Alice Miller (psychologist)

Alice Miller (born January 12, 1923) is a psychologist and author, noted for her work on child abuse in its many forms, including physical abuse, emotional abuse and child sexual abuse. Miller studied and wrote about the effects of poisonous pedagogy upon children and lasting into adulthood, and the resulting effects on society as a whole. Miller was born in Poland and in 1946 migrated to Switzerland. She gained her doctorate in philosophy, psychology and sociology in 1953 in Basel. She studied and practiced psychoanalysis for the next 20 years. After 1973, she developed her own ideas about child development and psychology. She published her first three books in the late 1970s. In 1979, she stopped practicing as a psychoanalyst. She has continued to write and lecture on psychological issues. In 1986, Alice Miller was awarded the Janusz Korczak Literary Award by the Anti-Defamation League. Her most recent book, Bilder meines Lebens ("Pictures of My Life"), was published in 2006; an informal autobiography in which the writer explores her emotional process from painful childhood, through the development of her theories and later insights, told via the display and discussion of 66 of her original paintings, painted in the years 1973 to 2005.

Miller has two adult children. Since 2005, she answers some readers' letters and publishes articles, flyers and interviews on her website.


The introduction of Miller's first book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, first published in 1979, contains a famous line that summarizes her views:

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 unique history of our childhood.

Miller became strongly disenchanted with her chosen field of psychoanalysis after many years spent in practice. Her first three books originated from research she took upon herself as a response to what she felt were major blind spots in her field. However, by the time her fourth book was published she no longer believed that psychoanalysis was viable at all.

Drawing upon the work of psychohistory, Miller has analyzed writers Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka and others to find links between their childhood traumas and the outcome of their lives. She maintains that all instances of mental illness, crime and falling prey of religious cults are ultimately caused by childhood trauma and inner pain not processed by a helper which she has come to term an "enlightened witness". She extends this trauma model to include all forms of child abuse, including those that are commonly accepted (such as spanking) which she calls poisonous pedagogy, a non-literal translation of Katharina Rutschky's Schwarze Pädagogik.

In the 1990s Miller strongly supported a new method from Konrad Stettbacher, who was later charged with incidents of sexual abuse. Since then she has refused to bring forward therapist or method recommendations. In open letters, Miller explained her decision and how she originally became Stettbacher's disciple but in the end distanced herself from him and his regressive therapies.

Miller blames abusive parents for the majority of neuroses and psychoses of mankind. In our culture "Sparing the parents is our supreme law" wrote Miller. Even psychiatrists, psychoanalysts and clinical psychologists are unconsciously afraid to blame parents for the mental disorders of their clients. According to Miller mental health professionals are also creatures of the poisonous pedagogy internalized in their own childhood. This explains why the command "Honor your parents" has been one of the main targets in Miller's school of psychology.

Miller calls electroconvulsive therapy "a campaign against the act of remembering". She also criticizes psychotherapists' advice to clients to forgive their abusive parents. For Miller this can only hinder the way to recovery: to remember and feel the pain of our childhood. "The majority of therapists fear this truth. They work under the influence of destructive interpretations culled from both Western and Oriental religions, which preach forgiveness to the once-mistreated child". Forgiveness does not resolve hatred but covers it in a very dangerous way in the outgrown adult: displacement on scapegoats, as she discussed in her psycho-biographies of Adolf Hitler and Jürgen Bartsch, both of whom she describes as having suffered atrocious parental abuse.

A common denominator in Miller's writings is to explain why human beings prefer not to know about their own victimization during childhood: to avoid unbearable pain. However, the unconscious command of the individual, not to be aware how he or she was treated in childhood, leads to displacement: the irresistible drive to repeat traumatogenic modes of parenting in the next generation of children.


The following is a brief summary of Alice Miller's books.

The Drama of the Gifted Child (Das Drama des begabten Kindes, 1979)

In her first book (also published under the titles Prisoners of Childhood and The Drama of Being a Child) Miller defines and elaborates the personality manifestations of childhood trauma. She seeks the truth about her own childhood experiences and in so doing defines the model that has become widely accepted in psychotherapeutic circles, such as the Tavistock Institute. She addresses the two reactions to the loss of love in childhood, depression and grandiosity; the inner prison, the vicious circle of contempt, repressed memories, the etiology of depression, and how childhood trauma manifests itself in the adult.

For Your Own Good (Am Anfang war Erziehung, 1980)

Miller proposes here that German traumatogenic methods of childrearing produced Hitler and a serial killer of children named Jürgen Bartsch. Children learn to take their parent's point of view against themselves "for their own good". In the case of Hitler, he learned to take his parents' point of view against himself, against Jews, and against other groups of people. For Miller, the traditional pedagogic process is manipulative, resulting in grown-up adults deferring excessively to authorities, even to tyrannical leaders or dictators like Hitler. Miller even argues for abandoning the term "pedagogy" in favor of the word "support", something akin to what psychohistorians call the helping mode of parenting.

