be even more the case if the abuse [or other psychological and emotional injury] occurred in early childhood.  Since very young children to not find support within their own self or a mirror in the eyes of a witness, they must deny the truth.  Later, the [person] will repeatedly and unconsciously reenact this reality, will tell the story by way of symptoms, including physical ones, and will hope that the whole thing is a matter of fantasy.   (p. 313)

The truth about our childhood is stored up in our body, and although we can repress it, we can never alter it.  Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings manipulated, our perceptions confused, and our body tricked with medication.  But someday the body will present its bill, for it is as incorruptible as a child who, still whole in spirit, will accept no compromises or excuses, and it will not stop tormenting us until we stop evading the truth.  (p. 318)

We have been taught to respect those in authority and to protect them from any criticism and at the same time to “educate” those who are weak and helpless and dependent.  This is what we have come to expect.  (p. 319)

Since soul murder cannot be totally successful, [one’s] split-off feelings remain unconscious and are not activated until the child grows into an adult and meets a partner with whom [he or she] feels free to express them….  The child in his or her helplessness will be sure to accept the mother’s outbursts and mistreatment and forget everything.  It is this tragic tolerance on the part of children that is responsible for the inability to defend themselves, to denounce the person who abuses them, and often even to recognize the abuse as such.  (p. 323-324)


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