In the family way;Book of the Week;Books
They fuck you up, your mum and dad, Philip Larkin famously wrote. Well, up to a point, says Victoria Neumark after reading this fictionalised account of the traumas of growing up.
What makes us as we are? What makes this great evil in the world?" These questions, a haunting refrain in Terence Mallick's war film The Thin Red Line, hum behind Alice Miller's questioning of the way we bring up children. Her latest work, a fictionalising of stunting parent-child interactions, pushes further along a road she has been travelling for the past 20 years.
With The Drama of Being a Child (1981), Miller gave a convincing account of the damage done by pushy parents: the pressure which turns gifted children into neurotic wrecks who can neither fully realise their parents' vicarious ambitions nor break free and be themselves. In Thou Shalt Not be Aware (1985), Miller, and several psychoanalytic theorists of the early 1980s, cast a penetrating eye over Freud's accounts of hysteria originating in the child's repressed desires to seduce his or her parent and concluded, influentially, that all too often these symptoms resulted from sexual abuse.
In For Your Own Good (1983), she gave a scorching expose of German child-rearing practices at the turn of the century, most notably those of Dr Daniel Paul Schreber, who recommended such practices as beating tiny babies when they cried, shunning physical contact and teaching "the art of self-denial" by getting carers to sit hungry infants on their laps while they ate, refusing to give the children a share. From such vile, best-selling advice, Miller proposes, sprung generations of dehumanised, angry psychopaths, all too ready to be (in Harvard historian Daniel Goldhagen's phrase) "Hitler's willing executioners".
Miller's later books have elaborated on these themes. She is a firm advocate of banning all corporal punishment and of "the talking cure": she believes that people can be made better, both en masse and individually.
Miller's arguments are persuasive and her case histories gripping. Stylistically, her new volume is a departure in its attempts to fictionalise the predicaments of which she speaks. She has written seven scenarios in the form of duologues between friends, which are sandwiched between essays on the impact of early childhood experience.
Unfortunately, this method keeps neither the gritty details of actual cases ("aged 34, she got a job as a school cook, though she had always feared rice pudding" - that kind of thing), nor takes the time to unfold character slowly through incident and conversation ("Oh no!" gasped Imelda "not rice pudding! I've never been able..." but here she paused, doubled up by some kind of spasm as all around her the school kitchen fell silent" - that kind of thing).
Cardboard people stumble through lines which simply exemplify Miller's points: that cults suck in those already damaged by insufficient validation from their families; that having a Down's syndrome child can be very rewarding; that absentee fathers can make their daughters bad judges of partners. Without the clothing of either psychoanalysis or a flesh-and-blood character, these points seem much less profound than in her previous books.
In fact, the book really highlights how culture-bound this kind of thinking is. There have been many other systematic genocides beside Hitler's, from Rwanda to Cambodia to the Spanish conquest of South America and back into the mists of time, and it is by no means clear that all of these cultures practised such abominably cold child-rearing practices. Nor were all of them led by madmen with abusive fathers.
Likewise, though as Philip Larkin wrote: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad, they may not mean to but they do", you can get just as screwed up by illness, pollution, poverty, worry over losing your job, war and mortality.
Of course, Alice Miller is right in pointing to the under-reporting and underestimating of childhood suffering. Babies deserve to be cuddled, children deserve to feel, and be, valued. Those who are not need advocates for their happiness, and Miller is a fine one.
But whether making all families happy ones is possible and whether it would solve what Mallick calls "the great evil" of violent, gleeful human destruction - well, that's more debatable, and in wider terms of reference than Miller allows for here.