The first news in the English-speaking media of writer Alice Miller’s April 14 death wasn’t reported until more than a week later. Apparently, the notoriously private Miller had not wanted news of her death immediately publicized. But when the story finally broke it quickly became apparent that even in death Miller’s views on the far-reaching consequences of child abuse would continue to engender debate.
Indeed, the first news of her death in the South African TimesLive on April 23 described Miller as a psychology writer who claimed that “Adolf Hitler was bad because he was spanked as a boy.” Thus in a few words the writer trivialized the immense historic work of this author of 13 books, including 1981’s groundbreaking “The Drama of the Gifted Child” (originally published in 1979 as “Prisoners of Childhood”). Instead Miller’s views were described as still “controversial.”
By controversial the writer obviously meant questionable or unproven. But if Miller’s intellectual legacy is controversial it’s so perhaps in the way 19th century physician Ignaz Semmelweis’s claim that infectious disease could be prevented by hand washing was once controversial. In fact, “The Drama of the Gifted Child” is one of those seminal books whose influence is rightly measured less in copies sold (and it has sold more than a million) than in the way its insights into the human condition have seeped into the cultural topsoil.
Among the seeds Miller nurtured is the idea that the dynamic of violence in the world begins and is perpetuated from one generation to the next in the deleterious treatment of children. Notably, Miller saw harm not only in the most flagrant crimes of child rape, sexual exploitation, and beatings, but also in more subtle or hidden emotional wounds prevalent in “normal” child rearing. For her what was most insidious about childhood trauma is the way it is routinely repressed and left unresolved in a child’s consciousness, only to reemerge years later in the pain of addictions, depression, neurosis, and physical illness; or in criminal violence and cruelty so widespread it is often considered just “human nature.”
Of course, all this is not entirely a new idea, but Miller threw a spotlight on the psychological dynamics of child abuse in a way unlike anyone before her. Taking the psychology of modern home life to task, Miller made targets of mainstream psychiatry, traditional morality, organized religion, dictators, politicians, and parents who spank their children. Nor was she much a fan of New Age “spirituality,” 12-step meetings, or even the Fourth Commandment ("Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother"), which she largely saw as disempowering flights from the genuine feeling needed to heal emotional trauma.
The Price of the Provocateur
Being an intellectual provocateur naturally invites criticism and Miller had her share. Her thesis that Adolf Hitler’s brutal childhood was pivotal in Hitler’s evolution into a fascist madman aroused perhaps the most opposition. In itself to suggest that a brutal dictator had been brutalized as a child would hardly seem controversial. But for many critics traversing a path from family psychology to world politics is a walk on a wobbly bridge. Thus Miller’s views became in the words of one 2002 New York Times review the “If Only Hitler’s Father Had Been Nicer” thesis.
Similarly, writer Ron Rosenbaum’s 1995 New Yorker essay, “Explaining Hitler,” questioned Miller’s “sketchy” evidence that Hitler was violently beaten as a child. In fact, there are multiple sources that confirm Hitler’s brutal childhood, beginning with Hitler himself. But for Rosenbaum that was not the main objection. “Theories of Hitler as the unfortunate victim of bad parenting,” he wrote, “are just a subset of a whole litany of attempts to explain (or explain away) Hitler as suffering from mental illness—an explanation that tends to exculpate him on the grounds of what the courts call ‘diminished capacity,’ an inability to know right from wrong.”
But this is a specious argument. Why should understanding a criminal’s childhood experience in any way excuse their adult culpability? It’s hardly likely if Hitler had survived the war he would have avoided prison or a death sentence for a stint in a mental hospital. Rosenbaum’s dismissal of what he described as “The Drama of the Poor Abused Child Adolf” argument probably said less about Miller’s thesis than it did his own discomfort at understanding Hitler in terms ordinary people might in part actually identify with. But evil is not inexplicable. Nor do murderous fascists or abusive parents fall to the earth from passing asteroids. As Miller notes, “Even the worst criminal of all time was not born a criminal.”
Actually, Miller’s study of Hitler’s early years never intended to argue that only psychological factors were at work in the story of his rise to power. As she told an interviewer, it was simply that the psychological issues were those that most interested her. That’s an understandable explanation coming from a trained psychoanalyst. Yet obviously the rise of fascism can only be fully understood as part of a larger critique of German and world politics. Miller’s psychological dissection of Hitler contributes to that larger social and historical analysis.
Indeed, the state of the German middle class, whose fears and disenchantment in the troubled post-World War I economy Hitler deftly exploited, was probably the major factor precipitating the fascist rise to power. Accordingly, one of the more prescient observers at the time of the Nazi takeover of Germany, Leon Trotsky, who saw the rise of German fascism fundamentally as an expression of a crisis in global capitalism, also understood how critical was Hitler’s ability to appeal to some bruised quality in the German psyche.
“The controversy over Hitler’s personality becomes the sharper the more the secret of his success is sought in himself,” wrote Trotsky in 1933. “In the meantime, another political figure would be difficult to find that is in the same measure the focus of anonymous historic forces. Not every exasperated petty bourgeois could have become Hitler, but a particle of Hitler is lodged in every exasperated petty bourgeois.”
Trotsky was speaking more generally about the social psychology of fascism, but his point was not so far from Miller’s. Her work rather highlighted fascism’s rotting core in the "poisonous pedagogy" of traditional morality that ruled many German households of the early 20th century. Steeped in moral virtues that taught blind obedience to authority and the value of corrective physical punishment, such “well-raised” Germans became a kind of cultural Petri dish for the spread of the Nazi pathology.
The Urgency of Change
Last fall, I had the opportunity to write to Alice Miller, directing her attention to a debate on the merits of spanking children on HNL TV’s Joy Behar Show. On the show, the Rev. Peter Sprigg, director of marriage and family studies for the right-wing Family Research Council, defended spanking children as an acceptable practice by parents. Taking the opposite view in addition to Behar was actor Eric Roberts, who referenced Miller’s work.
In what I imagine was a typical response, Miller immediately wrote back to note that the reverend apparently “never heard that spanking children is exactly abusing them because it causes fear, cowardice and lesions in their brains. This man is teaching his children his wisdom by spanking them. We can imagine what kind of wisdom these children will offer their listener 30 years from now, again on American TV. People (99%) abuse their children only because they were abused this way and they deny this danger.”
That was quintessential Miller. For some of her critics her passion and singular focus in defense of children bordered on zealotry. But her fervor to take on a status quo she saw as oppressive to the rights of children could only appear excessive next to the complacency of others. Born in Poland in 1923 and growing up under the cloud of European fascism, Miller knew how critical it was to understand the roots of hatred in the world. Indeed, she wrote with the urgency of someone who had seen the worst of humanity and who knew the present world in all its ignominy and brutality would eventually have to change or die. Where it all began for her was at the literal beginning, in the world of children and their upbringing.
In the end, Alice Miller spoke of the possibilities for creating a new world based on a deeper understanding of the importance of loving children, not as objects to correct and control, but for their own sake as young beings whose feelings deserve our recognition, respect, and protection. For her legions of adult fans, she was always a voice of hope that vitality is within the grasp of any one of us when we confront the ghosts of childhood.