Alice Miller, child abuse and mistreatment

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With thanks for your books
Wednesday February 21, 2007

Dear Alice,

I wanted to write and thank you for your work, and the vital support your books have given me over the years, as I struggled to understand my own history and the physical symptoms that have haunted me most of my life.

All through my childhood and adolescence I had a deep feeling that there was something wrong with me, that I somehow deserved the succession of skin complaints (acne, eczema, rosasea, blushing etc.) that made me look and feel so ugly that I frequently contemplated suicide. I felt I was carrying some nameless family curse but had no idea of its origins.

In my late 20s I took a course in antogenic training, to try and relax deeply in the hope of relieving my symptoms. While practicing AT at home, I felt an urge to curl up like an unborn baby. When I allowed this urge to take over I would go through movements like the early stages of being born. I began to have claustrophobic dreams, for example being trapped in a cave. The AT course was taught by a psychotherapist who used a related technique, antogenic neutralisation, in her practice. I talked to her about these experiences, which led to her taking me on as a client. By allowing my body to relax and express itself spontaneously in therapy, I found myself reliving my birth in great detail.

I was amazed by this, as I had always understood that we do not store memories before the first 2 or 3 years of life. My therapist provided a safe environment where I gradually worked through the process of being born, including details like being dizzy from my mother’s anesthetic. Traumatic though all this felt, the post-birth feelings of being deserted and isolated and starved of touch were far worse. My mother later confirmed details of my birth, and that I had been separated from her for medical reasons for 3 days afterwards. After my mother died, I found a letter from my grandmother, responding to a letter my mother had sent describing the distress she felt at not being able to hold and nurse me after my birth.

This stage of therapy took many months, and although it changed me in some ways, such as reducing my feelings of claustrophobia, I was bitterly disappointed that it failed to help my skin conditions at all. I broke off the therapy feeling that it had been a failure. Some time later I felt more disturbing memories surfacing, and dreams where I would awake up in terror with the sense of some alien presence looming over me. I returned to my therapist, and my body at once started to replay memories, only this time they seemed to involve violent sexual abuse. I had ways remembered my father’s outbursts of rage and the humiliating spankings he gave me, and his attempts to fondle me sexually, but these memories seemed to be much earlier. I felt that I was little more than a baby and was being used as a sex doll.

At about this time my sister, who is younger than me and had always seemed the “normal” one, started to develop a compulsion to wash, along with multiple phobias and a drink problem. This led to a break-up with her husband who couldn’t cope with the house being sprayed with disinfectant. She dropped a hint to me one night that she had been sexually abused, and I questioned her about it, desperate for some assurance that my own surfacing memories weren’t a sign that I was going mad, but she flatly refused to discuss it, even when her symptoms got worse and she developed an eating disorder as well.

I continued with my therapist, and unloaded more memories of abuse, together with the most terrible feelings of dirtiness, desolation and vulnerability. I felt I was reliving the moment when the real me was buried alive, walled in behind an unfeeling, robot-like personality that I had to acquire in order to survive. I realised that my experience after birth had left me so starved of touch that I was a perfect victim, longing for my father’s embrace until it tuned poisonous, leaving me feeling like a dirty little monster that might not be allowed to exist unless I was constantly vigilant.

I would like to say that this stage of therapy set me firmly on the route to recovery, but despite re-experiencing these traumas so vividly in the therapist’s room, my skin conditions never seemed to improve, and the same traumatic memories seemed to re-play like a scratched record. Eventually I became disheartened and gave up, deciding that the therapy just didn’t work for me.

It was years later that I received a call from my niece saying that my sister was in hospital, having collapsed as a a result of malnutrition and alcohol abuse. My niece disclosed that my sister had told her about the abuse she had suffered from my father over many years.

It was a terrific shock, and I suddenly realised why my therapy had not progressed. However intense and real the memories seemed during therapy, however devastating the feelings I had uncovered, there was a part of me that simply could not believe that my father was capable of the violent rape that my body insisted had taken place. I believed it during therapy, but over the days following a session I would start to doubt the reality of these body memories, and even feel guilty that I had believed my father to be guilty of doing such terrible things to a little boy. Now, as I looked at my sister close to death in a hospital bed as a result of the self-hate my father had instilled in her, I realised that what by body had told me was accurate, as accurate as it had been with the details of my birth.

I resumed therapy again, and this time I started to make real progress and my symptoms began to disappear. I no longer pretended that I had loved my father (now dead), or excused his actions. I began to feel the terror produced by the spankings, which I‘d always remembered but dismissed as unimportant.

My feeling towards my mother and my grandmother (who lived with us when I was a child) are more complex. They could both be loving and caring, but I can’t forget that the abuse took place under their noses. Although sexual abuse is secretive, the clues must have been their, and there was never any secret about the violent spankings. But neither of the women in the house was around to protect my sister and me when the abuses took place. Perhaps they found it easier not to notice what was happening. As an adult, I can see how tempting that must have been, but as the little child who was left alone with the most terrible feelings, I still feel angry and resentful.

If my mother had lived and could have understood (she was already loosing her memory when my sister collapsed), I would have liked to confront her with all this, and I think we might have been able to have an honest conversation and perhaps reconciliation. Sadly, she and my father are both dead. To me, forgiveness involves communication and has no meaning as a one-sided gesture. It is very hard not to forgive someone who expresses deep, heartfelt remorse, and I think that might have happened with my mother. I think my father would have denied everything.

I finally got my sister to talk about her own experiences, and to find a therapist, and I have lent her some of your books. Whether she has the determination to continue the therapy to a successful outcome, I don’t know. I have a feeling that she lacks the determination to heal herself, and I don’t know what I can do to persuade her.

I’ve written much more than I intended, but I hope it is of interest to you and your readers.

With thanks,
R

PS I'm happy for this letter to be published.

AM: Thank you for your letter; everything you write makes sense to me. If your skin symptoms disappear it would be wonderful, but if they still persist maybe you need to give up the illusion that you could confront your mother and that you "might have been able to have an honest conversation and perhaps reconciliation."

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