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Private Drama

Alice Miller was an authority on childhood trauma, but she stayed mum about her own

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Alice Miller. (Photo © Julika Miller; courtesy Suhrkamp Verlag.)

If ever there was a hedgehog—to borrow from Isaiah Berlin’s classification of thinkers who have one overarching idea (as opposed to foxes, who forage among many ideas)—it was Alice Miller, the psychoanalyst and writer who died on April 14 at her home in Provence, France, at the age of 87. From the very beginning of her career, with the publication of her first book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, in 1981 to her last book in 2009, she never went off-message. This was both her strength and her limitation, imbuing her work with a passion bordering on zealotry but also obstructing her from taking in other approaches to her chosen subject: child development and its vicissitudes in the form of bad parenting of various sorts (what she termed “poisonous pedagogy”), ranging from subtle emotional abuse to the most extreme forms of physical abuse.

I first took an interest in Miller’s work in my twenties, after reading that first book. It had originally been titled, with what I saw as greater relevance, Prisoners of Childhood, and it helped to bolster my shaky but abiding conviction that my character had been misshapen by those who had a hand in my upbringing. These included my difficult and not particularly nurturing parents, as well as a caretaker who frequently resorted to corporal punishment. Reading Miller made me feel like I had an invisible witness by my side, one who had seen through the closed doors of my family’s apartment and noted what went wrong: the damage that had been done, both intangible and overt. Her book’s emphasis on the narcissistic parent’s lack of empathy and the child’s need to repress his or her emotions in response spoke to my sense of having been a sensitive girl whose “tender, budding self” was casually taken into account or ignored outright. I identified especially with the rage Miller pointed to as a by-product of less-than-good-enough parenting (although having my rage acknowledged did little to assuage it).

A large part of the book’s effect was its timing: Much of what Miller was getting at—that childhood trauma is inevitable in even the most well-meaning of families, and that battered or deprived children grow up to become enraged or isolated adults—is now, at least in theory, part of the cultural dialogue. But more than 25 years ago, her message, which made use of a vocabulary previously only employed by highly paid psychoanalysts in the confines of their offices (“repetition compulsion,” “maternal mirroring,” “splitting,” the “false self”), was not yet commonplace; indeed it came as something of a revelation.

There were many people, apparently, who felt similarly to me. The book became a bestseller, and Miller became a boldface name in popular psychology. My mother received at least three copies of the next Miller book, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, from various of her children. I remember her reading it out in the garden at our summerhouse, but how she took it in—or whether she even processed it at all—is a mystery that has gone with her to the grave. It was in this work that Miller made her message of generationally transmitted damage crystal clear, expanding it beyond the psychological realm into the political sphere. Among other examples, she described Adolf Hitler’s tormented childhood at the hands of his disciplinarian father in detail and connected his mistreatment to his animus against Jews and his emergence as a Nazi. It was the sort of reductive argument that filled her growing cadre of detractors with scorn, and as a causal link it looked too nuanced and simplistic even to me, who was a devout believer in the nurture end of the nature/nurture debate.

Interestingly, given Miller’s lifelong theoretical explorations of childhood trauma, her own childhood was a closely guarded secret. Many of those who knew her—including some of her closest intimates—told Tablet that they had always assumed she was Jewish and had fled the Holocaust—she was born in Lvov, Poland—but knew better than to ask. “She was a famous recluse,” said Robert Weil, an editor at W.W. Norton who worked with Miller for the last six years of her life. “You could get swatted down.”  One person who says she did speak with Miller about her background was Miller’s first American editor, Jane Isay at Basic Books. Isay wrote in the Huffington Post last week that Miller once poured out her secret: that she was Jewish, that she and her family had been forced into the Warsaw ghetto, and that she was eventually smuggled out and taken in by a Catholic family. To make matters still cloudier, Isay reported that Miller once said her entire family had died in the war; but in an essay in her book Pictures of a Childhood, Miller refers to a conversation she had with her mother when she was 33—years after the war was over. Jeffrey Masson, who has written about Freud and psychoanalysis, recently recalled that he first suspected that Miller was Jewish after spending a week with her and his first wife, who had been in the Warsaw ghetto. The two women, he said, bonded immediately. But his own friendship with Miller ended after he asked her, in an interview, about being a Jew from Warsaw. “She thought of this as a betrayal,” he said. “No idea why.”

