Alice Miller, 87

Alice Miller, psychoanalyst and author, dies at 87

Alice Miller
Alice Miller (Julika Miller - Suhrkamp Verlag)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Alice Miller, 87, a European psychoanalyst whose influential book "The Drama of the Gifted Child" brought new attention to the long-term consequences of child abuse, died April 14 at her home in Provence, in southern France. A specific cause of death could not be learned.

Her book was originally published in the United States as "Prisoners of Childhood" in 1981 and sold more than 1 million copies. Jargon-free and easy to read, it was credited with sending a generation of readers on a quest to confront the past. It also convinced countless parents that spanking or screaming at their children -- or quietly humiliating them -- could have serious consequences.

In Dr. Miller's view, narcissistic parents inevitably damage their children through inattention, emotional coldness or physical abuse. Children, meanwhile, cope with their wounds using the "gift" of accommodation, burying the rage they feel toward their parents and thus dooming themselves to lifetime of psychological and physical ailments.

Downtrodden children predictably grow up to hurt their own offspring in an endless cycle of abuse, she wrote, and sometimes -- as in the extreme case of Adolf Hitler -- they grow up to do far more damage.

"Nobody is born evil," the famously reclusive Dr. Miller said in a rare interview in 1999, published on her Web site, "We produce destructive people by the way we are treating them in childhood." A psychoanalyst who quit practicing around 1980 to focus on writing, she went on to author a dozen books about the dangers of bad parenting. She detailed how "poisonous pedagogy," her term for repressive child-rearing, gave rise to the world's most reviled despots, including Hitler and Joseph Stalin. She drew from the lives of author Virginia Woolf and painter Pablo Picasso to explain how great art, too, is a result not of creative brilliance but of attempts to deal with childhood pain.

She extended her theory in "The Body Never Lies" (2005), writing that physical infirmities are caused by unaddressed childhood anguish. Sigmund Freud's cancer of the jaw, she wrote, was a response to his unwillingness to confront child abuse as a real and serious problem.

If her once-pioneering idea that childhood trauma can lead to adult problems is now generally accepted, Dr. Miller also drew criticism from some mental health experts for what many regarded as sweeping claims based on thin evidence. She inadequately explained why some people overcome difficult childhoods, they said, and left no room in her arguments for other important factors that can shape a person's life, including race, gender, class and nationality.

"The emphasis on childhood drama became very fashionable, but it was an individualization of what cruelty meant -- taking it out of any wider social and political realm," Lynne Segal, a British professor of psychology and gender studies, said in a 2005 interview.

Ultimately, Dr. Miller's work "fed into a much more conservative climate that wanted to place the blame for all society's ills on bad parenting," Segal said. "It's too simple a story."

Even critics, however, said Dr. Miller's first book was a breakthrough that gave ordinary people a way to talk about their internal selves.

Author Daphne Merkin, who wrote about her own mental health struggles, said in her 2002 New York Times review of Dr. Miller's book "The Truth Will Set You Free" that "Miller could be said to be the missing link between Freud and Oprah, bringing news of the inner life, and especially the subtle hazards of emotional development, out of the cloistered offices of therapists and into a wider, user-friendly context."

Alice Miller was secretive about her past, preferring her readers to focus on their stories rather than hers. She was born Jan. 12, 1923, in what was then Poland and is now part of Ukraine. Her father was a banker, and her mother was a homemaker. She once called them "quite ordinary middle-class people."

In a 1992 interview, she said she witnessed Hitler's rise to power as a child in Berlin. She said she watched as millions of people "enthusiastically allowed a primitive, arrogant monster to lead them to murder their fellow human beings." She never forgot that experience, she said, and spent her life "trying to understand the riddle of such dangerous blindness."

Dr. Miller settled in Switzerland after World War II, studying philosophy in Basel and psychoanalysis in Zurich. She believed she had grown up in a warm and happy household, until she impulsively picked up a paintbrush in 1973. The paintings she made, beginning with splotches of color that morphed into figures, revealed what she called in one interview "the terrorism that was exerted by my mother."

"Not once did she apologize to me or express any kind of regret. She was always 'in the right,' " she wrote in "The Body Never Lies." "It was this attitude that made my childhood feel like a totalitarian regime."

By the late 1980s, she had renounced Freudian theory and given up her membership in the International Psychoanalytical Association, disgusted with what she said was a Freudian tendency to disbelieve victims of child abuse. She railed against therapists who advised forgiving parents for past wrongs, saying that a person could only heal by embracing his anger.

Her marriage to sociologist Andreas Miller ended in divorce. They had two children, Julika and Martin Miller, who survive.

"I never hit them, but I was sometimes careless and neglecting to my first child out of ignorance," she once said. "It is very painful to realize that, but this realization can also be liberating from a self-deception."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company