Martin Miller’s Important Contribution to the History and Development of Psychotherapy
by Barbara Rogers
Martin Miller has made a very long and excruciating journey to uncover the truth about his family’s past, having to face how horribly his parents lied to him and betrayed him. His book “The True Drama of the Gifted Child: The Phantom Alice Miller — The Real Person" speaks of the healing power that comes along with finding out, finally knowing and speaking the truth. Martin unearthed well-protected secrets in order to liberate himself from a painful blindness imposed on him for over sixty years. He suffered terribly at the hands of a mother who refused to deal with her traumatic war experiences and their impact on her adult life; a mother who remained silent, blind, and deaf until her death to the destructive impact that her denial imposed on her son, on his life, and their relationship.
Martin’s mother, Alice Miller, reached countless readers and achieved great fame with her books; she was of vital importance for many of her readers in encouraging them to be true to themselves and to break away from the bondages of child abuse, subordination, family lies and betrayal. Martin, a psychotherapist, incorporates these groundbreaking ideas for himself, and in his work with his clients. His book is an expression of these ideas and of his mother’s demand that one needs to reconstruct and process one’s biography for therapy to be successful.
Martin Miller’s life story causes horror by learning how his mother abused, neglected and abandoned him; by being confronted with her persecution of him into his adulthood; and by realizing how she did everything in her power to keep him from ever learning the truth about his parents: about her and her ex-husband’s war past, and their cover-up and betrayal after the war.
Martin Miller reveals the frightfully split personality of Alice Miller. Her gruesome, traumatic experiences under the murderous Nazi regime dramatically changed the rebellious, free-spirited child she had been. Because of constant mortal terror, she was forced into the clutches of adaptation and submission. After the war, she remained tied to the destructive forces that had formed her during Nazi persecution; unfortunately, she went on to act out her unprocessed war trauma against her own son in appalling and outrageous ways.
Martin had been her partner and “enlightened witness” while his mother wrote her first three pioneering books about the burdens of self-denial, of “poisonous pedagogy” and the consequences of child abuse and neglect, and about the denial of sexual abuse in psychoanalysis. But with success and fame, the buried traumatic past reared its ugly head — and was inflicted primarily on her own adult son. Martin’s courage and perseverance are striking as he traces his mother’s history and unmasks her lies. Thus he discovers his own history. During his research, he made contact and talked with people who knew his mother, in particular two of his mother’s cousins, who could tell him things about her and the past that he never knew.
The English language edition of his book has come out four years after the German version was published. Martin has written a new afterword for this English edition: a letter to his mother — an empowering confrontation, where he stands up to her and for the truth with striking clarity, freedom and intrepidness. During these four years, he has not only unraveled the parental secret, but also grown in self-confidence. In his letter, he confronts his late mother with the truth that she never wanted him or anyone else to know, that she rigorously and violently was hiding from him and the world: the truth about her war and post-war history, and the truth about her persecution of her adult son. He truly breaks new ground by revealing the destructive power of her war trauma, which she denied and ignored. Martin Miller expresses a decisive insight about the dangers of lies and lying, and what it was like to encounter his parents’ efforts to protect their lies: “Especially in this day and age, courage and honesty are needed to uncover lies. Soon, though, the lie is magnified by the fear of discovery, and fear of the truth. The lie is defended by all available means against the truth, and violence becomes common practice.” Obviously, it was more important for Alice Miller — who delusively wrote that “the truth will set you free” — to protect her lies and her denial than her son and the truth. What a hideous realization.
With persistence and growing awareness, Martin Miller unravels the lies that he was told and that were meant to keep him blind, that he was not meant to ever challenge or question. Many children born after the war suffered because of parents who had been traumatized by their war experiences — and who all too often were hiding secrets, or even crimes, and who cast aside their guilt and shame. Unscrupulously, they buried under silence and lies what they did not wish to process, what they did not wish others to know about them. What a life-long, vicious fight against the truth this was.
But against all odds, Martin has liberated the truth: it shines shatteringly from his insights and his book. By sharing his findings about the destructiveness of his mothers’ repressed war trauma, Martin Miller has provided an invaluable service to the history and development of psychotherapy, and to our understanding of the aftereffects of war.
Freud had discovered that the suffering of his allegedly “hysterical” female clients was caused by sexual abuse. Yet soon, he invented the “Oedipus complex” to bury reality and truth, in order to spare the perpetrators. Thus he concealed the traumatic impact of sexual abuse for almost a century. Alice Miller was the pioneering advocate of suffering children; she stood unwaveringly on their side. Martin Miller writes: “She mercilessly denounced abusive parental behavior and could not be shaken out of her opinions by hurtful criticism. To this day, I have found no comparably radical a position in any other psychological work. My mother broke a taboo with her ideas. For this, one has to be grateful to her.”
As unique and revolutionary as Alice Miller’s fight was to acknowledge the traumatizations and human rights of children — as tragic was her exclusive focus on childhood trauma. She abused this one-sided orientation like a cover-up to bury her teenage and adulthood history in secrecy — and to spare herself the therapeutic work, which her severe war trauma would have required. In 2000, she began therapy work with the Berlin trauma therapist Oliver Schubbe; in the process her time in the Warsaw Ghetto came up. But after only two weeks, she broke off this therapy by claiming that her pain had diminished. Martin Miller writes that, according to Oliver Schubbe, “… it had been far too brief a period of treatment to adequately address her grave experiences in wartime.”
One reason for this new therapy had been to improve her relationship with her son. Yet, once again, she abandoned him, the truth, and any truthful effort to change her abysmal relationship with him. While “the phantom” Alice Miller seemed to have understanding and compassion for the suffering of children like no one else — the “real” Alice Miller had no compassion and understanding for her son, but made him the major victim of her denied traumatic war history. She turned a blind eye to her own traumatic war experiences and those of others — and above all, she never acknowledged how she acted out her war trauma and denial against her own child, and how it caused him unspeakable suffering.
Like Freud’s disavowal of sexual abuse, Alice Miller’s disregard of her war and persecution trauma set psychotherapy on a problematic course, where the reality of war trauma — a most severe, long-lasting kind of trauma that has devastating repercussions also for adults — was banished not only from her consciousness, but also from the awareness of her readers’ and many therapists. Supported by his experience and insights as a psychotherapist, and with a profound psychological knowledge to understand complex coherences, Martin Miller has set out on the path that his mother avoided and refused to walk. He has confronted how traumatic experiences of war and persecution, and keeping them buried under silence and lies, become a violent curse. He shows how destructive it was for him and their relationship.
Certainly, I have learned from Martin’s book much more about the macabre silence, which kept under wraps the deeds and experiences during the war, which were taboo in my family to ever ask or talk about. Thanks to the information and enlightenment provided by his book, I no longer feel left alone, or lost, in discerning Alice Miller’s dissociation, or in perceiving the horrific consequences of unacknowledged war trauma — also for the following generation, even generations.
It is as if with his book, Martin and his true Self rise from the ruins of war, from the spider-web of deceptive lies and denial, and from the darkness and betrayal that infiltrated many of those touched by boundless Nazi evil. He throws a painful spotlight on his mother’s persecution and war trauma — and on the burdens that her concealment of her past and of the truth meant for him and his life. No longer caught in the prison of blindness and confusion, Martin has claimed the truth and can finally share it with inspirational courage and clarity. What an essential, groundbreaking, deeply moving accomplishment.