Martin Miller's book about his mother Alice
The Mask of the Children's Rights Activist
by Caroline Fetscher
Outwardly, Alice Miller stood for the empathetic and non-violent education of children, thereby becoming a star of pedagogy. Her own son came to know a very different woman. The book, which he now has written at the age of 63, is not an accusation. But rather the attempt to understand deeply ingrained traumas.
Zurich, April 1950. A child, who just has come into the world, won't breastfeed. The newborn had "refused" her breast, the mother later complains, she had felt rejected, her feelings had been hurt by her own child. Shortly after his birth, the parents gave their son away. For two weeks, he lived with a female acquaintance, who was skilled at child care. Finally, an aunt takes pity on him and accommodates him for half a year.
When the son is six, a daughter is born, a child with down syndrome. The horrified mother accuses the father of having concealed genetic risks in the family.
The son, the troublesome bed-wetter, is taken to an asylum for children. There, on the peninsula Au by Lake Zurich, hardly 30 kilometers away from home, his parents do not visit him a single time. Even on his first day of school, the mother stays away. Back in his parents' house, the eight year old feels like a stranger because his parents talk Polish among themselves, which he does not understand. The son is beaten by his father and coerced into compulsive washing rituals, which he perceives as sexual assaults. In every nanny, whom the son comes to trust, the mother scents a rival and dismisses her. When he is seventeen, the adolescent pushes through that he can go to a boarding school. Although things are regimented and catholic there, it is for him a recovery from the parental madhouse.
Just like a case from one of her books
The outline of the dismal life of a child could be a case study in one of the books of Alice Miller (1923–2010), the great Swiss advocate for the rights of children. Miller's bestsellers, translated into 30 languages, demanded a radical paradigm change of society in dealing with children. Parents, teachers, therapists should learn to see and feel from the perspective of the child. Above all with her first books, "The Drama of the Gifted Child," "For Your Own Good" and "Thou Shalt Not be Aware," published, as all the following books, by Suhrkamp, she celebrated international triumphs. It was Miller's credo that children should no longer serve as containers for the emotional waste of the adults.
Alice Miller had a mission. It was her point to sensitize the public to the right of children to empathy and non-violent education, and the psychological and social damages caused by "Black Pedagogy" and false taboos in families. Her central thesis: the key to a peaceful society lies in an early socialization with empathy and without violence; a thesis based on predecessors like Ellen Key ("The Century of the Child," 1900) or Janusz Korczak ("The Child's Right to Respect," 1918).
Nearly monomaniacally and argumentatively did Alice Miller champion her cause and fell out with colleagues, who did not exactly share her views. Thus, she found hundreds of thousands readers who knew themselves to be mistreated in childhood; the title "The Drama of the Gifted Child" has become a catchphrase. In order to survive, she declared, sensitive, "gifted" children sense the emotional needs of their neurotic parents and disown their own. Split-off, grief and rage continue to have an effect on the child's unconscious; later, the child will deal with his or her offspring in similar ways. Victims become perpetrators that produce new victims, perpetrators again — for this vicious cycle, Alice Miller invoked dense passages full of case studies, often also of patients on the virtual couch, like Hitler and Stalin, Kafka and Paul Klee.
But the sketch, outlined at the beginning, does not come from one of her works. It can be found in a harrowing report which her son, Martin Miller, 63 years old, now presents about his life — and about a different Alice Miller. He calls his shocking book "The True Drama of the Gifted Child," with the subtitle: "The Tragedy of Alice Miller — How Repressed War Traumas Impact Families." The son is not looking for revenge. His report is sober, without a grain of pathos, without mawkishness. He searches for his mother's biography, describes his own childhood and youth, discusses, with the help of a trauma expert, questions regarding trans-generational traumatization.
With relatives in Israel and the USA, among others, Martin Miller found out more about his mother's Jewish family of origin. Alice Miller came into the world in January 1923 as Alicija Englard in Piortków Trybunalski near Lodz. The girl, an avid reader, experienced her Hasidic, orthodox family as confining. She could breathe again when she lived, from 1931 until 1933, with her wealthy aunt Franja Mendelssohn in Berlin, where she learned German in no time at all and enjoyed the climate of the big city, also the stays in the summer house on the Wannsee. But Alicija had to return to desteted Poland. There, the child wrangled with a cold-hearted mother, while terror and persecution forced the adolescent into an unwanted solidarity with her family. Reluctantly did she protect mother and sister, with the aid of false papers could she go into hiding. The father died in the ghetto. That he did not speak Polish, but only Yiddish, would have revealed him everywhere.