Perhaps her Jewish roots were too specific for someone as oracularly inclined as Miller; perhaps she was embarrassed by them, by the way they placed her in a recognizable category with other survivors. For all her emphasis on the importance of “enlightened witnesses”—outsiders who see the truth about childhood abuse and bring it to the attention of those involved—Miller was loath to have anyone fill that role when it came to her own experience. Although she wrote briefly about her own rough treatment—she referred to it as “terrorism”—at the hands of her mother, Miller worked hard to keep the details of her own life as hazy as possible.

Intrigued as I was by this secretive bent, I often wondered what lay behind the public face of this woman who set herself up as something of a guru, a savior of children everywhere. I came to view her as a kind of benevolent German mother figure (a counterpart to my own, less-than-benevolent German mother)—someone who understood the parental abuses of power and the subsequent breaking of will that informed Teutonic upbringings such as mine—but I also wondered whether success had gone to her head, or even if she wrote as obsessively as she did on this topic because she recognized these impulses in herself. With this in mind, in the mid-1990′s, when I was a staff writer at The New Yorker, I suggested to the editor Tina Brown that I might do a profile of Miller. I knew it would not be an easy job, not least because she was said not to agree to in-person interviews. I talked to her editor at the time, Arnold Dolin at New American Library, who corroborated my impression of Miller as a very controlling person; Dolin doubted that she’d talk to me but wished me luck and promised to forward any communication I might have. I sent Miller the German translation of my novel Enchantment, which dealt with an unhappy childhood and the attempt to find a way out of it through therapy, and waited.

One day, I finally received a call from her. We talked for a while and, after we discussed the possibility of my visiting her—as I recall, the logistics were dizzying beyond belief, in part because Miller listed her country of residence as Switzerland when she in fact lived in France—she asked whether she might request a favor of me. First, she wanted to know whether I thought journalists were psychologically minded, a question that struck me as purely rhetorical but that I nonetheless answered in the negative. She then went on to say that she had written a piece about Sadaam Hussein, who was at that time terrorizing his countrymen as well as American onlookers, in which she ascribed his violent impulses to a brutal upbringing and was hoping to publish it as an op-ed in the New York Times. I expressed my doubts that the Times would publish it, but she faxed it to me and I duly faxed it on to the editor in charge. Needless to say, the piece did not see its way into print, and I eventually gave up on the idea of writing a profile in the face of the obstacles standing in my way.

As the years passed, I continued to keep track of Miller’s writing, eventually reviewing one of her books for the Sunday Times Book Review. It was a mixed review, one that gave Miller her due but also commented on the single-mindedness of her approach and the ways in which her focus on childhood damage could be distorted. This past fall, at Bob Weil’s polite nudging, I once again tried to contact Miller in the hope of writing about her. She didn’t want to give out her phone number, so we left it that she’d get in touch with me. I ended up missing her call and found a tentative message from her in a heavy European accent on my voicemail, expressing bewilderment that I was not there to be reached. We eventually spoke briefly on a Sunday morning, and she suggested that I send her a series of questions that she would answer by way of an interview. I said I would do so, but the whole enterprise seemed too managed and confining to be of any real interest, and I let the opportunity slip away; looking back, I think I was simply too tired of the cat-and-mouse games she relished setting up.

Now the opportunity to try and ferret out firsthand the inner life of this complex and commanding woman is gone forever. I felt sad when I heard of her death and for a moment wondered what I might have found out if I had gone ahead and sent her a list of questions. Would she have answered only those she deemed unintrusive? Or would she have agreed to let readers get a glimpse of the forces that shaped her? In any case, it was too late. A visionary whose lifework was to awaken the world to the “panic of the beaten child” is gone, her secrets intact, her ornery courage undiminished to the end.

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lorrie bernstein says:

Surely there must be a happy midway point between Alice Miller’s personal discretion and Daphne Merkin’s unbearable inability to write more than two consecutive paragraphs about anything, or anyone, other than herself!

Fred Mason says:

@ Lorrie B. -Well summed!

Lesleigh says:

@Lorrie B – Could not have said it better myself.

