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On "The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self" by Alice Miller

31 January 2023

On The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self, by Alice Miller

I purchased this book when I encountered its author and title in Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? There was another one in there…by Donald Winnicott. I have that one in my pile now, too. But this one is short, thin, a quick read, although incomprehensibly dense.

Miller says nearly all the same things Maté does in The Myth of Normal, she just does it in a scant 100 pages. She can do it so quickly and simply because she eschews Maté’s detail. Her evidence is all experiential and practice-based: what she presents are mostly her findings from her own clients. And while Maté explores specific illnesses of both body and mind, Miller generally clumps them all together—and why not? It still works.

Some Takeaways:

1. Mother as Mirror: One thing I’ve been encountering, over and over again, is that this initial wounding in childhood is called the “mother wound.” People get so pissy about this label, but the thing is that it is not always necessarily inflicted by the mother. The “mother wound” is named that because of traditional roles, but the wounding can be inflicted by any caregiver. Miller (who is Swiss) writes, “By ‘mother’ I here refer to the person closest to the child during the first years of life. This need not be the biological mother, or even a woman. In the course of the past twenty years, many fathers have assumed this mothering function (Mütterlichkeit)” (7). This was a distinction I’ve been hunting for in literature, lately. I do know that Winnicott makes the same distinction…as does Jung, I believe. So don’t get your jorts in a twist over the word “mother” here. Nobody’s woman-shaming, specifically.

2. On Stuck-ness: Miller also addresses something I’ve been encountering in my own healing—that an injury incurred at a particular time in childhood cannot be healed in the now, necessarily. For example, my attempts to reconcile a relationship with my alienated father today will never heal the injury of his abandonment in the past (sorry Dad, but it’s just true—I still love you to death). Finally, I’ve found this supported by literature, as Miller writes, “…what could not be experienced at the appropriate time in the past can never be attained later on” (64). That’s ok, though. We can still go back and recover via psychotherapy, reparenting, and CBT. My relationship with my father will never be what it should have been; still, it can be fulfilling in a different way, today.

3. Illness/Depression Healing: Miller presents depression as a signpost—when we feel depressed, this indicates repressed rage from childhood. Where and when were you not allowed to express your frustration, your needs, your wants? When you are depressed in the now, take note: this is where you were suppressing unwanted emotions, back then. Depression points to suppressed anger at a boundary violation. Miller suggests to “…pay attention to these connections…use [depression] to learn the truth about [yourself]” (56). Such suppression can manifest as “…the person’s inability to experience consciously certain feelings of his own (such as jealousy, envy, anger, loneliness, helplessness, or anxiety), either in childhood or later in adulthood” (9). Yet, to link Miller back to Maté here, we cannot be whole and healed unless we are authentic and true to our selves and our emotions.

4. Where Miller Meets Maté—Physical Manifestations: Like I said, Miller and Maté agree that the foundation of nearly all physical and mental illness stems from suppression/repression of emotions in childhood. Here are some quotes from Miller’s book that indicate this shared concept [emphasis mine]:

a. “Consciously experiencing our legitimate emotions is liberating, not just because of the discharge of long-held tensions in the body but above all because it opens our eyes to reality (both past and present) and frees us of lies and illusions. It gives us back repressed memories and helps dispel attendant symptoms. It is therefore empowering without being destructive. Repressed emotion can be resolved as soon as it is felt, understood, and recognized as legitimate. Being detached from it becomes possible and this is totally different from repression.” (115)

b. “…many letters on the website show how people succeeded in overcoming their physical symptoms by facing the stories of their childhood, feeling their indignation, liberating themselves from their destructive self-blame, and becoming less and less dependent on their abusive parents…encourages others to feel what they have tried to avoid their whole lives, and it demonstrates that these efforts are effective, that they often help to overcome even chronic illnesses…” (118).

5. Generational/Societal Healing: What blew my mind about Miller’s unassuming little book was its reach. Miller isn’t just about curing personal trauma or even generational trauma; she wholly believes that by resolving our own childhood traumas, we can improve the world writ large—that despotic leaders like Hitler and Trump would not exist apart from their trauma, and that even our political systems would fail if not fueled by the unresolved trauma of the masses. She writes, “This achievement will have not only personal consequences for the individual and her family, but also far-reaching significance for society as a whole. People who discover their past with the help of their feelings, who learn through therapy to clarify these feelings, to look for their real causes, and to resolve the transference, will no longer be compelled to displace their hatred onto innocents in order to protect those who have in fact earned this hatred. They will be capable of hating what is hateful and of loving what deserves love…They will no longer behave like the mistreated children they were, children who must protect their parents and who therefore need a scapegoat for the buried emotions that torment them” (114-15).

6. Physical v. Emotional Maltreatment: One final point, here, Miller makes that I love: the visibility of physical maltreatment versus emotional. She writes, “…the impact of even the most severe ill-treatment can remain hidden because of the child’s strong tendency to idealization. There is no trial, no advocate, no verdict. Everything remains shrouded in the darkness of the past; and should the facts become known, they appear in the guise of ‘blessings.’ If this is so with the most blatant examples of physical mistreatment, then how is emotional torment ever to be exposed, when it is less visible and more easily disputed?” (79) This is an ongoing frustration for me; those who suffer emotional abuse are destined to be perpetually invalidated because they cannot physically prove that maltreatment. *sigh*

Bottom line: this is a powerful little book. Read it. I dare you. Get uncomfortable. Improve your life.

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