The Son as the Projection Surface for unconscious hatred
"I had to extinguish my whole biography," Alice Miller once told her adult son. Like in a nutshell, the whole "Tragedy of Alice Miller" is contained in this sentence. Laconically, without triumph over the dead woman, Miller approaches the causes of the entanglement of mother and son, which at times reached monstrous, nearly psychotic dimensions.
The young Miller anticipated little of his parents' previous lives; they had come to Switzerland after World War II as Polish scholarship students. Neither could he learn much from his father, in whose catholic faith he was raised. With all the power of a strong, unredeemed psyche did Alice Miller project onto her son her hatred of her own parents, her defense of the past as a Jewish persecutee — hatred which continued to rage in her unconscious.
This dynamic showed up in the most fatal way when the young man, in his late twenties, plunged into a crisis, and his mother wanted to coerce him into treatment with her guru, the Bernese "primal therapist" Konrad Stettbacher. He swore by forcing his victims into regression as they had to remain for days in a dark cell, in order to promote "catharsis." Desperately, Martin Miller agreed in 1992 to enter treatment with a student of Stettbacher. The audiotape recordings of the sessions were passed on, behind the patient's back, to the "guru" who discussed it all with mother Miller. Ultimate betrayal. Stettbacher even induced Alice Miller to thwart the approbation of her "infantile" son. "It was a time of persecution," writes Martin Miller, "I received threatening letters, she alleged that I had lied, she accused me of failure, and worse." In this hell, the son was close to suicide. His famous mother saw him as a "monster."
The Inability to Empathize with the Own Son
Martin Miller sued Stettbacher and was proven right. The guru that also allegedly sexually abused patients was unmasked as a charlatan, and Alice Miller instructed the Suhrkamp publishing house to delete the hymns to the man from her books. In a letter of May 28, 1998, she apologized to her son, she had not wanted to be a possessive, hate-filled, dangerous, destructive mother. But now she was old enough to bear the truth. "I was able to empathize with so many people, only with my son I could not empathize." Why, she could not explain. Maybe, because she had never really been able to empathize with herself as a child? Because projections onto the divorced husband or onto the son provided her false satisfaction? Because fame became her narcissistic compensation?
With the schism between private failure and public success Alice Miller is, by all means, not alone in the avant-garde of pedagogical reformers. Jean-Jacques Rousseau gave three of his children into an orphanage, Maria Montessori sent her illegitimate son to foster parents, Bruno Bettelheim, author of the famous study "Children Need Fairytales" thrashed the protégés in his reform school and had the nick name "Benno Brutalheim." And only recently, the conditions at the Odenwaldschool during the time of the paedocriminal Gerold Becker generated headlines. The assumption imposes itself that precisely the most motivated advocates of children carry extreme traumas around with themselves — experiences which empower their work, but which they "unload" as excess luggage, especially onto those, with whom they identify the most as the own: their own children, students, protégés.
Martin Miller has a similar view regarding his mother, but stresses that he continues to consider his mother's first three books as valuable. In her second book, Alice Miller thanked her publisher, Siegfried Unseld, who believed in her, and her son, who had inspired her through "the rich and clear expression of his experiences." It seems to be a comfort that there were also such phases between mother and son. Nonetheless, in Martin Miller's book remains little of this comfort.
Published in "Der Tagesspiegel," September 17, 2013
At this time, Martin Miller's book "The True 'Drama of the Gifted Child.' The Tragedy of Alice Miller — How Repressed War Traumas Impact Families" is currently only available in German:
Martin Miller: "Das wahre ,Drama des begabten Kindes'. Die Tragödie Alice Millers – wie verdrängte Kriegstraumata in der Familie wirken." Kreuz-Verlag, Freiburg, 2013. 176 Seiten, 17, 99 €.
Translation by Barbara Rogers, published on the website "screams from childhood" with the permission of Caroline Fetscher