Gigi Rosenberg says:

Merkin’s piece is her own personal reflection of her dealings with Alice Miller — of course it’s going to have a good deal of herself in it — especially because Miller was so slippery.

This was a beautiful piece — another reminder that we all have quirks and foibles and secrets no matter how wise and evolved.

Very interesting article! You are definitely the fox in Isaiah Berlin’s terms, Daphne, and always fascinating to read. One small correction: I did not “suspect” she was Jewish; she told me she was Jewish. She talked about it in great detail with my then wife, Therese Claire Masson, who was also Jewish, and also from Warsaw (she was a child in the Warsaw Ghetto). Although they spoke in Polish most of the time, I sometimes joined the conversation, as I have always been fascinated (obsessed others would say) with the Holocaust. When Alice Miller asked me to do an interview with her for a European publication I gladly agreed, and all went well until I asked about her life in Warsaw and how this may have had an impact on her views. After all, I claimed then, and still do, that any analyst who ignores the trauma that is the Holocaust, is shirking his or her duty. Surely trauma lies at the very heart of Freud’s psychoanalysis. She blew up, and began to cry. How could I join the long list of people who had abused her? I had no idea what she meant, and she would not explain, but from that moment our friendship suffered and never recovered. I still feel puzzled, because I know she agreed with me about the importance of trauma, and in fact had come to Berkeley to spend a week with me talking about it before I wrote my book, The Assault on Truth.

Phillip Cohen says:

Very sad to read on the passing of Alice Miller and the lost opportunity for her to be interviewed. Equally moving was to read some of the comments especially by Jeffrey Masson who provided clarity on his part in her life. Glad you read Tablet.

Howell Gotlieb says:

I hadn’t thought Alice Miller’s writings in years, yet I recall being shaken in reading Prisoners of Childhood as a graduate student. Her writing had a profound effect on me. What was sadly ironic was that Miller, who wrote so powerfully about impact of childhood trauma, became a strong advocate for a therapeutic approach developed Konrad Stettbacher, who was later charged with incidents of sexual abuse.

Perhaps Ms. Miller’s silence about her own past reveals how profound her trauma was- and like most therapists, her work was her means of healing herself as much as others. Because who provided light for her? I understand how childhood experiences can be too awful to speak; and would the details of her own childhood make her ideas any more convincing? We have no right to judge the relationship others create with their trauma. The one opinion I have without equivocation about Ms. Miller is that her work has made a seismic difference to our understanding of trauma’s consequences. I am grateful for the light her books provided me.

I would like to thank Daphne Merkin for this piece of info and also to the commenters.

Dr. Masson, I am an absolute fan of your critical books on psychoanalysis and I’m thankful for your work (I especially enjoyed Final Analysis). Let me say however that Miller was a very fragile person. Remember when you approached Anna Freud with the same sort of questions (back in 1973 IIRC)? My educated guess is that while those sort of *intellectual* questions were OK for someone like Anna Freud, who was not a direct victim of the Holocaust (and who didn’t reply to you anyway), in the case of Miller it was the wrong approach. Your former wife could have asked, in private, the same questions from the *emotional* side and perhaps Miller could have opened her past to her.

Anyway, biographical information is not lost forever. Surely Martin, Miller’s son (her daughter is retarded and probably can not help the biographers), knows her mother’s real Jewish name, and whether her grandma did indeed die in the Warsaw ghetto or in a camp. Sooner or later the details of Miller’s life with come up to the surface.

I agree with Ms. Levinson’s statement that the trauma was too personal and profound to touch in that instance–like an analyst who jumps the gun on any trauma, rather than waiting until the analysand is ready and opens it up herself–the patient will always retreat or react in some manner against the intrusion. Alas! The difference between an analysis and an interview, even of an analyst. Anna Freud’s responses about the refugee life in England, fleeing the Holocaust are simply incomparable with Alice Miller’s experiences as an apparent survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. We should respect the needs of one who, in spite of what she had known and suffered, spent her life post-trauma, bringing such light to so many.

Daniel Levin, Ph.D. says:

I was in close contact with Dr. Miller during 2008 and 2009 about a collection of essays I was writing dedicated to her and Lloyd DeMause entitled, “On Child Abuse and Neglect”. I found her a warm and highly supportive mentor, direct, available, and smart. She was highly professional. She wanted the essays published and went out of her way to make a strong case on my behalf to her editor at Basic.

