Thoughts on Psychotherapy, Natural Medicine, Marilyn Monroe, Alice Miller and the Legacy of Child Abuse
The emotional legacy of childhood resonates in the melody of countless small incidents and moments. They echo through our lives like a faint soundtrack set to the drama of the adults we have become. There are the tender moments, the memorable birthdays and Christmas parties, the simple wonder of seeing your first snowfall or taking your first bike ride. There are also the more painful memories: the drunken, angry parent, being slapped or hit or otherwise mistreated by people who are stronger and bigger than you. There is bullying at school. There is sexual abuse. In this world there are far too many of the hurtful memories.
I am interested in understanding the emotional experience of childhood. Not just my childhood, but the human experience of childhood. The book, The Drama of the Gifted Child by psychotherapist Alice Miller (1923-2010), first opened my eyes to the idea that even in our supposedly modern age what most people consider a normal, healthy childhood is often rife with hidden psychological trauma and abuse. In these hidden emotional wounds can be found the seeds of an adult world where violence and cruelty exist as seemingly eternal aspects of human culture.
We’ve learned a lot about healing in recent decades. In Love and Survival, Dean Ornish, MD, talks about how important loving relationships are to healing. Love is always the best medicine, he declares, noting that heart patients living in resilient relationships have better survival rates than unattached patients. It would appear to be a truism. But sometimes patients cling to the very “loving” attachments that contribute to their disease. In her book, The Truth Shall Set You Free, Miller cites as an example the story of Jean, a young mother who suffered from severe, recurrent depression over the course of 20 years.
At various times confined to bed, refusing to eat, and not having the strength to get up, Jean was treated with medication and talk therapy. Accordingly, she would recover for a time only to fall back sooner or later into the dark ravine of her wounded soul. Yet Jean was very much loved by her husband and daughter. Unfortunately, she was also deeply blocked from her true feelings, and thus remained essentially alone.
Only when Jean found a therapist interested in exploring her childhood, the course of which exploded the illusion that her authoritarian parents had loved her, did she genuinely begin to get better. At last she could “feel herself” rather than being alienated from herself, numbed by medication and well-meaning but misinformed family members and doctors who had believed her too frail to face the raw truth of her childhood. In Jean’s story therapy brought not a magical, lasting relief from depression, but rather simply a stronger frame of personal reference, one supportive of a growing understanding of her emotional self and capacity to maintain equilibrium in her life.
The Way of the World
Yet how insidiously inventive can be the means of psychological denial, says Miller. In fact, sometimes making peace with child abuse can even read like an exposé of the harsh realities of child abuse. That’s her take on the very popular Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s graphic description of the misery and troubles of his Irish childhood. As Miller paraphrases, rebuking the fatalistic acceptance at the heart of the book’s perspective, “My childhood was awful, but it had its moments, and the main thing is I survived it all and can write about it. It’s the way of the world.” How much better to rebel against this kind of childhood, instead of using a kind of defeatist irony and humor to explain away a family’s suffering and pain.
In her 2005 essay, “Depression: Compulsive Self-Deception,” Miller discusses the long-term harm childhood neglect and trauma can have on the human psyche. But long-term effects are a given only if the pain remains repressed and denied. As she writes, “Suppose someone setting out on a long walk sprains an ankle right at the outset. That person may decide to ignore the pain and to soldier on because he/she has been looking forward to the outing, but sooner or later others will notice that they are limping and will ask what has happened. When they hear the whole story they will understand why this person is limping and advise him/her to go for treatment. But in connection with the sufferings of childhood, which play a similar role in our lives to a sprained ankle at the beginning of a long hike, then things are different. Those sufferings cannot be ‘played down,’ they will leave their mark on the whole enterprise. The crucial difference in this case is that normally no one will take any notice.”
As she also notes, often children whose integrity was violated as children have no memories of what was done to them. “If they have to spend their whole lives with people who play down the traumas of childhood, then they have no choice but to connive in this self-delusion. Their lives will progress in much the same way as the outing of the hiker who has sprained his ankle but pretends that nothing has happened.”
In the case of some famous celebrities, it might be easier to see that depression is indeed often rooted in the past. At the time of her death, Marilyn Monroe (born Norma Jeane Baker) had wealth, a distinguished career, and was admired by millions. Yet she continued to be plagued with depression rooted in her traumatic childhood.
“We may recall the fate of the enchanting Marilyn Monroe, who was put in a home by her mother, was raped at the age of nine, and was sexually harassed by her stepfather when she returned to her family,” writes Miller. “Right to the end she trusted in her charm, and finally she was killed by depression and drugs.”
For Miller, depression “is the suffering caused by the separation from one’s own self, abandoned early on, never mourned for, and accordingly doomed to despair and death.” What does a person need to get better? What does the body need? “It needs the free flow of emotions in constant flux: rage, grief, joy. If these are blocked by denial the body cannot function normally.” Without this free flow of authentic emotions people instead may resort to other remedies: Drugs, alcohol, nicotine, pills. They might become workaholics. Or they become violent themselves and abuse others. Unconsciously, they fear their traumatized feelings will kill them, not realizing their feelings, experienced in a different, more therapeutic context, could potentially free them from their mental prison.
It’s an interesting word: flow. In Traditional East Asian Medicine, treatment with acupuncture and other techniques often concentrates on opening up the body’s energy, breaking up blocks or patterns of stagnation in the system to allow the body’s energy to more freely move and flow. This makes sense. For isn’t the opposite of depression not so much happiness as vitality?
In my view, it’s possible through psychotherapy or other body-centered natural therapies to reawaken old, blocked feelings of helplessness or unhappiness, to re-experience the early sense of powerlessness associated with traumatic feelings and hopefully light a path to psychological healing. In these newly awakened feelings, as well as in related physical symptoms, it becomes possible to discover clues to the enigmas of our childhood stories and the emotional truths they hold.
As I’ve written elsewhere, Alice Miller threw a spotlight on the psychological dynamics of child abuse in a way unlike anyone before her. Taking the psychology of modern home life to task, Miller made targets of mainstream psychiatry, traditional morality, organized religion, dictators, politicians, and parents who spank their children. In the end, this bold, innovative thinker spoke of the possibilities for creating a new world based on a deeper understanding of what children need to grow into healthy, creative, engaged and compassionate individuals.