Alice Miller, child abuse and mistreatment

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Buried memories & emotions
Saturday May 13, 2006

Dear Alice Miller

In common with many other people, I wish to thank you very much for all your writing. Your books have been truly life-changing and life-saving. I realize that you cannot go into detailed answers regarding the many readers’ letters and questions sent to you. For this I know that I do need to find a good therapist.

However, some readers’ letters on your website have discussed the problematic and often negative relationship that they have had, and still do have, with their parents. I wanted to raise an issue with you and the readers of a different nature, which may be of interest to some readers.

In order to discuss this issue, I need to fill in a few autobiographical details. I am a 40 year old woman, (married but with no children – out of choice). My parents divorced when I was 4, and my father remarried twice more. My mother has never remarried, although she has had a number of relationships over the years. The issue is that I find my relationship with my mother – or rather my attitude to her – both difficult and perplexing. If people were to meet my mother, they would probably say, ‘What’s your problem?’ And they would be right to a large extent. She is a very sociable, kind and positive person in general. She is not cold, critical or negative towards me at all as an adult. Indeed, I think sometimes she is too full of praise and positive remarks about me. She always talks to me in a pleasant manner and is always interested in what I am doing. Sounds like the ideal mother! Yet why is it that my internal response to her, both as a teenager and as an adult, is very very different? I feel that I cannot respond to her in the same positive way. It is a struggle at times for me to remain calm and pleasant towards her. I try not to be irritable in my behaviour and words to her but it is difficult for me to be that self-controlled at times. I feel that I am restricted in how I can behave towards her, and what I can say. Yet I am not really sure why? I have grown up with the feeling that I am the bad, moody, ungrateful daughter – never able to live up to her standards of niceness and calmness and not able to match her love for me. Consequently, I have felt guilt and a huge sense of obligation to her all of my life.

I think that the answer does lie in my childhood. Even though it does seem so very difficult to challenge the image that my mother presents of herself. I have some clues to help me understand my feelings from my own history. When she split up from my father, it was extremely acrimonious. He told her that he wanted a divorce and she didn’t want to accept it at all. It seems that she carried on acting as if everything was ‘normal’ to some extent, for at least 2-3 months. My father started a very public affair with another woman and brought her to live in the same house we all lived in. (Which was a very emotionally sadistic thing to do). By sheer tragic coincidence, one of her brothers died in a car accident within the same time period. Her father and mother-in-law also died within a year of her divorce, and she was very close to them apparently. She herself has told me that she was on anti-depressants for a time and was suicidal. (She of course has never ever talked voluntarily to me about any of this; it has only been as a result of my questioning – and information from a family friend- that I have managed to glean any of this information). I obviously do not remember anything from this terrible time. She must have been very different at this time – yet I cannot get behind this smiling face that she presents to the world and me. I am convinced that there must be a massive contradiction between how she used to behave towards me and how she appears now. Otherwise, I cannot explain the anger and the total emptiness and desolation that I sometimes feel. I don’t believe that I am a naturally ‘bad’ or cold person, so are my feelings some kind of indication of this dreadful situation of my childhood?

I thought, then, that this might be useful to some readers, because they may feel anger and even hostility towards their ageing parents – and wonder why they feel like that when these parents seem to be so nice, caring and ordinary. As you yourself have said, there must be a logical explanation for our feelings even when we cannot see it.

Any general comments you can make will be appreciated very much. (Although I am going to do my best to find a good therapist this year, to help me understand all of this).

With all best wishes
M S (I agree to you putting my letter, full or edited, on the website).

Postscript: Here is a news story from the U.K.which I thought you might be interested in. It was actually from just before Christmas, (December 2005). Two new-born babies (twins) were abandoned in a hospital car park, and luckily were found before they froze to death. One of the doctors at the hospital, speaking to the media, appealed to the ‘mother’ or her friends to contact the police or the hospital. She stated that she wanted the ‘mother’ to contact them as soon as possible, to ensure that the ‘mother’ and babies were reunited as quickly as possible. The police spokesperson also said – as is usual – that the mother has nothing to fear, they simply want her to make contact.
Nothing of course was said of the sheer gravity of abandoning 2 little new-born babies who could have died, and the physical and emotional effect it has on them. Their situation, as new-borns, seems to be totally trivialized. You can see the difference in attitudes when, for example, there have been cases in Britain, of older children been left at home when their parent goes off on holiday. (I do not approve of that either). It is just that the media are quick to condemn irresponsible parents in those cases then, but not for this – abandoning new-born babies! The idea that you can reunite mother and babies does not seem to be a problematic issue for the media or society. Yet that ‘mother ‘ obviously needs counselling, and it is certainly not in the babies’ interest that they be reunited with her, (at this stage in any case). What if she turned out to be some confused 14 year old school girl??
(I did not notice the outcome of this story reported in the media).

AM: Thank you for your thoughtful letter. It may indeed help other readers to understand that the memories of our body show us our parents how they actually behaved toward us in our first years of life. Your mother may seem now very different to you and the older she becomes the more she feels dependent on your care like a child.But your feelings tell you the true story of the child whose feeling you feel NOW: " I have grown up with the feeling that I am the bad, moody, ungrateful daughter – never able to live up to her standards of niceness and calmness and not able to match her love for me. Consequently, I have felt guilt and a huge sense of obligation to her all of my life." There must have been good reasons for feelings like that. Unless you find them, you don't know yourself yet because you don't know the suffering of the small girl you once were. Before you have chosen a therapist try to ask them the questions I suggest to ask on my FAQ-list. I wish you much luck in finding the right person.

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