I am saddened by her death. Of course her personal life is hers, not ours. She was smart to keep it herself, knowing that one takes an enormous risk revealing too much of oneself to the general public, especially when one who has suffered abuse, which she certainly had.

I am sure that for Dr. Miller, her Jewish identity was not nearly as critical to her as her identity as a psychologist and a victim of abuse. Even so, she made a great and profound contribution to the Jewish cause when she explained Hitler to the world. She needed to do or say no more for the Jewish people, and the world at large, to be forever in her debt.

Daniel Levin

Lou says:

Just thinking…

If Miller was the victim of abusive parents – and then those parents were murdured by the Nazis, the contradiction of focusing on both these things would have been too much. She could hold onto one of these things, but not both of them at the same time.
time. There are other people who have a similar background to her who did the opposite – they idealised the life they had with their parents before losing them.
.One can also wonder if people would have understood her work differently if they knew more about her background – and it might have been exploited by different interest groups.

thorleifsson says:

Does it mater that Alice Miller didnt tell about her Jewish origin and beeing from Lvov? I dont think so. Nothing bad or criminal. I love her even more after and now I want to make a pilagrimage to Lvov…….maybe.She has meant enormously for me and my recovery and exploration over the last 20 years. Clear and honest as nobody else I know about.Of course I didnt know her in person,it seems to be different indication people tell….

Alice Miller also presented me with Konrad Stettbacher’s work on which I have profited enormously.I have by myself used his method to work on my trauma and nothing has helped me as much.

I was in panic some years ago when I found Miller didnt like Stettbacher any more.Now I hear Stettbacher has been charged for sexual abuse…can somebody tell me what happened?
Anyway Stettbachers method has helped me and I will continue to use his method….of course. Best wishes to him if he reads this.

julia says:

Mr. Leifsson, there is nothing wrong with Konrad Stettbacher or his method.
I think it is quite interesting to see how Alice Miller connected to other people, like Konrad Stettbacher, Barbara Rogers, and, as we can read here, Jeffrey Masson. Mr. Masson tells us that from the moment he brought something up that triggered her past she accused him of abuse and from then on their friendship suffered and never recovered. Barbara Rogers had the nerve to have a mind of her own. She wrote a letter on her website that´s quite revealing.
Mrs. Alice Miller had her own private agenda, i.e. her own past, which she obviously was not able to disclose and process to her satisfaction. She needed a scape-goat for her frustration and she found one, Konrad Stettbacher. He perfectly fit her purpose, because of the accusation of sexual abuse. Mrs. Miller then committed a crime, the character assassination of Konrad Stettbacher. She confused most of her readers, amongst them men and women with no other orientation than that of her books. Several comments on the net prove however that not all her readers were fooled by her. I found a comment in an Amazon discussion, written by Chancery Stone, an answer to one of Miller’s blind followers, concerning Konrad Stettbacher: ” The man may have been accused of sexual misconduct but he wasn’t convicted. And I’m willing to bet you know nothing about the accusations or the outcome. An accusation is sufficient for you to repeat it, just as Alice Miller’s disapproval is sufficient for you to assume that it has substance” By the way, it seems to me that Mr. Masson too made a lot of assumptions. I remember his comment on Stettbacher.

Menelik Charles says:

Hi Guys,

I met Alice in the 1980s when she visited London’s ICA. I was one of only two Black people present. We talked for a good while. She even mentioned me in one of her books. I loved that lady. She saved my life when I happened across her book at Islington Central library. I was 18 years old. Now she is dead. I will miss her sooo much! But she will always be with us in her work and in her spirit.

God Bless You Alice Miller!

Menelik Charles

Yohanan Weininger says:

Unless she has some 90-year old Lvov landsman, Alice Miller’s original name may remain unknown. The article and some comments note the irony and history in Miller’s personal reticence.

Also noted in a comment above is to distinguish between suspicion and conviction of child abuse; a distinction between subjective charges and objective proof.

To explain Hitler and Holocaust as grounded in child abuse, is simplistic, blind and mistaken.

