Swords and Knives: A Review of Alice Miller’s The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Cruel Parenting
A Review by Stephen Khamsi
There is an unwritten law, an unacknowledged commandment, that adults may exploit children in extreme ways and in accordance with their needs and neuroses. There is, moreover, a social taboo against recognizing any of this. Parents are protected while children are sacrificed.
Tragically, much of psychology is comprised of nonsense and noise . . . rats, statistics, medications. So we are fortunate to receive the rare and exceptional work of Alice Miller. Her most recent volume, The Body Never Lies, continues one of psychology’s most important collections. Previous volumes include The Drama of the Gifted Child, Thou Shall Not be Aware, and For Your Own Good, among many others.
Dr. Miller’s chief concern has always been childhood suffering, its denial, and the lasting effects on individuals and on societies. Her current book continues this thread and focuses on the denial of real emotions, the tension between what we really feel and what we “should” feel—and the enduring effects these have on the body. Real feelings are direct and visceral, and real feelings conflict with morality. The author’s hope is to reduce personal suffering, isolation and tragedy.
Our bodies, according to Miller, keep an exact record of everything we experience. Literally—in our cells. Our unconscious minds, moreover, register our complete biography. If emotional nourishment was absent during childhood, for example, our bodies will forever crave it.
“Negative” emotions, to take another corporal example, are important signals emitted by the body. If ignored, the body will emit new and stronger signs and signals in attempts to make itself heard. Eventually there is a rebellion. At this point, illness often results. The body is tenacious as it fights our denial of reality.
Dr. Miller was moved to write this book after she heard about a mother who deliberately used pharmaceuticals to provoke illnesses in her children, which ultimately resulted in death. This condition is known by the psychiatric community as Factitious Disorder by Proxy (FDP), and is more widely known as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MBP). Most commonly, MBP is a pattern in which caretakers (usually mothers) deliberately induce physical problems in their preschool children, present their ailing offspring for medical attention, and then deny knowing anything about the cause of the child’s malady. This is, of course, a most egregious example of an all-too-common betrayal.
Betrayal? We all know that child abuse and child neglect are pervasive and destructive. And we know that violence toward children may be stored within them and that, later in life, they may turn the violence on themselves . . . resulting in depression, drug addiction, illness, suicide, or some other form of early death. “When life begins with needles and pins,” so goes the Tears for Fears song, “it ends with swords and knives.” Sometimes swords and knives are directed at other people—sometimes at whole nations.
In The Body Never Lies, Miller pays particular attention to the Bible’s Fourth Commandment. This is the edict that one must honor one’s parents, no matter their conduct. For thousands of years, this commandment—in concert with our personal denial of early maltreatment—has led us toward repression, emotional detachment, illness and suicide. This Commandment, notes Miller, is a species of morality “that consigns our genuine feelings and our own personal truth to an unmarked grave.” While many of the Ten Commandments remain valid, the Fourth Commandment is diametrically opposed to the laws of psychology.
To illustrate her ideas, Miller provides brief portrayals of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, Friedrich Nietzche, Friedrich von Schiller, Virginia Woolf, Arthur Rimbaud, Yukio Mishima, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Saddam Hussein, and Adolf Hitler. What do these writers, dictators, serial killers and others have in common? They all followed the Fourth Commandment. They honored their parents, even though and even while their parents did them harm. Each individual sacrificed their truth in the unanswered hope that they would be loved, and almost all died in denial and isolation, tragically unable to admit to their own personal truths. These lives and these stories lend credence to Miller’s argument that moral laws lead to repression and to emotional detachment.
And what about these unlived emotions? Emotions have a basis in reality. And the “negative emotions” are reactions to neglect, abuse, or a lack of nourishing communications. They are important signals emitted by the body in attempts to be heard. The banished emotions reassert themselves. Real needs and real feelings make their return to the body.
Sadly, many of us were unloved, neglected and abused. The remedy? While there are no simple answers, we do know that the body is healed when one admits to personal truths and to real feelings. But how do we admit to such truths and to such feelings? We need to feel our pain and our powerlessness so that we can, paradoxically, become less pained and more powerful. We need to admit to our “negative emotions” and change them into meaningful feelings. And we need to see through poisonous pedagogy in order to embrace and to embody integrity, awareness, responsibility and loyalty to oneself. Our greatest personal task is to learn the difference between love and attachment . . . to extend our love when it’s right, but to break off attachments when they are destructive. Our greatest therapeutic task is to locate an enlightened witness—a mature and helpful individual—who can be fully present without judging. The latter is indispensable in the process of psychological integration and personal liberation.
Techniques generally fail. The attempt to convert “negative emotions” into “positive emotions” fails, according to Miller, because these are manipulations that reinforce denial, rather than lead to honest confrontations with one’s authentic emotions. And forgiveness, she suggests, rarely has a healing effect. One may rightly forgive their parents if the parents truly realize what they’ve done, and when they honestly apologize for the pain they’ve caused. Otherwise, preaching forgiveness is hypocritical, futile, and actively harmful. The body, after all, doesn’t understand moral precepts.
Still, Miller retains a hopeful view of the future. Society at present always sides with the parents, but individual bodies fight against lies. It’s possible that our collective body may rise up and lead to a future society built on conscious awareness. First, though, we must jettison our “fundamentalist faith” in genetics and, I would add, pharmaceutical “miracles.” With the help of a witness, each damaged individual may advance through infantile fears and can reject the illusion that one’s parents will save them. When we finally feel our real truths of being unloved, neglected and beaten; when we internally separate from our parents and caretakers; when we eventually experience love for the worthy child we once were—only then can our bodies really rest, and only then can we get on with the important business of real life.Stephen Khamsi, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Francisco.
This article appeared in the Summer 2005 IPA Newsletter.