Skip to main content

You know who to blame

THE BODY NEVER LIES: the lingering effects of cruel parenting. By Dr Alice Miller. WW Norton Co pound;16.99

Alice Miller agrees with Philip Larkin about your mum and dad, but Victoria Neumark would like a more positive outlook

Thirty years ago, Dr Alice Miller rocked accepted notions of the psychodynamics of child rearing with two books: The Drama of the Gifted Child: the search for the true self and For Your Own Good: hidden cruelty in childhood and the roots of violence. Many of the ideas she propounded then - that pushy parents who live vicariously through their child's achievements damage the child's inner authenticity and capacity for happiness; that viciously cruel adults had exceptionally brutalising childhoods; that constantly belittling children can create savagely domineering adults - have almost become commonplace. Which is not to say they are true. Or not the whole truth, anyhow.

Her latest book widens her basic stance so far as to call into question her previous conclusions. It is little more than a nicely written, nicely produced (thick paper, large print, double-spaced) imprecation on the well-worn theme: "I blame the parents." Evidence is scant, selectively taken from the lives of famous people, and inconsistent. In this book, her thesis is that childhood abuse, even when the parents don't know that they are being abusive, is held in the body and damages health and life expectancy as children grow up. There is little or no place in this cosmos for pathogens or genetics or even accidents. It's a world where the physical is psychically determined.

The most convincing evidence she offers comes from repeated descriptions of her own childhood. Unwanted, she was beaten "to be a good girl" and later suffered health problems until she realised that the false imperative to honour her father and mother, as the Bible commands, and forgive them, denying her own pain, was literally, physically, tormenting her. Once she was able to give up any hope of her parents loving her, with the aid of a "partial therapist" (that is, one who was on her side) she was able to stop loving them and feel free and healthy. She has children herself, but we know nothing of their childhoods. Hers is about the only positive story she has to offer. The rest is a catalogue of well-known complex figures from history, whose sorrows are traced to their parents.

There is nothing wrong with using famous people's lives. As Miller says, these are lives the detail of which is easy to find. They are, however, as any textual scholar could have told her, the lives most open to competing claims. That a life has been copiously attested, does not mean that those accounts are reliable. One of Miller's main examples is Virginia Woolf, whom she regards simply as a victim, whose childhood sexual molestation led remorselessly to her suicide. She paints a bleak picture of an uncaring family, an indifferent, if not cruel, husband, and social opprobrium that never allowed this victim a voice.

It's a standard line, but not the only one available, and hard to recognise in this portrait of the supremely gifted writer, catty gossip, self-taught classicist, loving and adored sister and independent thinker. It's harder still to understand why Miller dismisses any part in Woolf's fate caused by the bereavements suffered in childhood and the biochemistry of psychosis, saying such explanations were based on falsely identifying with abusive parents (though it was Woolf's half-brothers who abused her).

Focusing exclusively on the abuse leads Miller back to examples she knows best: the playwright Schiller, whose father was a monster of joyless sadism, Stalin, whose stepfather beat him regularly, and, above all, herself. All these accounts have got the bones picked out of them, and always the same bone.

It is hard to see how or why the same kind of monstrous parenting should create an empathetic, skilled poet and playwright as well as concentration camp guards, as Miller claims. For her, Schiller and Sachsenhausen have the same root. In fact all of Germany, or German-speaking culture, is the same in her argument, and examples of good parenting, are "very few". Equally, of millions of poor little boys beaten and sent to guard the sheep, only one became Saddam Hussein. Abuse might be a necessary precondition for growing up into a dictator, but it clearly isn't sufficient.

Marcel Proust is dragged out again. Undeniably, he had a difficult relationship with a mother who was literally suffocating, as he himself well knew. Equally, her intense interest in him sustained him in his huge literary endeavours. Yet when Miller looks at his biography, time and again she has to resort to sentences such as "it is also fair to assume that the baby's body sensed this disquiet". What kind of evidence is that on which to blame the mother who "thought she loved him" but didn't "really"? Particularly when the "disquiet" is a result of the 1870-71 Prussian invasion of France: what on earth was the poor woman supposed to do? Not fear for her life because it would upset the baby?

Miller agrees with sour old poet Philip Larkin: your parents were damaged before they damaged you and you will do the same to your children in turn.

Better cut it out right now. It's an exasperating, hopeless position. Get real, I wanted to shout. No one is perfect, not even a "partial therapist".

And are there enough partial therapists to go round? Surely the only way forward is not to cut yourself off from human, fallible contact but to struggle along with Samuel Beckett: "Fail. Fail again. Fail better."

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you