-yohananw, Jerusalem

Survivors of the Holocaust often had to be ruthless to survive.Is it possible that feelings of shame account for MILLER’s secrecy about her wartime past?

Tim LaDuca says:

@yohananw, see “Wounded Monster” by Theo L. Dorpat. Child abuse was a major component and laid the foundation, but Dorpat goes well beyond Hitler’s childhood to show how he became the monster he did.

I just re-read Drama of the Gifted Child and got more out of it than I did 20 years ago, and it is just as relevant today.

Doug Bremner, author of
Does Stress Damage the Brain?

thorleifsson says:

The best books of AM are where she is not psycoanalitic…..but talks about mistreatment of children right as it is.

FOA critic says:

Doug Bremner? The protector of the convicted sex killer Amanda Knox? Wow your hypocrisy has no end, huh?

Alice last name says:

BTW – for those interested in Alice’s family origin – according to the obituary published in the Guardian she came from the Jewish Rostovski family.

Carlo says:

About the Holocaust and WWII read this chapter:

I’m a historian. I discovered Alice Miller in the 1980s and was blown away both by her personal and historical insights. I used For Your Own Good in a course on historical fiction of the twentieth century for years, and eventually I got up my courage and invited the students to discuss their own past. The results were quite astonishing.

I am half-Jewish myself, and indeed, had uncles who must have been born fairly near where she was, decades earlier. Having read and re-read her books so carefully I was extremely surprised that she had never referred to her own origins. In her very last book she did say some very pointed things about her parents–that they had not even wanted to marry one another and that they had not wanted her. Earlier books had said a lot about her mother, but I don’t remember anything about her father. I would point out that she says some pretty scathing (and in my opinion, very acute) things about the Old Testament and its impact in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, which in breadth of vision may be her best book of all.

The market for truth, as I have discovered myself, is a specialty market. I’m afraid Alice Miller’s views will never become mainstream–they are too threatening–but her work will always be a source of great comfort and insight for those lucky enough to discover it.

francois says:

I had long ago assumed from her singular and reccurring focus on the themes of parental arrogance and childhood cruelties that she must have suffered herself to understand and care about the issues so deeply.

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I think her views have traveled into the mainstream like ripples of water from a pebble dropping.

I think as well, it may have been an issue of emotions too strong to even be able to stem for a stable response. She dedicated her life to uncovering abuse of children, so they would not have to repress. She may have been on some level trying to save the child she once was. But questions about her past would have been experienced as a child who clearly never adequately grieved. How can someone answer questions in an adult removed manner with a sob of horror blocking the throat. It sounds like a childhood gone from bad to worse. My own mother suffered the same thing, with a pedophile father and sick mother, who later died when she was ten. My mother can’t talk about her childhood in any real or coherent way. She is not connected with the grief, which might otherwise overwhelm her. Her survival depended on staying out of those emotions. I have another friend who suffered similar horrors as a child who said she felt as if the emotions of re-experiencing the trauma were certain to kill her. Not responding to your post in specific, but to the general implication that Miller’s reactions to her trauma and her occasional humanity somehow diminish her work. On the contrary, as a survivor of abuse and incest from perpetrators on both sides of my family, I find these revelations about Miller only increase my admiration for her. I have seen over and over and over in my family adult women shut down and refuse to protect children they clearly know are being sexually abused. I have been met with the admonishment ‘children lie’ by a relative when I related something a 2 year old traded to my pedophile uncle reputedly for drugs said to me when I was a child. No help was given to this child until her mother later retrieved her. He later served time in prison. My own mother sent my sister and I off on a weeks vacation with her pedophile father, knowing we would be sleeping in his bed, though he’d abused her from age 3 to 18 yrs. Over and over and over this cycle repeats in my family. Miller somehow managed to overcome her abuse enough to be a savior to many many wounded adults, and in turn affected the lives of those people’s children, and probably uncounted other children. Her teachings have affected the lives of my neglected nephews. I can’t imagine what would motivate someone to try to detract from Miller’s work. I also find the premise of the article, that she was difficult and that in itself merits her work a downgrade, to be assinine and at it’s root, unbelievably sexist. No such attempt would ever be made about a brilliant male in any profession. It would be anecdotal at most.


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Private Drama

Alice Miller was an authority on childhood trauma, but she stayed mum about her own

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