The Trauma of a Gifted Child Whose Mother Was Alice Miller

Maya Sela
Maya Sela
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Alice Miller, in the late 1970s.Credit: Courtesy of the Miller family
Maya Sela
Maya Sela

Alice Miller (1923-2010) was a psychologist who studied childhood and became an icon in the field for her first book “The Drama of the Gifted Child,” which has sold millions of copies worldwide since its 1982 publication. She wrote about the ruinous role of education, castigated the use of violence against children, and analyzed the destructive relationship between parents and children.

Given this background, it comes as a surprise to meet her son, Martin Miller, 64, who was in Israel last month. His autobiography, “The True ‘Drama of the Gifted Child’,” was published recently in Germany and France. Alice Miller’s own German and American publishers declined to publish it. The reason, says Miller, who wrote the book in German, is that “they are afraid they will no longer make a profit from her books.”

As a child, Martin Miller was subjected to abuse and emotional neglect. In his book, he writes about this both from the viewpoint of the child he was and the psychotherapist he is today. He analyzes the life of his Holocaust-survivor mother, examines the causes of her emotional disconnect from him, and addresses her poor relations with his father.

According to Gisela Daks, an Israel-based correspondent for the German weekly Die Zeit, Miller’s writing is very fair: He is able to distinguish between his mother’s important work and her performance as a mother, she says, and his tone is restrained. “It’s not a case of a boy who is now berating his mother in order to make headlines at her expense,” she adds. “He writes very well and clearly, and it’s obvious that his writing skill is inherited from his mother. You can’t put the book down.”

The German magazine Der Spiegel wrote: “Laconically, without a sense of victory over the deceased woman, Miller analyzes the reason for the mother-child relations, which at times attain monstrous, almost psychotic dimensions.”

Alice Miller was born Alicija Englard, into an affluent Orthodox Jewish family in a town near Lodz, Poland, in 1923. During the war she was in the Piotorkow ghetto, but was able to escape and to smuggle out her mother and her sister. Her father died in the ghetto. Little is known about her wartime experiences.

Concerning the reasons for writing about his childhood only after his mother’s death, Martin Miller says, “It was forbidden to say anything. I had to remain quiet, because I was committed to loyalty, to being on the victim’s side. That is the fate of many people from the second generation. I never demanded answers from my mother. You are like a prisoner, you don’t think consciously about things, you just know that to speak is forbidden. That is why it was only after her death that I could write.”

Alice was a rebellious girl who loathed her mother. But when the Germans invaded Poland, she had to suppress those feelings. “In the war she suddenly became a Jew by coercion and had to show solidarity with her parents. After the war, in Switzerland, she didn’t want the Judaism and she didn’t want me to be Jewish,” her son says. Everything Jewish or Polish was distanced from him, he writes, and he grew up as what might be termed an artificial cultural product.

Miller, who was born in Switzerland and grew up there, says he played three roles in writing the book: “The role of a journalist, because I write facts; the role of the son; and the role of the interpreting psychotherapist.” He relates that when he spoke in Munich, after the book’s publication, a Jewish journalist told him that he had done a terrible thing. “You suffered a great deal as a child, but compared to your mother it was nothing,” she told him. To this allegation, Miller responds, “Many in our generation developed complexes because we said to ourselves: What I survived is nothing compared to what our parents survived.”

And she, after all, wrote about children who are considerate of their parents’ needs and fulfill them.

“Indeed. I show in the book that in her relations with her son, Alice Miller did the very opposite of what she wrote – but I do not say that what she wrote is wrong. If I hadn’t been familiar with her theory, I would be dead today: My mother’s theory helped me survive. This is the ambivalence of my life and I have to live with that ambivalence. On the one hand, I suffered a great deal from my mother, but on the other hand, she provided me with the information about how to survive in that relationship, and that is wonderful. That is the tension that existed in our relations. When I tried to apply her theories on her, she became very angry at me. At those moments she was unable to discern her own theories.”

Moment of weakness

Martin Miller was born in 1950, in Switzerland. His mother, he says, was compelled to develop absolute self-control as a result of having to contend with Nazism as an adolescent, and it was no longer in her power to decide to give that up afterward. “When I was born,” he says, “she suddenly felt so dependent on her surroundings and on me. After all, the child decides when to come out. She stopped the birth and waited three days with the contractions until she sensed that the child could come out, and only then did I receive permission to be born.”

Afterward, Miller was unable to breast-feed, and she felt hurt and rejected. Martin was sent for two weeks to a female acquaintance of his parents, who was trained in handling infants, and then to his aunt for half a year.

His father was a Polish Catholic who had met Alice in Poland. “He had an inferiority complex,” says Martin. “He fell in love with a very beautiful woman who didn’t want anything to do with him. But he had time, and he waited, like a cat waits for a mouse. The moment arrived when my mother was weak, and then he grabbed her.”

That moment occurred in 1946, when Alice Miller moved to Switzerland: “When my mother left Poland, he left, too. She was alone and he was the man who was her salvation. He achieved his aim, but the punishment came later. He had the mentality of a stalker – there are many men like that – but afterward, when the woman becomes strong, she punishes the man. They had a sadomasochistic relationship, and I helped my mother by becoming my father’s victim in place of her.”

On one of the few occasions when she shared her wartime experiences with her son, she spoke about a Gestapo man who exploited her, apparently sexually as well.

