Alice Miller: In Memoriam

Laurie and Richard say:

The psychologist Alice Miller died at her home in Provence on April 14. She was 87. Her publisher announced her death last week.


Her ground breaking works on child abuse in the 80’s gave a historical/societal context to the abuse of children and its place in the development of Western history.

This is for us, the most important thing about her work. She discusses the abuse of children not simply in the context individual and family history but as part of the historical fundamental building blocks of our society. That traditional social order, the engine of power and authority, is based in part upon the abuse of children and women.

Her work includes historical case histories and child rearing manuals going back several hundred years that recommend physical punishment of very young children in order to properly control their minds as they get older. These manuals are in English and German. When she quotes some 17th-century manual from England, the archaic language allows us to distance ourselves from its message. However, contemporary 17th-century German works, translated into current English, do not sound dated. You can find similar sentiments in many circles in the US now. (Fortunately, another hero, Dr. Spock, has at least pushed most of these ideas out the mainstream for children – but not for teenagers and criminals.)

This systemic abuse structure, in all its robed glory, is being displayed most recently in the history of the Catholic Church and child abuse. The strongest defense strategy is relentless denial, as the Church is demonstrating. But what the Church is doing is ordinary. All institutions and families use the same patterns. It never happened; it was an exception; what happened wasn’t abuse; the accusers aren’t innocent (they’re liars, or seductive/complicit, or just hate us).

Child abuse, in Alice Miller’s approach is the (ab)use of children for a society’s and adult’s own ends and gratifications. Poverty, war, hierarchy, status, bullying, sexual abuse, beatings – all these and more are potential ingredients of a ‘hard’ childhood. Miller herself was born in Poland before WWII, attended a clandestine “underground” university in Warsaw during the German occupation, and lived through the war’s aftermath in Germany. She knew.

The damage done affects us all. You may have had an idyllic childhood, but if you love an abuse survivor, or work for one, or vote for one, you will be dealing with the consequences.

One damage done is the ‘normalization’ of abusive attitudes. People who would never dream of beating their own children support policies that send 13-year-old boys to prisons whose rape is a topic for jokes. Policy wonks worry that children who have it ‘too easy’ won’t have the ‘strength’ to do what is necessary in a ‘dangerous’ world. And ‘hard’ childhoods can affect how one sees the world. There’s a strong temptation, especially now in the US, to label these attitudes “conservative,” but they’re not. They run through all our factions – ideological, economic, cultural and religious.

Alice Miller’s counter-strategy is relentless exposure and awareness. It did happen, it was abuse, and the victim’s innocence, guilt or complicity is not the issue. She did not invent that strategy. She did provide intellectual tools to treat it as a general social problem, not an exceptional and individual one. As a therapist, an author, and an advisor, she helped thousands of people come to grips with their childhood demons.

Further useful discussion of her work is on her website here and here.

Her 13 books include The Drama of the Gifted Child, For Your Own Good, and most recently From Rage to Courage. If you are not familiar with her work, we highly recommend it. Her book For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence (1983 – ISBN 0-374-52269-3) in full text is available on line at no cost.