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Paths of Life: Seven Scenarios

by Alice Miller
Pantheon Book, NY, 1998

Reviewed by Steven Khamsi, PhD.

Paths of Life: Seven Scenarios is Alice Miller's optimistic project about human interactions and their potential for healing. This new book is the first in seven years, and the eighth overall, by the former psychoanalyst and author and an unbroken string of primal classics. The seven scenarios consist of seven chapters of imaginary encounters between mature adults, and illustrate honest communications based on new awareness. The characters describe their lives--their environments, their successes and failures--and how they came to terms with them. Also included are expert opinions on parenting, psychotherapy, gurus and cult leaders, and the nature of hatred.

Dr. Miller's seven scenarios are about handling life and changing things for the better, and are intended to inform people and to encourage them to think. These imaginative encounters illustrate ways in which tackling sensitive interpersonal issues directly can clear the air and bring a feeling of liberation for both sides--and sometimes make the unexpected happen. Miller freely admits that this latest project arose from a wish to spare others what she herself has suffered, and reflects her old yearning for a genuine form of communication. Her intention is to explore how early experiences of suffering and love affect people's later lives, and the ways they relate to others: her hope is that this material will serve as a stimulus for organized inquiry. Embedded in the text are many timely teachings, reflecting her notion that "information is everything" (p. 35)--that information, at the right time, can set off a valuable process of reflection.

Should adult-children forgive their parents for maltreatment during childhood? As mature adults we can feel our pain and thereby increase authentic understanding--of ourselves, of our parents, and of the complexities of life. Feeling and understanding, argues Miller, differ markedly from blaming and forgiveness. We need to take full responsibility in our relationships, including those with our parents. As adults, we are autonomous. No longer are there any real dangers in confronting one's parents. The "gift of truth" can sometimes, though not always, change things for the better.

Concerning the primal therapies, Miller displays an informed and cautious optimism. She rightfully condemns those charlatans who would claim complete cure via regression, and their "theories'' which--despite their scientific facade-- have absolutely nothing to do with science (p. 147). The goal of genuine therapy is, quite simply, the liberation of individual patients from their suffering. Resolving one's childhood issues is essential. Old patterns need to be properly worked through in a safe and reliable relationship, in the presence of someone who is genuinely sympathetic and willing to listen. It is entirely unacceptable for therapists to blame patients, or to create destructive dependencies.

There are positive aspects of the primal approach which can be salvaged, argues Miller, once it is acknowledged that primal therapy has distinct limitations and that it can have negative effects. Fortunately, primal therapists have increasingly moved away from the "initial absolutism." Many have jettisoned both the Intensive and the darkened office, having discovered better methods to enable their patients to feel (pp. 147-8). The original primal techniques are increasingly combined with those of other approaches. Still there is a need to revise old concepts in light of these new techniques. And finally, there are grave dangers where the power of the primal approach is used to manipulate and exploit, as has been demonstrated all too often by unscrupulous "therapists," gurus and cult leaders.

As in all her books, Dr. Miller again demonstrates how the violence done to children devolves back on society as a whole (p. 155). Children who are beaten, for example, become emotional time bombs (p. 169). Still, child-victims can almost always develop trust if they are shown an understanding environment, and if the harm is identified as such, not disavowed or played down. Such children benefit from a "helping witness" who extends honesty, affection and love (if not protection); or a "knowing witness" who actively helps one to become conscious of their maltreatment and to articulate their sorrow (pp. 155-6). In some cases, a confrontation with the past is unavoidable in order to change things for the better (p. 178). Remember--it is the denial of our sufferings that is the breeding ground for hatred, an act of self-deception and an impasse that is deflected onto innocent victims (p. 186); the only factor separating rescuers and persecutors is the quality of parental nurture (p. 174). But here again is cause for optimism. We live in an age where far more people than ever before are growing up free of physical abuse, and these people can help to counteract the tradition of destructive violence that has plagued us for thousands of years (p. 186).

In this, her most recent work, Alice Miller states that she has grown more tolerant and patient as she's aged; that she no longer feels alone in what she knows; that she no longer has anything to prove. Her current volume supports such assertions. Who could argue that Miller's core contributions--The Drama of the Gifted Child (a.k.a. Prisoner of Childhood), For Your Own Good, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, Pictures of a Childhood, The Untouched Key, Banished Knowledge, Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, and now Paths of Life--have failed to increase our individual consciousness of self psychology, or to raise our collective awareness of significant social issues? We are fortunate, then, to receive this latest offering about the paths of ordinary life, about new understandings based on real feelings, and about genuine love that can face up to such truth (p. 186).

This article appeared in the Fall 1999 IPA Newsletter.

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