Tag Archives: psychology

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.

Objectification Theory: Does Being Ogled Make Us Less Smart?

Laurie and Debbie say:

When a blatantly silly or misogynist evolutionary psychology study turns out to have a sample size of 16 or 30, it’s easy to discard not only the study but the whole idea. For once, however, we’ve run into a study with too small a sample size (25 people) that we would love to see done on a statistically useful scale:

Study participants — 25 women ages 18 to 35 — were told they were recruited to provide information on “the impressions people form about others solely based on their carriage and style of dress.”

Each was videotaped for two minutes — first from the front, then from behind — while they walked up and down a hall. To capture the experience of having their bodies evaluated while their faces (which presumably provide a better reflection of their individual personalities) were ignored, they were filmed exclusively from the neck down.

For half the participants, the person doing the filming was male; for the other half, the camera was held by a woman. After the filming, each woman watched her video, reinforcing the experience in her mind. She then filled out questionnaires measuring her levels of Trait Self-Objectification (her overall propensity to view herself through the lens of others) and State Self-Objectification (her tendency to view herself through the lens of others when triggered by a specific event, such as being stared at).

To test their cognitive skills, the women were shown a series of random letters or numbers and instructed to reorder them (putting them in alphabetical order for the letters, in ascending order for the numbers). They completed 21 such tasks, which were presented in increasing order of difficulty.

The results: When women with a tendency toward viewing themselves through the lens of others were placed in a situation where they were objectified (that is, they were videotaped by a man), they made a greater number of mistakes on the cognitive test. They did just as well as other women on the easy initial tasks, but had trouble when the difficulty level went up.

We like the idea of using the objectification scales to analyze the cognitive data, because the underlying assumption is (gasp!) that women are not all the same and don’t all have the same reactions. We like the study design, though we’d look for see more analysis (rather than assumptions) about the difference between being filmed by a man and filmed by a woman. We would, of course, also look for an acknowledgment that gender is not binary … though we’re not likely to get that from this kind of work.

We both have the gut sense that the results could easily be accurate, that a full-scale study could bear this one out.

Here’s the reason we can’t believe it yet: with 25 women being studied, only 20% (that’s five women) “have a strong propensity toward self-objectification.” Actually, if that result were to be borne out by a larger study, that would be great news! If only 20% of women are high on the self-objectification scale, something good is happening. At the same time, this means that all the results in the article are based on five subjects’ results on one test. This isn’t even remotely enough to be useful.

According to the article, the researchers are recommending “a campaign of awareness and education.” We recommend some repeatable large-scale studies, and if the results repeat, then we’ll jump on the awareness and education bandwagon with the greatest of pleasure.

Thanks to Firecat for the pointer.