Thursday, March 24, 2011

An Introduction to "Prisoners of Childhood" by Alice Miller (1981)

Prisoners of Childhood, published by Basic Books,(republished under it's German name Drama of the Gifted Child in 1997) is ironically a basic, but essential book that focuses on the the loss of the self (and its origins) and on the traumatic consequences of this loss. Prisoners of Childhood is divided into three short chapters rich in psychoanalytic insights (especially in the first two chapters).

First, a little bit about the two editions of the book. The original edition centered around the psychoanalytic concept of narcissism. In the ensuing years, Miller had a complete falling out with the psychoanalytic community and even turned away from the concept of psychoanalysis itself, which is a bit confounding given what a gifted psychoanalyst she was. Thus in the 2nd edition she stripped the work of any and all psychoanalytic "jargon". I believe something was lost in the process, so I have chosen to review the original.

Like my review (March 17, 2011) of Gaslighting... (Dorpat), I will quote this book extensively for it is rich in deep insights spoken so eloquently they hardly need explanation.

In the foreword Miller focuses on the ways many children are taught to behave at a very early age. With this focus on behavior, the child, who cannot risk losing his parents' love, complies, behaving before he can possibly understand what the behavior means. Miller than goes on to show how this leads to the development of a "false self" in gifted children (by "gifted" Miller is referring to those children that are very good at modifying their behavior to secure the parents' love, i.e. surviving).

On the lack of "respect for others" found in the narcissist, Miller has this to say:

If a mother respects both herself and her child from the first day onward, she will never need to teach him respect for others. (viii)

How lost this is on so many parents! I see it all around me, the commandment "Thou shall Honor thy mother and thy father" is drilled into a child's head on the one hand, but that honor is never practiced in the parent-child relationship. Children learn through observation and experience, what better way to teach a child respect than to respect yourself as well as the child? This commandment ought to be "Honor thyself and thy child". The original is a poisonous commandment that has misguided countless parents and poisoned society.

Miller continues:

... a mother who [was not respected as a child] 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. The tragic fate of such training and such "respect" is described in this book, (viii)

Miller makes some poignant observations about this early focus on behavior:

[it is inconceivable to love others] ...if one cannot love oneself as one really is. And how could a person do that if, from the very beginning, he has had no chance to experience his true feelings and to learn to know himself? For the majority of sensitive people, the true self remains deeply and thoroughly hidden. (viii-ix)

Miller's point is that the 'gifted' child, the child who most successfully conforms to her parents' wishes of behaving a certain way (and thus being something the child is not) most thoroughly loses any notion of love and respect for who she really is.

Miller poignantly concludes:

Such people are enamored of an idealized, conforming, false self. They will shun their hidden and lost true self, unless depression makes them aware of its loss or psychoses confronts them harshly with that true self... (ix)

On page ix we get the origin of the books title, where Miller speaks of the "true self's 'solitary confinement' within the prison of the false self." (ix) For Miller then, the ultimate goal of therapy is to help the patient experience his true feelings which will allow him to face repressed instinctual conflicts, which he will experience intensely. (x)

I could justifiably end this review with the opening sentence, one which could not be more insightful or informative to the therapist and patient:

Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery and emotional acceptance of the truth in the individual and the unique history of our childhood. (3)

but continuing,

for many people the truth is so essential that they must pay dearly for its loss with grave illness. (4)

I have born deeply personal witness to the veracity of this statement! "The truth hurts, but lies kill" I often say.
Miller goes on to say

Sometimes I ask myself whether it will ever be possible for us to grasp the extent of the loneliness and desertion to which we were exposed as children and hence intrapsychically are exposed as adults." (5)

by Tim LaDuca

(To be continued...)


Anonymous said...

Where does a person find others interested in Miller's work? Jim

Anonymous said...

I guess here is a good start. I am just googling Alice Miller after reading the first few pages of "Intimacy & Solitude" by Stephanie Dowrick. Dowrick (p. xiv) states that Alice Miller's writing affected her deeply.