Thou Shall Not Be Aware: A Tribute to Alice Miller

“The more we know about how we lost our spontaneous wonder and creativity, the more we can find ways to get them back.” John Bradshaw (born 1933)

So, as many of you know, I am writing the first book of daily reflections for addicts in recovery that is not predicated on the fact that a loving, intervening God gets us clean and sober and answers our prayers if we’re right with him. There are enough of those. I have read them and done the mental gymnastics required to feel included in the discussion. It’s not impossible to get something out of them but wouldn’t it be nice to have a daily reflection book that included everyone?

So here’s how my book goes: Each day starts with a quote. It could be a philosopher, entertainer, author, psychologist or the wisdom from Twelve & Twelve rooms. I started in 2009 after a fruitless search to find a secular daily meditation book. The first thing I had to do was glean my top 400 quotes I have collected over the last 13,000 days of recovery. Then I had to whittle it down to the most appropriate 365. Some of the people are long since dead, others are younger than me. Now you might ask how it takes more than a year to produce a year of daily reflections. Well in my Attention Deficit Disorder case, it takes what it takes.

So, since 2009 some of the people I quote have since died. I hope for your sake, you aren’t on my short-list. Scott Peck, Phyllis Diller and I missed it until I double checked yesterday, Alice Miller, who died in 2010. I didn’t know. It shook me. This woman was on my list of people who I sincerely wanted to personally say, “You changed my life.” Today I am feeling loss. I want to pay tribute to Miller and in a way tell you what I sincerely wish that I had the chance to tell her.

Miller left psychoanalysis to write full time around 1981. Not long afterwards I would be in therapy. I think "Drama of the Gifted Child" was her first game changer which captured the Zeitgeist of the day. Adult Children of Alcoholics was rocketing in popularity as addicts started digging deeper and coming to believe that our self-destruction had more to do with our side of the street being tended. If I am not mistaken "Thou Shall Not Be Aware: Societies Betrayal of the Child (1984)" was the offering my marriage counselor recommended to me. At the time I reacted. I thought, “Great, the therapist is ganging up with my wife; I’m the bad boy, I am the one that needed help.” It wasn’t until I finished reading (if you think I take a long time to write a book, reading one is no easy task, either), which was a while after the relationship I was there to save ended, that I appreciated what this therapist was doing for me. It may be melodramatic to say one book saved my life, but it changed me as a man and a father and it altered the course of my life.

Alice Miller (1923 – 2010) said that “Nobody is born evil,” Long before children can understand language, they can discern tenderness and cruelty. "Poisonous pedagogy" was the term she coined to describe repressive child-rearing that was influential in demons such as Hitler and Stalin (men whom she saw inflicting their will from her childhood home in Poland). Suppressed fantasies of revenge can lead to horrid atrocities.

To Bradshaw’s point, Miller also points out the creative brilliance of Virginia Woolf and Pablo Picasso were the attempts to deal with childhood pain.

“For some years now, it has been possible to prove, through new therapeutic methods, that repressed traumatic experience of childhood are stored up in the body and, through unconscious, exert an influence even in adulthood,” Miller said in a 1999 interview given to Noreen Tayor, The Times, London. “In reality, children tend to blame themselves for their parents’ cruelty and to absolve the parents, whom they invariable love, of all responsibility.” Dr. Miller describes narcissistic parenting as including inattention, coldness and physical abuse. Today, in some jurisdictions spanking in condoned, if not revered, while children are doomed to a lifetime of psychological and physical ailments.

Critics dismiss the blaming parenting for society’s woes as overly simplistic. Of course, Miller would point to children who rise to their parent’s defense as suffering another of her turgid turn of phrases, “emotional incest,” whereby the child acts out the role of caregiver to the parents need for protection and comfort (Role reversal). John Bradshaw, as is hinted at by his quote here today, would not concur with the oversimplification criticism.

Dealing with betrayal and neglect as a child is impossible—it is beyond the capacity of the child psyche. Pain is repressed and sometime forgotten, consciously. No one would venture back there for the pure sport of it. Speaking for myself, my life had to be rendered unmanageable and my resources depleted before I could complete my own journey back.

Why would anyone, whose coping mechanisms were functional, invite Prometheus’s raven to rip out our guts? In the fable Zeus sentenced Prometheus to be chained to a rock, to have a raven peck through his chest and eat his liver. This indignity would be suffered every day until Prometheus admitted his wrongs, which he never did. Prometheus suffered this horror for thirteen generations until rescued by Hercules. Oh how this metaphor works on so many ways. That was my fear wasn’t it—that my pain, if faced would be a life sentence and no relief would or could be found. Who would rescue me?

I will save you the self-involved story of the road to my enlightenment. It is sufficient to say that my pain didn’t overwhelm me. It wasn’t infinite. Facing my grief made me courageous. It allowed healing and insight. I see myself differently. I understand my own family dynamics I understand what it is to be a good (not perfect) father. I understand my enemies. “No one is born evil.” I empathize with them. I wish them well. I don’t regret the past and I am not limited by in the way my pain once constrained me.

Thank you Alice Miller. Thank you also to Dr. Julie Righter who passed away in 2011, who had an instrumental role in my journey. More at

Thanks for reading, Joe C.

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