The key element that Miller elucidates in this book is the understanding of why the German nation, the "good Germans", complied with Hitler's abusive regime, which Miller asserts was a direct result of how the society in general treated its children. She raised fundamental questions about wolrdwide current child rearing practices and issued a stern warning.

Miller has communicated with leading education, psychology and medical health establishments, as well as political leaders, in many countries, to no avail.

Thou Shalt Not Be Aware (Du sollst nicht merken, 1981)

Unlike Miller's later books, this one is written in an academic style. It is her first critique of psychoanalysis, charging it with being similar to the poisonous pedagogies that she described in For Your Own Good. Miller is critical of both Freud and Jung. She scrutinizes Freud's drive theory, a device that blames the child for the abusive sexual behavior of adults. Miller also theorizes about Franz Kafka, who was abused by his father but fulfilled the politically-correct function of mirroring abuse in metaphorical novels, instead of exposing it.

The Untouched Key (Der gemiedene Schlüssel, 1988)

This book is partly a psychobiography of Nietzsche, Picasso, Kollwitz and Buster Keaton (in Miller's latest book, The Body Never Lies published in 2005, she includes similar analyses of Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Schiller, Rimbaud, Mishima, Proust and James Joyce).

According to Miller, Nietzsche did not experience a loving family and his philosophical output is a metaphor of an unconscious drive against his family's oppressive theological tradition. She believes the philosophical system is flawed because Nietzsche was unable to make emotional contact with the abused child inside him. Though Nietzsche was severely punished by a father who lost his mind when Nietzsche was a little boy, Miller does not accept the genetic theory of madness. She interprets Nietzsche's psychotic breakdown as the result of a family tradition in Prussian modes of childrearing.

Banished Knowledge (Das verbannte Wissen, 1988)

In this more personal book Miller confesses she herself was abused as a child. She also introduces the fundamental concept of "enlightened witness": a person who is willing to support a harmed individual, empathize with her and help her to gain understanding of her own biographical past.

Banished Knowledge is autobiographical in another sense. It is a pointer in Miller's thoroughgoing apostasy from her own profession, psychoanalysis. She believes society colludes with Freud's theories in order not to know the truth about our childhood, a truth that human cultures have "banished". She concludes that the feelings of guilt instilled in our minds since our most tender years reinforce our repression even in the psychoanalytic profession.

Breaking Down the Wall of Silence (Abbruch der Schweigemauer, 1990)

Written in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Miller takes to task the entirety of human culture. What she calls the "wall of silence" is the metaphorical wall behind which society —academia, psychiatrists, clergy, politicians and members of the media— has sought to protect itself: denying the mind-destroying effects of child abuse. She also continues the autobiographical confession initiated in Banished Knowledge about her abusive mother. In Pictures of a Childhood: Sixty-six Watercolors and an Essay Miller says that painting helped her to ponder deeply into her memories. In some of her paintings Miller depicts baby Alice as swaddled, sometimes by an evil mother.

I betrayed that little girl [...]. Only in recent years, with the help of therapy, which enabled me to lift the veil on this repression bit by bit, could I allow myself to experience the pain and desperation, the powerlessness and justified fury of that abused child. Only then did the dimensions of this crime against the child I once was become clear to me.

See also


Miller's published books in English:

  • The Drama of the Gifted Child, (1978), revised in 1995 and re-published by Virago as The Drama of Being a Child. ISBN 1-86049-101-4
  • Prisoners of Childhood (1981) ISBN 0-465-06287-3
  • For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence (1983) ISBN 0-374-52269-3 (full text available on line at no cost)
  • Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society's Betrayal of the Child (1984) ISBN 0-374-52543-9
  • Banished Knowledge: Facing Childhood Injuries ISBN 0-385-26762-2
  • The Untouched Key: Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness ISBN 0-385-26764-9
  • Pictures of a Childhood: Sixty-six Watercolors and an Essay ISBN 0-374-23241-5
  • Paths of Life: Seven Scenarios (1998) ISBN 0-375-40379-5
  • Breaking Down the Wall of Silence: The Liberating Experience of Facing Painful Truth ISBN 0-525-93357-3
  • The Truth Will Set You Free: Overcoming Emotional Blindness (2001) ISBN 0-465-04584-7
  • The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Cruel Parenting (2005) ISBN 0-393-06065-9

Miller's essays include:


External links

Book reviews

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