THE DRAMA OF BEING A CHILD by Alice Miller (Virago, 1987)

Alice Miller (1923 - 2010)

Alice Miller (1923 – 2010)

‘It’s never too late to have a happy childhood’ is a quote attributed to the American author Tom Robbins, although I have a feeling that someone else said it before him.

The sentiment behind these words should be immediately obvious – age is just a state of mind (I wish!) and being too eager to put away childish things doesn’t necessarily make you a more grounded adult.

I don’t think it is supposed to endorse the behaviour of those who never properly grow up or to celebrate immaturity.

We can try to keep a childlike sense of wonder towards the world around us and stay as open as possible to new experiences but ,the older you get, the harder it is to preserve this level of purity.

As a compensation, it can be rewarding to try to see things through the eyes of your own kids or of other children you encounter.

An aphorism for Alice Miller’s book would be decidedly less snappy and more cynical. It would have to be something like: “It’s never to late to realise that the childhood you always thought was happy wasn’t so marvellous after all”.

Miller was born in Poland but moved to Switzerland in 1946 at the age of 23. There she taught and practiced psychoanalysis for twenty years until 1980. This book was based on her own experiences and case studies of her patients.

It was written at a time when she still believed analysis was vital in healing psychological wounds. This was something she gradually came to doubt and ultimately to reject completely after she perceived that the adult mind has  such a boundless capacity to build walls of denial around childhood traumas that even the most skilled analyst can’t break them down.

child-dramaThe book was originally published in Britain in 1983 as The Drama Of The Gifted Child. The Virago title is more accurate in my view  as this is a book about all children, not only those deemed ‘gifted’ or special.

In a preface to the 1990 edition I read, Alice Miller stands by the issues at the heart of this book even though she is at pains to distance her ideas from those of other analysts and to question the notion that psychoanalytical treatment is cure-all many would have us believe.

Her stated aim is to “break away from judgemental, isolating and therefore discriminating terminology” and to show how even the most caring parents can cause harm to their children.

They can do this, for instance,  by imposing adult standards; effectively taming children so that they adhere to an idealised model; moulding them to be well-behaved, polite, reliable, emphatic and understanding – what Miller calls a “convenient child who in fact was never a child at all”.

Forcing children to behave in such a ‘socially acceptable manner’ is a subtle form of indoctrination which means that ‘ordinary’ impulses like jealousy, rage and defiance are suppressed.

Miller observes sagely: “it is not a child’s task or duty to satisfy his parent’s narcissistic needs” and, in a darker vein, says “child abuse is still sanctioned – indeed held in high regard – in our society as long as it is defined as child rearing”.

The abuse she is referring to is not physically beating or sexually exploiting children (although it may be that too) but a more hidden form of abuse which Samuel Beckett, in ‘Eh Joe, memorably identified as “mental thuggee” – being beaten up psychologically.

Not allowing children to give free expression to ‘inconvenient’ emotions doesn’t mean that these feelings magically disappear; instead they are repressed and/or become a source of guilt and shame. This often leads to an obsessive desire to win admiration in lieu of unconditional love but, as Miller notes, “grandiosity and depression express the same underlying problem”;  that is, the repression of the true self with all its innate  ‘faults’ and doubts.

To be a truly supportive parent is a challenging task because “only if we become sensitive to the fine and subtle ways in which a child may suffer humiliation can we hope to develop the respect for him that a child needs…….. if he is to develop emotionally”.

I can think of ways in which I have undermined, or made light of the feelings of my own daughter simply because this was easier than engaging at a deeper level. It is difficult, but important, to show respect towards feelings and attitudes, even when you don’t understand or share them.

This value for this book for me is that Alice Miller writes with such wisdom and compassion about ways to combat depression and to understand what being free truly means. This is encapsulated in these two quotes:

  • “One is free from depression when self-esteem is based on the authenticity of one’s own feelings and not on the possession of certain qualities”.
  • “The true opposite of depression is not gaiety, or absence of pain, but vitality: the freedom to experience spontaneous feelings”.

This book gives valuable insights into the nature of parent-child relationship and, in the process, offers ways of understanding our adult hangups.

In other words, it would make an ideal gift for children aged 0 – 90.