Alice Miller, child abuse and mistreatment

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You belong to yourself
Sunday November 06, 2005

Dear Alice,

We have read your latest book The Body Never Lies and feel prompted to respond, to let you know how much we and our children owe you for your effort of many decades to shed light on the child-parent relationship, between generations as well as within the individual.

Your book The Drama of the Gifted Child, which we read about 20 years ago, just before we got married, gave us the courage and many clues to find out for ourselves what influences were determining our responses to each other, our parents, our siblings and wider family, our colleagues and bosses at work and the new people every one of us meets every day. On the one hand we were certain that our parents had never physically done us any harm. On the other hand we had sensed the strong negative influence of having been humiliated and put in our place, a place that for both of us became less and less special, if not outright redundant, if we had correctly interpreted what our parents had said to us. There was also a third side, which we could not get hold of. We discovered that several of our inhibitions and inabilities to act seemed to stem for our parents, even though they had never actually said anything about the subjects.

During and after my second depression, which I suffered during the months that I successfully completed and defended my doctoral thesis in physics and mathematics, I started to notice that with all my brainpower I could do nothing to stop the feelings that would recur and drain away all of my energy, until life wasn’t worth living anymore. I read your Drama of the Gifted Child after I had survived the depression (and the attempt to take my own life) and had moved to an apartment 60 kilometers away from my family, close to my new job. My father died in the next year. I helped my mother to arrange the funeral. I noticed that some depressing feelings came up when I stayed in and near my mother’s house. My girlfriend – my current wife – had been forbidden by my mother to enter her house, as she had been identified as a source of the alienation that had driven her an me apart. When I returned to my apartment, the depressing feelings disappeared, despite the loss of my father. I began to see that feelings may be subjective – only I experience them directly –, but that they are real and that I had better take them seriously. So when Carin moved in with me, when we got married and when we bought a house 80 kilometers away from each of our parent’s houses, we heeded this understanding: feelings are real. As a result of the distance, our children were born at home, with only a midwife and a nurse during the first birth, and just our little boy and myself with Carin when our baby-girl was born. Our lives were happy, and we became more and more confident that we now knew how to keep it this way.

When we had lived like this for 6 years, I found a new job close to where my mother still lived and we moved to the neighbouring village, as traveling from home to work and back proved too tiring. It will not surprise you that as I re-established closer and closer contact with my mother, my depression came back. She blamed it on my genetic susceptibility for depression, which she suggested I had inherited from my paternal grandfather, whom I had loved dearly and whose death I had found very hard to bear. I also knew I was his favorite grandchild, named after him. I noticed I became more and more meek over against my mother, as I had always been. My wife started hating me for it. She will still sometimes remind me of those days: “all you could say to your mother was “yes, mom”, “no, mom”, in line with her wishes”. After an incident in which my mother came to our door with the police, as she suspected us of neglecting and endangering our children, I finally and very reluctantly broke off all contact with her. I used as excuse for myself that we could not contribute to each other’s happiness, and that my insinuations that there was anything wrong with her would only make her more unhappy. To the outside world I might call it bad luck that we have become mother and son. Inwardly I feel an overwhelming fear for her, no matter how fragile and small she looks. I fear the power she can wield to undermine my will by her tireless reasoning. She is able to make me feel a complete and utter failure, and she will go straight for that target, for my own good. Then she will offer to help me by advice and example to become someone honorable, and since it is me, the son she can be proud of. I fear this person, who can invade my life through backdoors of which I don’t know the existence.

To give myself, my wife and my children breathing space as well as a very enjoyable new experience, we moved to Scotland for 4 years. At Christmas 2002 I came across a book about the school Summerhill in Leiston near Ipswich, founded by A.S. Neill. It is the oldest children’s democracy in Europe, and maybe in the whole world. We visited the school and asked our children if they fancied attending the school. They are Summerhillians for more than 3 years now. As Neill explained over and over again, he set up a school that the children could adapt to their needs, not a school to which the children would be forced to adapt. The school has existed for over 80 years on this basis, and thrives today even though Neill died in 1973. This school puts into practice what we have said and lived with our children from their birth:

You belong to yourself. We have invited you to come to this earth, to join us. Now that you are here, you own your share of all that belongs to our family. You are entitled to every help you want to have so that you can unfold your potential, get to know yourself and find your own place on this earth.

I expect that one day I will have to sort out my relationship with my mother. I know I should not expect to able to reason my way out of the chaos of feelings that a meeting with her will trigger. I cannot prepare for that meeting. I have been doing the same as you describe in your book The Body Never Lies: to be a honest witness of my feelings as they present themselves, and to share the observations with my wife and with other understanding people that I have met. I do the reverse for my wife: I listen to her observations of the unresolved conflicting feelings that her parents, old and weak as they may be now, trigger in her. During visits I can say things to her parents that make her toes curl up in her shoes, as she knows the replies she would be given. But now her parents have to answer me, and although I am an ideal son-in-law, I keep looking, listening and replying. I can feel Carin’s tension when I do this, but also her relief that her parents do not have emotional power over me. I hope I will be able to see the needlessness of my fear of my own mother, and to see her as she really is when I will meet her.

In your last book you express the hope that more and more people will free themselves from a destructive relationship with their parents, a relationship forced by the Fourth Commandment. Although we aren’t entirely free yet, we have been lucky enough that we could try a number of changes to our situation. As far as we can tell from our own experience, your observations and conclusions will apply to many people in situations like ours. These people would do well to look deeply into themselves and find enlightened witnesses to what they then see.

Please accept once more our deep gratitude for your books, and our best wishes for yourself and the cause you have dedicated yourself to.

C. and T.

A.M.: Thank you so much for sharing with us your experiences that talk for themselves and may help some readers to try as well to become their own witnesses. You are very lucky to have your children in Summerhill. It is a great and rare opportunity to learn respect for oneself and - consequently - for others, instead of being beaten into obedience.

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