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

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

Daphne Merkin
May 04, 2010
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.

Daphne Merkin, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a contributor to the TLS, The Times Book Review, Bookforum, and Departures, teaches writing at Columbia University. Her latest novel, Twenty-Two Minutes of Unconditional Love, will be out in June, 2020.

Daphne Merkin, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a contributor to the TLS, The Times Book Review, Bookforum, and Departures, teaches writing at Columbia University. Her latest novel,Twenty-Two Minutes of Unconditional Love, will be out in June, 2020.