Alice Miller, Psychoanalyst, Dies at 87; Laid Human Problems to Parental Acts
By WILLIAM GRIMES, The New York Times, April 26, 2010

Alice Miller, a psychoanalyst who repositioned the family as a locus of dysfunction with her theory that parental power and punishment lay at the root of nearly all human problems, died at her home in Provence on April 14. She was 87.

Photo by Julia Miller

Alice Miller’s theories on children created a sensation.

Her death was announced Friday by her German publisher, Suhrkamp Verlag.

Dr. Miller caused a sensation with the English publication in 1981 of her first book, “The Drama of the Gifted Child.” Originally titled “Prisoners of Childhood,” it set forth, in three essays, a simple but harrowing proposition. All children, she wrote, suffer trauma and permanent psychic scarring at the hands of parents, who enforce codes of conduct through psychological pressure or corporal punishment: slaps, spankings or, in extreme cases, sustained physical abuse and even torture.

Unable to admit the rage they feel toward their tormenters, Dr. Miller contended, these damaged children limp along through life, weighed down by depression and insecurity, and pass the abuse along to the next generation, in an unending cycle. Some, in a pathetic effort to please their parents and serve their needs, distinguish themselves in the arts or professions. The Stalins and the Hitlers, Dr. Miller later wrote, inflict their childhood traumas on millions.

“The Drama of the Gifted Child” struck a chord with mental health professionals. “Clinically, she is almost as influential as R.D. Laing,” the British psychologist Oliver James told The Observer of London in 2005. “Alice Miller changed the way people thought.”

The book also stirred the general public, selling more than a million copies. Its central argument was easy to grasp and, for many readers, offered a tempting explanation for their sorrows and failures.

Dr. Miller is often credited with turning the attention of therapists to child abuse, both physical and sexual, but also with encouraging millions of adults to regard themselves as victims.

Daphne Merkin, assessing Dr. Miller’s book “The Truth Shall Set You Free” in The New York Times Book Review in 2002, wrote that Dr. Miller “could be said to be the missing link between Freud and Oprah, bringing news of the inner life, and especially the subtle hazards of emotional development, out of the cloistered offices of therapists and into a wider, user-friendly context.”

Dr. Miller further developed her ideas in two books published immediately after “The Drama of the Gifted Child’: “For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence” (1983) and “Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society’s Betrayal of the Child” (1984). She applied her theory of childhood development to explain the passivity of the German people in the face of Nazi tyranny and took aim at Freud, whose theories, she believed, cast parents as innocents and children as depraved.

Often she used prominent artists as her case studies. In “The Untouched Key” (1990), she held up Friedrich Nietzsche, Pablo Picasso, Kathe Kollwitz and Buster Keaton as illustrations of her theories. In “The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Cruel Parenting” (2005), she put Dostoyevsky, Proust and Joyce under the microscope.

Alice Miller was famously reclusive, and deliberately kept details of her early life sketchy. She was born in Lwow, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine), on Jan. 12, 1923. She studied philosophy and literature at the University of Warsaw, which operated underground during the war.

After the war, a Swiss charity arranged for her to continue her studies at the University of Basel, where she wrote her dissertation on the neo-Kantian philosopher Heinrich Rickert and received a doctorate in 1953.

After undergoing Freudian psychiatric training in Zurich, she went into practice as an analyst. In the 1960s a wave of revisionism swept over the profession, as psychoanalysts adapted the ideas of Freud and Jung to social criticism.

Strongly influenced by the education writer Katharina Rutschky’s notion of “black pedagogy,” a term for the authoritarian style of German parenting, Dr. Miller came to view all forms of parental coercion, and even mild physical discipline or emotional coldness, as fatal to healthy psychic development. In her English books, the term is rendered as “poisonous pedagogy.”

“Humiliations, spankings and beatings, slaps in the face, betrayal, sexual exploitation, derision, neglect, etc. are all forms of mistreatment, because they injure the integrity and dignity of a child, even if their consequences are not visible right away,” she writes in an explanatory essay on childhood mistreatment and abuse on her Web site, “Beaten children very early on assimilate the violence they endured, which they may glorify and apply later as parents, in believing that they deserved the punishment and were beaten out of love.”

By the time she wrote her first book, published in German in 1979, Dr. Miller had stopped practicing psychiatry. The relationship of analyst to patient, she came to believe, replicated the insidious power relationship of parent to child. Her initial critique of Freud led to a full-scale break described in “Banished Knowledge: Facing Childhood Injuries” (1990), a semi-autobiographical work that revealed her own abuse as a child, which she discovered through paintings she created spontaneously.

“Not once did she apologize to me or express any kind of regret,” she later wrote of her mother in “The Body Never Lies.” “She was always ‘in the right.’ It was this attitude that made my childhood feel like a totalitarian regime.”

Having broken with Freud, Dr. Miller resigned from the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1988 and embraced a number of alternative therapies. She became a disciple of J. Konrad Stettbacher, an advocate of regression therapy, and expressed enthusiasm for Arthur Janov’s primal-scream approach, but soon rejected both. Over the years she became increasingly reclusive.

She is survived by a son and a daughter.

Uncompromising and often strident, Dr. Miller preached her message with an often messianic fervor and a polemical style of argument that cost her support from early admirers. The underlying precepts remained unchanged in later works like “Breaking Down the Wall of Silence” (1991) and “Free From Lies: Discovering Your True Needs” (2009).


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