VIRAGO PRESS 1991. London. IR£6.40
Does Alice Muller say anything new about Child Abuse?
The media and the profession have tended to say no. I am not so sure. Her work requires careful consideration in the context of one’s own beliefs.
Miller’s theory is that the tragedy of Child Abuse, and its frequency in our and other societies lies embedded in our subconscious. Unable to face the pain of knowing that as a child we too were abused and humiliated, we are compelled to revisit on our own children, often with pride, the traumatic methods of childrearing that were inflicted on ourselves. This may take the extreme form of severe physical or sexual abuse, or the more subtle and for me very disturbing, killing of the soul, the slow and rigorous humiliation and deadening of the child’s ability to feel and express feelings. This is done through perfectly acceptable and often officially condoned methods of control, notably the withdrawal of love as punishment.
Alice Miller gives vivid examples of these methods, such as the traditional celebrations of St Nicholas Day in Germany, where she observes, the public humiliation of children in a ritual approved of and watched by doting parents.
In another instance, a client describes his own “just and fair” mother’s punishment which consisted of tying him to a chair by a thread, a thread he never broke, how powerful a symbol of emotional power and control.
Alice Miller goes on to describe the defense of these methods of child rearing by the very people who endured them. They defend them as the price they pay to survive. Blocking out painful feelings is the child’s only survival mechanism. The denial of one’s own suffering and the desire to keep the image of the good, idealised parent intact is perpetuated into adulthood and revisited on the next generation of children. In order to retain our image of the “good” parent, we build up reasons and excuses for their behaviour however unacceptable. Religion and Society encourage this view. Miller quotes her own experience as an abused child. ”
For a long time, this taboo against condemning parents for their actions towards children prevented me from clearly seeing and formulating the parent’s guilt. But above all, I was unable to question the actions of my own parents, because my life long fear of the feeling that re-experiencing my former situation might arouse my sense of dependence on parents who had no inkling of either their child’s needs or their own responsibilities.”
Miller feels that in order to break this vicious circle, each one of us needs to re- examine our attitude towards children and their rights. She describes her own journey and the failure of psychoanalysis to uncover her feelings. It was eventually through Konrad Stettbacher’s theory that she was able to re-experience the feelings of the abused child within.
Miller left the International Psychoanalytical Association in 1988, feeling passionately that the very practice of psychoanalysis perpetuates the repression of childhood trauma. She goes on to describe how this is done and why. Firstly, the dogma denies the reality of abuse especially in the Freudian Model, where the client is further confused when his/her reality of abuse is denied and interpreted as fantasy.
Secondly, psychoanalysts are themselves not in touch with their own child within. Indeed they fear it. For this reason they are quite unable to help clients to re-experience their own repressed feelings. Instead, psychoanalysts intellectualise the issue and frequently insist on exonerating the parent, thereby keeping their own “idealised” parent intact.
Miller’s stance is thought provoking, controversial and by her own admission hotly contested by the media and the profession.
She does offer some positives in the bleak scenario. Above all she stresses the value of an “enlightened witness” who can identify with the child’s suffering and make him realise he is loveable and stand up for the child, validating his feelings.
For the adult Alice Miller advocates Konrad Stettbacher’s therapy (1) which she describes only briefly in this book.
Through her own experience, she knows that “to encounter one’s own history not only puts an end to the blindness hitherto displayed towards the child within oneself but also reduces the blockage of thoughts and feelings “.
This is a thought provoking and controversial book worth reading and discussing with colleagues.
(1) STETTBACHER, J. KONRAD. If Suffering Is To Have A Meaning. New York Dutton 1991.