I’ve been thinking about the therapist and writer Alice Miller, whose work helped me—as it has helped so many—see the world, and myself, differently.
At the heart of Miller’s work is the belief that we should question authority, and that as children raised in our “civilized” tradition, we have been brought up to obey things that are not really for anyone’s good.
Miller encourages us to remember, or perhaps feel for the first time, what our childhood experiences really were like—not from our adult perspective, but instead from the childhood perspective itself.
Miller believes that we are conditioned, from the time we are very young, to discount our own experiences, feelings, and interpretations in favor of the experiences/feelings/interpretations expected of us. Our parents, our schools, society as a whole discount children’s experiences, and eventually Miller came to believe that traditional Freudian therapy perpetuated that pattern.
To grow up in a world in which we are, from early childhood, cut off from our own intrinsic experiences, has profound consequences not only for us as individuals, but also for the whole society.
Central to Miller’s work is the question: what leads us, as humans, to feel disconnected from ourselves and from one another? What leads to tyranny and violence?
Alice Miller believed that a culture that raises children to trust in external authority while discounting their own authority leads both to personal unhappiness and collective violence.
Miller’s work also underscores the ways in which our bodies themselves carry our stories. The very ways our education (both institutional and at home) cuts children off from their bodies enables this kind of split from one’s own value system.
But when we bring mind and body back together and listen to our bodies, we recover our own truths and can heal both individually and as a society.
I recommend in particular Miller’s first three books:
The Drama of The Gifted Child. This is Miller’s first book and looks more specifically at the individual child’s experiences.
Thou Shalt Not Be Aware. This brilliant book explores key cultural stories that fragment us from our own moral guidance system, as well as the life and work of such writers as Virginia Woolf and Flaubert.
For Your Own Good. The third of Miller’s books, this book explores the roots of violence in our society and looks at Hitler and other very violent individuals.
These books are timely to read in America today. They allow us to look seriously at the dangers of violence while still trusting in the inherent potential for good in all children and in ourselves.
Reading Miller’s work changed my life and who I am: it allowed me to access parts of my own story that had been cut off, and it guides me in the work I do now, helping individuals reclaim their wholeness and authority, and helping us collectively shift our communal story so that can live in a less violent, fragmented world.