of child rearing with two books: The Drama of the Gifted Child: the search for
the true self and For Your Own Good: hidden cruelty in childhood and the roots
of violence. Many of the ideas she propounded then - that pushy parents who
live vicariously through their child's achievements damage the child's inner
authenticity and capacity for happiness; that viciously cruel adults had
exceptionally brutalising childhoods; that constantly belittling children can
create savagely domineering adults - have almost become commonplace. Which is
not to say they are true. Or not the whole truth, anyhow.
Her latest book widens her basic stance so far as to call into question her
previous conclusions. It is little more than a nicely written, nicely produced
(thick paper, large print, double-spaced) imprecation on the well-worn theme:
"I blame the parents." Evidence is scant, selectively taken from the lives of
famous people, and inconsistent. In this book, her thesis is that childhood
abuse, even when the parents don't know that they are being abusive, is held in
the body and damages health and life expectancy as children grow up. There is
little or no place in this cosmos for pathogens or genetics or even accidents.
It's a world where the physical is psychically determined.
The most convincing evidence she offers comes from repeated descriptions of her
own childhood. Unwanted, she was beaten "to be a good girl" and later suffered
health problems until she realised that the false imperative to honour her
father and mother, as the Bible commands, and forgive them, denying her own
pain, was literally, physically, tormenting her. Once she was able to give up
any hope of her parents loving her, with the aid of a "partial therapist" (that
is, one who was on her side) she was able to stop loving them and feel free and
healthy. She has children herself, but we know nothing of their childhoods.
Hers is about the only positive story she has to offer. The rest is a catalogue
of well-known complex figures from history, whose sorrows are traced to their
There is nothing wrong with using famous people's lives. As Miller says, these
are lives the detail of which is easy to find. They are, however, as any
textual scholar could have told her, the lives most open to competing claims.
That a life has been copiously attested, does not mean that those accounts are
reliable. One of Miller's main examples is Virginia Woolf, whom she regards
simply as a victim, whose childhood sexual molestation led remorselessly to her
suicide. She paints a bleak picture of an uncaring family, an indifferent, if
not cruel, husband, and social opprobrium that never allowed this victim a
It's a standard line, but not the only one available, and hard to recognise in
this portrait of the supremely gifted writer, catty gossip, self-taught
classicist, loving and adored sister and independent thinker. It's harder still
to understand why Miller dismisses any part in Woolf's fate caused by the
bereavements suffered in childhood and the biochemistry of psychosis, saying
such explanations were based on falsely identifying with abusive parents
(though it was Woolf's half-brothers who abused her).
Focusing exclusively on the abuse leads Miller back to examples she knows best:
the playwright Schiller, whose father was a monster of joyless sadism, Stalin,
whose stepfather beat him regularly, and, above all, herself. All these
accounts have got the bones picked out of them, and always the same bone.
It is hard to see how or why the same kind of monstrous parenting should create
an empathetic, skilled poet and playwright as well as concentration camp
guards, as Miller claims. For her, Schiller and Sachsenhausen have the same
root. In fact all of Germany, or German-speaking culture, is the same in her
argument, and examples of good parenting, are "very few". Equally, of millions
of poor little boys beaten and sent to guard the sheep, only one became Saddam
Hussein. Abuse might be a necessary precondition for growing up into a
dictator, but it clearly isn't sufficient.
Marcel Proust is dragged out again. Undeniably, he had a difficult relationship
with a mother who was literally suffocating, as he himself well knew. Equally,
her intense interest in him sustained him in his huge literary endeavours. Yet
when Miller looks at his biography, time and again she has to resort to
sentences such as "it is also fair to assume that the baby's body sensed this
disquiet". What kind of evidence is that on which to blame the mother who
"thought she loved him" but didn't "really"? Particularly when the "disquiet"
is a result of the 1870-71 Prussian invasion of France: what on earth was the
poor woman supposed to do? Not fear for her life because it would upset the
Miller agrees with sour old poet Philip Larkin: your parents were damaged
before they damaged you and you will do the same to your children in turn.
Better cut it out right now. It's an exasperating, hopeless position. Get real,
I wanted to shout. No one is perfect, not even a "partial therapist".
And are there enough partial therapists to go round? Surely the only way
forward is not to cut yourself off from human, fallible contact but to struggle
along with Samuel Beckett: "Fail. Fail again. Fail better."