“She said, ‘You know, your father has the same name as that man from the Gestapo,’” he recalls. “My parents’ marriage was like the relations between the Gestapo man and my mother. You can imagine how my mother felt about my father. She hated him and thought he was an idiot, which he in fact was.

“My father became so frustrated that he started to torture me. He humiliated me because I was connected to my mother. I helped her in the sense that my father hit me and not her. I was his object for beatings. He beat me brutally. He took advantage of every opportunity to abuse me, including sexual abuse. For years he forced me to bathe with him every morning. Sometimes I would try to stay in bed so he would shower without me, but he would come to my room and say I was a lazy pig and tell me to get up and come to shower.”

What was your mother’s reaction?

“My mother never intervened. He beat me and she did not intervene. She wrote against sexual harassment. She wrote that all parents are criminals when they hit their children, but she did not intervene.”

When Martin was six, Alice Miller decided she wanted a divorce, but his father “persuaded her that they were obliged to stay together. My mother agreed, and became pregnant in order to save the marriage.” His sister, Julika, was born with Down syndrome, and only then did the father admit that his own sister had Down syndrome.

The Millers finally divorced in 1973. The daughter remained at home, and Martin was sent to an institution he had been wetting his bed for two years. “They told me I had to go to an institution because I was sick and they would cure me,” he says. “It was a shelter for children. I didn’t see my parents for two years – I was completely alone.”

He spent his high-school years in a Catholic institution, where he suffered panic attacks. “For three-and-a-half years it was as if I was in the underground. I was frightened. I survived because my mother also survived the ghetto at the price of living as a Catholic. It was the same for me. I fled the ghetto, which was my home, to a Catholic institution, and I survived just like my mother did.”

Martin endured another traumatic experience in the wake of being sent to a psychoanalyst by his mother. What he didn’t know was that his mother had arranged for the therapist to record the sessions with her son and play them back to her. She suffered from dissociation, he explains, from the inability to see herself within the theories she propounded.

In a letter to him dated May 28, 1998, which is reproduced in the book, she wrote, “I understood how much I reject all your allegations out of fear that perhaps you are right, and you are in fact right… We pushed you to the limits of despair… I cannot deny that it was I who brought this misery on you… I did not understand your needs, your fears, your despair. Instead of understanding you I sent you for treatment, which not only did not help you but endangered your life. I continued to persuade both myself and you otherwise, in order not to suffer the comparison with my mother. I am old enough to bear the truth and not to escape any longer. This is a life that failed.”

But Alice Miller was not truly able to change. She despised people, her son asserts: “She grew up in an upper-class family and had servants all her life, even when she didn’t have money. I never understood why she maintained a staff of employees. She was extremely arrogant, a diva, and treated people horribly.”

As a young man Miller did not want to be a therapist. “I didn’t want to play the role of Anna Freud,” he says, referring to Sigmund Freud’s daughter, who followed in her father’s footsteps. “I wanted to be autonomous, and my mother was angry at me for that.”

He embarked on an independent path, without his parents’ support: “After high school, my father told me that he would not pay for university studies for a numbskull like me. My mother did not back me, and said that maybe it would be better if I did not go to university. I had to become very independent, and I acquired an education and became a teacher.”

In 1979, Miller began to study to become a psychoanalyst. His mother “did not appreciate that,” he says. “She said I had to learn everything from her, and I said I wanted to follow my own path. She wanted me to be dependent on her both economically and conceptually. She told me, ‘You are so talented that you don’t have to study at university, you can learn everything from me.’ But that would have made me the slave of Alice Miller.”

Miller lives today in Switzerland with his wife, Manuela. They have no children. According to his wife, Alice Miller’s monstrousness was only one side of her personality. “She could also be very charming,” Manuela Miller notes. “She had a gift for making you fall in love with her, and then, when it became too much for her, rejecting you. If you just sat with her, you could never imagine her other sides – she was delightful. Very intelligent, very manipulative.”

‘I am going to die’

Alice Miller even chose the date of her death, not leaving anything to fate. Ill with cancer, she decided to kill herself. The date was April 14, 2010, when she was 87, at her home in Provence, where she had moved a few years earlier. “She did not want to be dependent on anyone,” her son explains.

How did she part from you?

“She called and said, ‘I am going to die this afternoon. I called to say goodbye. I wish you and Manuela a good life, and now I have to end this conversation, so I can call other people.’ A few hours later, she was dead. At her request, her body was cremated. She did not want a grave. She also destroyed all the letters and everything that was in the computer. She left no traces.”

Nor did she leave an inheritance.

“She dispossessed me,” Martin Miller says. “She made millions of euros and I got nothing. I earned my money myself, and I do not regret that. It cost me blood and tears.”

To whom did she leave the inheritance?

“We don’t know. When she died there was simply no money, and we don’t know where it went. She made tens of millions from her books, and nothing remained.”

Did your mother love you?

“I differentiate between strategic love and true love. You survive only when you learn to think strategically – that is part of the trauma, because one cannot stop thinking strategically even when the danger passes. There are true feelings in the books she wrote, but in the rest of her life there were strategic feelings. Between us, I think it was all strategic love. Everything was in the survival context. That is her great fraud.”

Are you still angry at her?

“I sometimes get angry when I remember a particular situation or when I see what I could have done in my life. Now, at 64, after writing this book and starting to talk about these things, I am starting to truly live. I feel free today, and it’s better than what there was until now – but it’s also too late.”

Martin Miller.Credit: David Bachar