Alice Miller, child abuse and mistreatment

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The Silent Among Us
Monday January 16, 2006

Dear Ms. Miller:

Thank you, first and foremost, for your extraordinary dedication to an important, and life-enriching study.

I feel compelled to wri! te to you, after re-reading The Drama of the Gifted Child. Early in my marriage, I began my master's degree studies in Education at Simmons College, in Boston, MA, where I was first introduced to your book. The program stressed the concept of family systems and the importance of getting in touch with your own past, so that you do not bring into the classroom the lingering problems of your personal childhood history. This was in keeping with what I had learned as an undergraduate at the University of Vermont -- where the message was repeatedly reinforced that you could not be effective teachers if you do not know your own painful history -- which was quite subversive thinking at the time. In addition, we were also told that teachers need to know the individual stories of the children in their care. For this young student, it was an eye opener to learn that teachers could not expect to do a decent job if they did not know and understand the home environment of each child in their classroom. This stirred up many difficult memories about my own childhood and the impact it could have had on my learning potential.

Needless to say, both programs as well as your book struck a nerve, and as a result I began a life-long journey to understand how my childhood upbringing shaped my ability to develop my potential, to create meaningful friendships, and to find true intimacy. When I first read your book in the early eighties, I finally had the words and understanding to support what I knew instinctively about myself. But most importantly, your book provided me with a foundation for what I needed to know and do as a mother, so that I would not repeat the abuses (both cruelty and neglect) of my childhood. It was not always easy, since I was married to a physically and emotionally abusive man where deceit and ridicule were his aphrodisiacs. To add to the injury, I received little support from a remote and detached family system -- that thrived on grandiosity, competition, jealousy and inevitably a mirroring of the early abuse. Thankfully from other young mothers, I did witness effective parenting models -- but I did not grasp the vagaries of friendship and meaningful connection. I was also learning (painfully) that I was not always "there" emotionally to understand the needs of my children.

Eventually, to save my life and most importantly, to dilute my children's exposure to their abusive (my words, not there's) father, I went through a painful and protracted divorce when my children were quite young. I essentially lost everything except my children and at times that was at risk. Penniless and abandoned by every system, I eventually landed my first job in publishing -- where I gained extraordinary professional skills.

Several years later, when my children were in college, I started my novel, The Mothers' Group. I had no preconceived story line or purpose. Each chapter evolved as if the characters had taken control. Once complete five years later, I submitted a portion of my manuscript to the Breadloaf Writers' Conference and was subsequently invited to attend as a contributor. When I was asked by Carol Houck Smith of Norton during the conference to describe my novel in 25 words or less, I couldn't do it; I had more work to do to understand what was behind my unconscious drive to write the book in the first place. And then she said, "Remember that this is a book for every woman."

The story is told from one woman's perspective about her association with seven young mothers. It was during the first inroads of the women's liberation movement and although the women were recent college graduates, they opted for the more traditional role of wife and mother, in a time of conflicting messages with few role models, and as we later learned, undelivered promises from a society that was not ready to let them go.

The story begins in the present time when the protagonist receives a phone call from one of the women (! her most meaningful connection) inviting her to attend her daughter's wedding celebration. The call inevitably dredges up difficult memories of the early years and the mitigating factors that interrupted her friendship with this woman. As a result, as she prepares for her reunion, the protagonist looks back on the confusion of early years and the struggles they faced in marriage and motherhood as well as her unexpected estrangement from the group when she is divorced.

It is not until after her reluctant return that she discovers the true story behind the lives of each woman and how their individual relationships with their own mothers might have had an influence on their personal history in terms of friendship, intimacy, and the ability to develop their potential. It is, however, the tragic dea! th through suicide of the mother who invited her back that the protagonist finally discovers the root of their collective misfortune -- that as mothers they instinctively knew what they needed to do for their children but as women, they couldn't deliver to each other as friends, because they did not know what they had personally lost in childhood. In essence, they carried both their internal knowing of what needed to happen as mothers along with the disruptions in their personal lives that prevented them from getting what they needed for themselves through meaningful connections and intimacy. Can this be the dilemma every woman faces -- then and now -- who is a "prisoner of her childhood?"

An agent who was interested in my work sent the book to the senior editor at St. Martin's Press and it was rejected. I personally sent the book to Kate Medi! na at Random House and unfortunately, it was rejected there as well. Perhaps I needed an agent's support. Since I have been called a gifted writer by many professionals, I feel confident it's not my writing ability. Am I up against the typical perception -- that these are whining women who just didn't know how to get on with their lives? And if so, I would ask, how do women who have been beaten with a metaphorical two-by-four as children and later as adults, just get up and go on with their lives? They do it, but not without paying a high price.

My novel is truly the outcome of reading your book so many years ago. It has become my life work to be a better mother and to understand what it takes to develop meaningful, enriching connections within and outside the family.

My novel ! has led to further writing (aside from working on three other novels in various stages of development). I am especially concerned about the factors that, to this day, lock a woman into silence and subservience -- and I am currently doing research on this subject to write this book. It is often the gifted and the sensitive women among us that are silenced and this can happen, I believe, for two (or perhaps more) reasons:
1 Because she knew too much as a child and therefore, had to be stripped of her voice (and along with it her boundaries and her will) and;
2 Because, as she demonstrates through her hesitant speech, her lack of authority in her voice, and her style of questioning (that definitely needs to be silenced) as an adult, that she still knows too much.
And I personally believe there is a reason for this, in families, in the workplace, and in society. I know this because I have experienced the silence factor personally and professionally and I have seen it operate in both my children (male and female) and with young friends -- although denial is paramount.

I believe this problem needs to be addressed -- that women still can be silenced into subservience by family and by society -- and that this serves an "important" function. Emotional, financial, and physical abuse can and does continue in the workplace and at home, and as long as this particular type of woman can be kept quiet, she can be manipulated to serve, to spend more money, or to be the target of continued ridicule and/or abuse. And if we have a society that supports and promotes such treatment, there is little chance of change or exposure. ! As I say in my novel, it is what happens "when there are no witnesses to the truth." You explain this so beautifully when you talk about children who are helpless; so are many women who don't have a voice.

My intention in writing this novel is to put this silencing on stage, as another way for women to access and recognize that this problem may exist in their own lives. If they can see it and feel it through the lives of these eight women, perhaps it will someday become a catalyst for change in their lives, as your book did for me. I would hope in some small way it captures the essence and key messages of your work put into a story format.

I am not sure what direction to take regarding the publishing of The Mothers' Group a! nd any advice you could offer would be most appreciated. I do believe this story has to be told -- as uncomfortable as it may be -- so that we can expose what is currently going on in women's lives who don't have a voice. And perhaps, in the process, it will help a few men unlock their past -- through the lives of both the women and the men in the novel who continue to abuse or who have faced their demons.

So many women have shared their stories with me, painfully -- and as they look at their future, as single women with little financial protection or existing silently in abusive relationships, as a way to maintain financial protection, perhaps this novel will be their voice. And for young women today, perhaps it could preempt future misfortune in marriage and in friendship.

Thank you so much for playing an important role in my life to become a more understanding mother and to be a good friend. I look forward to reading your other works.

Kind regards,
B K

AM: Unfortunately, I cannot give you any advice how you can publish a book. Maybe you want to write us more after you have read my other books and the articles on the site.

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