Alice Miller, born as Alicija Englard (12 January 1923 to 14 April 2010), was a Polish-Swiss psychologist, psychoanalyst and philosopher of Jewish origin, who is noted for her books on parental child abuse, translated into several languages. She was also a noted public intellectual.
Her book The Drama of the Gifted Child caused a sensation and became an international bestseller upon the English publication in 1981. Her views on the consequences of child abuse became highly influential. In her books she departed from psychoanalysis, charging it with being similar to the poisonous pedagogies.
Miller was born in Piotrków Trybunalski, Poland into a Jewish family. She was the oldest daughter of Gutta and Meylech Englard and had a sister, Irena, who was five years younger. From 1931 to 1933 the family lived in Berlin, where nine-year-old Alicija learned the German language. Due to the National Socialists’ seizure of power in Germany in 1933 the family turned back to Piotrków Trybunalski. As a young woman, Miller managed to escape the Jewish Ghetto in Piotrków Trybunalski, where all Jewish inhabitants were interned since October 1939, and survived World War II in Warsaw under the assumed name of Alicja Rostowska. While she was able to smuggle her mother and sister out, in 1941, her father died in the ghetto.
She retained her assumed name Alice Rostovska when she moved to Switzerland in 1946, where she had won a scholarship to the University of Basel.
In 1949 she married Swiss sociologist Andreas Miller, originally a Polish Catholic, with whom she had moved from Poland to Switzerland as students. They divorced in 1973. They had two children, Martin (born 1950) and Julika (born 1956). Shortly after his mother’s death Martin Miller stated in an interview with Der Spiegel that he had been beaten by his authoritarian father during his childhood – in the presence of his mother. Miller first stated that his mother did not intervene and was emotionally abusive. These events happened decades before Alice Miller’s awakening about the dangers of such childrearing methods. Martin also mentioned that his mother was unable to talk with him, despite numerous lengthy conversations, about her wartime experiences, as she was severely burdened by them.
In 1953 Miller gained her doctorate in philosophy, psychology and sociology. Between 1953 and 1960, Miller studied psychoanalysis and practiced it between 1960 and 1980 in Zürich.
In 1980, after having worked as a psychoanalyst and an analyst trainer for 20 years, Miller “stopped practicing and teaching psychoanalysis in order to explore childhood systematically.” She became critical of both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. 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 in any respect.
In 1985 Miller wrote about the research from her time as a psychoanalyst: “For twenty years I observed people denying their childhood traumas, idealising their parents and resisting the truth about their childhood by any means.” In 1985 she left Switzerland and moved to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in Southern France.
In 1986, she was awarded the Janusz Korczak Literary Award for her book Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society’s Betrayal of the Child.
In April 1987 Miller announced in an interview with the German magazine Psychologie Heute (Psychology Today) her rejection of psychoanalysis. The following year she cancelled her memberships in both the Swiss Psychoanalytic Society and the International Psychoanalytic Association, because she felt that psychoanalytic theory and practice made it impossible for former victims of child abuse to recognise the violations inflicted on them and to resolve the consequences of the abuse, as they “remained in the old tradition of blaming the child and protecting the parents”.
One of Miller’s last books, Bilder meines Lebens (“Pictures of My Life”), was published in 2006. It is 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 1973-2005.
Between 2005 and her death in 2010, she answered hundreds of readers’ letters on her website, where there are also published articles, flyers and interviews in three languages. Days before her death Alice Miller wrote: “These letters will stay as an important witness also after my death under my copyright”.
Miller died on 14 April 2010, at the age of 87, at her home in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence by suicide after severe illness and diagnosis of advanced-stage pancreatic cancer.
Miller extended the trauma model to include all forms of child abuse, including those that were commonly accepted (such as spanking), which she called poisonous pedagogy, a non-literal translation of Katharina Rutschky’s Schwarze Pädagogik (black or dark pedagogy/imprinting).
Drawing upon the work of psychohistory, Miller analyzed writers Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka and others to find links between their childhood traumas and the course and outcome of their lives.
The introduction of Miller’s first book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, first published in 1979, contains a line that summarises her core views. In it, she writes:
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.
In the 1990s, Miller strongly supported a new method developed by Konrad Stettbacher, who himself was later charged with incidents of sexual abuse. Miller came to know about Stettbacher and his method from a book by Mariella Mehr titled Steinzeit (Stone Age). Having been strongly impressed by the book, Miller contacted Mehr in order to get the name of the therapist. From that time forward, Miller refused to make therapist or method recommendations. In open letters, Miller explained her decision and how she originally became Stettbacher’s disciple, but in the end she distanced herself from him and his regressive therapies.
In her writings, Miller is careful to clarify that by “abuse” she does not only mean physical violence or sexual abuse, she is also concerned with psychological abuse perpetrated by one or both parents on their child; this is difficult to identify and deal with because the abused person is likely to conceal it from themselves and may not be aware of it until some event, or the onset of depression, requires it to be treated. Miller blamed psychologically abusive parents for the majority of neuroses and psychoses. She maintained that all instances of mental illness, addiction, crime and cultism were ultimately caused by suppressed rage and pain as a result of subconscious childhood trauma that was not resolved emotionally, assisted by a helper, which she came to term an “enlightened witness.” In all cultures, “sparing the parents is our supreme law,” wrote Miller. Even psychiatrists, psychoanalysts and clinical psychologists were unconsciously afraid to blame parents for the mental disorders of their clients, she contended. According to Miller, mental health professionals were also creatures of the poisonous pedagogy internalised in their own childhood. This explained why the Commandment “Honour thy parents” was one of the main targets in Miller’s school of psychology.
Miller called electroconvulsive therapy “a campaign against the act of remembering”. In her book Abbruch der Schweigemauer (The Demolition of Silence), she also criticised psychotherapists’ advice to clients to forgive their abusive parents, arguing that this could only hinder recovery through remembering and feeling childhood pain. It was her contention that the majority of therapists fear this truth and that they work under the influence of interpretations culled from both Western and Oriental religions, which preach forgiveness by the once-mistreated child. She believed that forgiveness did not resolve hatred, but covered it in a dangerous way in the grown adult: displacement on scapegoats, as she discussed in her psycho-biographies of Adolf Hitler and Jürgen Bartsch, both of whom she described as having suffered severe parental abuse.
A common denominator in Miller’s writings is her explanation of why human beings prefer not to know about their own victimisation during childhood: to avoid unbearable pain. She believed that the unconscious command of the individual, not to be aware of how he or she was treated in childhood, led to displacement: the irresistible drive to repeat abusive parenting in the next generation of children or direct unconsciously the unresolved trauma against others (war, terrorism, delinquency), or against him or herself (eating disorders, drug addiction, depression).
The Roots of Violence
According to Alice Miller, worldwide violence has its roots in the fact that children are beaten all over the world, especially during their first years of life, when their brains become structured. She said that the damage caused by this practice is devastating, but unfortunately hardly noticed by society. She argued that as children are forbidden to defend themselves against the violence inflicted on them, they must suppress the natural reactions like rage and fear, and they discharge these strong emotions later as adults against their own children or whole peoples: “child abuse like beating and humiliating not only produces unhappy and confused children, not only destructive teenagers and abusive parents, but thus also a confused, irrationally functioning society”. Miller stated that only through becoming aware of this dynamic can we break the chain of violence.