Alice Miller, Swiss psychologist and author of the groundbreaking book “Drama of the gifted Child” died on April 14 this year at the age of 87, according to a press release by her publisher. Assuming that you’ve never heard of her, here is why her work was so important back in the early ’80s.
The late ’70s and early ’80s were the era of a discipline named psychoanalysis. Up to this point psychology had more or less favored the idea that children were born either “good” or “bad”. If a child was “bad” it wasn’t the parent’s fault, it was just one of those bad eggs we always hear about.
Psychoanalysis claimed the opposite: children are born as “white sheets of paper”, they are conditioned to be who they are during the first few years of their lives. This belief manifested itself in “anti-authoritarian” upbringing of children meaning that no limitations whatsoever were set to hinder the child’s creative and personal development. The idea was dropped quickly as most parents were intolerant to smashed furniture and drawings on the ceiling. Important research discovered, however, that the early years of childhood are indeed crucial for who we will become, and how we view the world. In my opinion, the most important book written in this era was “I’m ok, you’re ok” by Thomas Harris which, 40 years after it’s first publication, remains a must-read for anyone searching for answers on why we act like we act.
Psychoanalysis lead to the conclusion that actually none of someone’s actions are their own “fault” – it’s the parents or, more broadly, the environment, that is to blame. Alice Miller sent me into a deep depression for a while before I realized she was wrong by claiming that not only are we “programmed” by our environment to do what we do after birth but we are also unable to reverse it in our lifetimes, leaving us with a margin of perhaps 20 – 30% room for individuality and 70 – 80% of induced behavior. A horrible thought and simply unacceptable to me.
Luckily, further studies carried out on twins who were separated at birth (by circumstance, not experimental design) showed a surprising amount of similarities despite of the completely different environments they grew up in, effectively refuting psychoanalysis altogether, which was the end of it.
What remains is the realization of human beings as hybrids of a mix of things:
- We aren’t born as white sheets of paper. We are born with a “pre-existing” personality of which we aren’t quite sure where it’s coming from.
- We are also born with specific physical and psychological conditions resulting from the time we were in our mother’s wombs. Stress, drugs, alcohol, traumatic situations or the opposite of those affect who we are.
- We are then filled to the top with our parent’s values, views of the world and behavioral patterns until the age of 5 or 6 at which we start discovering the outside world, thereby benchmarking what we learned from our parents against the reality we perceive.
- The really good news is: there is a LOT of room to change who we are after comprehending who we are. It’s hard and painful for most but doable.
Which is why, despite of her fundamental errors, I think Alice Miller’s work was so important: it helped spread an invalid theory far enough to prompt research to the contrary. Without the migraines she gave me as a teenager I wouldn’t have set off so persistently to prove her wrong. Thank you.