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The Drama of the Gifted Child

Alice Miller

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Oct 20, 2013
Category: Psychology

The biggest event in Jodie Foster’s life may have occurred before she was born — her father left his pregnant wife. After that, money was tight, so, at age 2, Jodie got her first job: a bare-assed model for Coppertone. By three, she was a professional actress and was on her way to supporting her mother.

I had read “The Drama of the Gifted Child,” and, when I went to interview Jodie Foster for Vanity Fair in 1988, I brought it along. I waited until we were talking about her childhood to bring it out. Then I opened it and read about bright children and insecure parents and the ability of those bright kids to figure out what their parents needed and be just that kind of kid for them in order to secure their ”love”. It’s fair to say I had Jodie’s full attention. And I wouldn’t be surprised if she made sure to add it to her bedside reading.

If so, she got a surprise. Right in the beginning, Alice Miller says this is a personal book, more about herself than a theory of psychoanalysis. But she doesn’t talk about herself as a compliant child who became “inauthentic” to please her parents — she describes this process as “abuse.” Not because she was beaten — she wasn’t. But because “I had no choice but to comply totally with the needs and feelings of my mother and to ignore my own.” The result, she says, was a powerful repression that kept her from knowing the truth about herself — for decades.

What happens to people who suppress what really happened in their childhood?  

“Without realizing that the past is constantly determining their present actions, they avoid learning anything about their history. They continue to live in their repressed childhood situation, ignoring the fact that it no longer exists, continuing to fear and avoid dangers that, although once real, have not been real for a long time.”

Alice Miller’s book is short — just 124 pages — but after I read it, I didn’t open it again for 20 years. When I did, I too got a surprise; the book had changed. In my first reading, it was about the self-analysis of this Swiss analyst. This time it was about me. Like this:

“Many people suffer all their lives from this oppressive feeling of guilt, the sense of not having lived up to their parents’ expectations. This feeling is stronger than any intellectual insight they might have, that it is not a child’s task or duty to satisfy his parents’ needs. No argument can overcome these guilt feelings, for they have their beginnings in life’s earliest periods, and from that they derive their intensity and obduracy.”

I suspect if you read it — that is, if you skip the analytic language and esoteric commentary on her profession that fills at least half of the book — you will find yourself leaping from one mind-opening sentence to the next, piecing together, as I did, a take on your childhood that you haven’t considered or always resisted. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]

You ask wearily, having waded through Freud and maybe some therapy of your own, why is my childhood so important? Here’s Miller’s opening salvo:

Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery and emotional acceptance of the truth in the individual and unique history of our childhood.

If you’re like me, she says, you felt “lonely” and “deserted” as a kid. And because that wound wasn’t addressed, you still do. Worse, you have taken those unmet needs and turned your children into lab animals — because they want nothing more than to please you, yes? Is this your kid:

…intelligent, alert, attentive, extremely sensitive and…entirely at the mother’s disposal and ready for her use.

If so, you might ask yourself if you fit on Miller’s grid of pathology. Do you feel depressed, lonely, fearful of losing everything? And, on the flip side, do you suffer from grandiosity — that is, a need for approval based only on accomplishment? Are you a perfectionist? Do you envy others? Are you oversensitive? Restless? Passionate about an ideology? Do you loathe those who are weaker than you? If so, congratulations — according to Alice Miller, you have achieved the “inauthentic” self that will keep the cycle of “abuse” going indefinitely.

The way out, of course, is to go in, to do the hard work of finding your truth:

“Where there had been only fearful emptiness or equally frightening grandiose fan­tasies, an unexpected wealth of vitality is now discovered. This is not a homecoming, since this home has never before existed. It is the creation of home.”

Miller is not of great help in this; her contribution lies in her view of the problem. And you would do well to avoid her later writing — from here, it looks as if she comes to see “abuse” in every childhood. So read “Drama of the Gifted Child,” pen in hand, for the big insights and the telling stories of the childhoods of Ingmar Bergman, Balzac and Henry Moore.

And, if you’re a parent, take a minute and ask yourself: My unconditional love for my kids — how “unconditional” is it?