Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Library Shelf: The Drama of the Gifted Child
This seminal work by Alice Miller, which first appeared in German in 1979, has been published under various names: The Drama of the Gifted Child, Prisoners of Childhood, The Drama of Being a Child, Das Drama des begabten Kindes. The adjective "gifted" does not translate well, as Miller uses it to describe a young person who was able to use his/her own limited resources to adapt to and survive a difficult or even abusive upbringing. The book is only about a hundred pages, but I ended up with six pages of notes!
Miller makes the argument that every child has a legitimate need for the full range of his emotions and sensations to be acknowledged and respected. When a child is trained early, deliberately or subconsciously, to not reveal, or even experience, certain intense feelings, that repression stunts the child's emotional development. The result is that the individual is alienated from parts of his own self. This self-alienation will eventually come to the surface as depression, rage, guilt, psychosomatic complaints, compulsive or provocative behavior, unhealthy relationships, etc.
The adult child may still have a need to idealize her parents, in which case denial proves a useful tool. But until she can confront the difficult parts of herself (which may in fact be her greatest strengths!) that her parents rejected, she will be continue abandoning her true self. The key to reclaiming personal autonomy and a complete sense of being alive, according to Miller, is acknowledging the parts of one's self that were "split off", as it were, and recognizing the needs of the child that the parents were not able, for whatever reason, to adequately meet. When one is able to properly mourn what was lost (irretrievably for the child at that point in his development), one can regain the ability to experience all the instinctual desires and responses of the human psyche without hiding the "bad" ones behind a thick wall.
Both Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery and Pete Walker's Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving built on the concepts Miller introduced regarding childhood trauma and emotional development, and I found it useful to consider some of their later terminology in place of the denser language of this 1980s translation. (The current version available from Amazon was revised more recently and is hopefully more readable.)
Miller walks the reader through a healthy counseling relationship and points out the challenges and potential sloughs along the way. Anyone who is a parent, or who is a counselee, could certainly benefit from this book.