Alice Miller & Primal Therapy: A Summary
by Sam Turton
In 1981, a small, powerful book was published by Alice Miller, a Swiss psychoanalyst. Originally titled "Prisoners of Childhood," The Drama of the Gifted Child has become a classic, an inspirational wake-up call to childhood abuse. In Drama and eight other books, Miller has championed the rights of children and supported the arduous path of emotional healing through the recovery of repressed trauma.
When classic psychoanalysis did not uncover her hidden truth, in 1973 Dr. Miller began to get glimpses of her own painful history through spontaneous painting. Wishing to deepen her healing process, she began an encounter with primal therapy. Although initially enthusiastic about primal, Miller eventually became cautious and sometimes negative. Her shifting position has at times been confusing for her readers and for those in the primal community who have looked to her as a supportive voice for their pioneering work.
When Stephen Khamsi submitted his review of Miller's latest book, I felt it was necessary that her position on primal therapy be clarified for our members and newsletter readers. After a short email communication with Dr. Miller, I decided to create a summary by quoting excerpts from some of her books and other published articles.
My intention is to let Alice Miller's words speak for themselves. I understand that quotes published alone can create a different impression than intended in the original context. For a complete picture, I encourage interested readers to digest these works in their entirety. For the more obscure references, members are free to contact me for further information.
Books By Alice Miller
Prisoners of Childhood/The Drama of the Gifted Child, 1981
For Your Own Good, 1983
Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, 1984
Pictures of a Childhood, 1986
The Untouched Key, 1988
Banished Knowledge: Facing Childhood Injuries, 1988
The Drama of the Gifted Child, (Revised) 1997
Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, 1997
Paths of Life: Seven Scenarios, 1999
The Truth Will Set You Free, 2001
Although The Drama of the Gifted Child was published in 1981, it was not until 1988 that Miller began to speak at length about primal therapy. Here are some quotations from:
Banished Knowledge: Facing Childhood Injuries
Copyright 1988, Translation copyright 1990
"I was not out to paint beautiful pictures; even painting good pictures was not important to me. I wanted only to help the truth burst forth. I eventually succeeded, in 1983, with the aid of Konrad Stettbacher's therapy method, with which I deal in more detail later in this book." (preface, p. 7)
"Having just completed my manuscript of Shalt Not Be Aware, I devoted the last two pages to the therapy undergone by Mariella Mehr. Later I asked her for the name of her therapist, J. Konrad Stettbacher, and got in touch with him. He explained his method to me, and I decided to test his procedures on myself, since his concept embraced everything that during the last few years I had found to be true." (pp. 156-157)
"Apart from Stettbacher's recently published book, I know of no systematic description of primal therapy. When I visited the Institute for Primal Therapy in Paris in 1985 I addressed Janov on this subject. He accounted for the lack of a concept in his books by his concern that this form of treatment might be misused, and he considered only those students licensed by him as qualified to perform it. " (pp. 158-159)
". . . I am now free of physical symptoms, some of which I had suffered since childhood, and I have lost the fears that have also accompanied me all my life." (p. 163)
"After spending four years applying J. Konrad Stettbacher's carefully thought-out method to myself, I see ever more clearly that it amounts to the discovery of an inherent logical pattern in human beings, the functioning of which anyone can test." (p. 163)
"Thanks to its precision, Stettbacher's therapy offers a chance to track down the specific causes of those injuries and to carefully test accepted intellectual opinions and hypotheses on the subject of parents in concrete terms. But this can hardly be done without pain. If this pain cannot be endured because the emerging memories of actual abuse are so unbearable, one can understand that some patients abandon this treatment and remain locked in their self-destructive fixations." (pp. 165-166)
In addition to supporting Stettbacher's form of primal therapy in Banished Knowledge, Dr. Miller also wrote a foreword and afterword in his book:
Making Sense of Suffering: The Healing Confrontation With Your Own Past, J. Konrad Stettbacher
Foreword September 1989 by Alice Miller
"J. Konrad Stettbacher's therapy furnishes proof that it is possible to resolve childhood repression safely and without confusion - something that has always been disputed by the most respected schools of thought." (p. 1)
"I have undergone this therapy myself and felt its astonishing, holistic effect on the body, mind, and emotions. Because I have done so, I have no hesitation about recommending it to others." (p. 3)
"As this therapy offers scope for the free, creative application of many possibilities, it will almost certainly help many of us make new discoveries - assuming, that is, that we are prepared to face the truth, whatever it may have in store for us." (p. 4)
Breaking Down the Wall of Silence: The Liberating Experience of Facing Painful Truth
Foreword of First Meridian Edition, 1992
"The truth about childhood, as many of us have had to endure it, is inconceivable, scandalous, painful. Not uncommonly, it is monstrous. Invariably, it is repressed. To be confronted with this truth all at once and to try to integrate it into our consciousness, however ardently we may wish it, is clearly impossible. The capacity of the human organism to bear pain is, for our own protection, limited. All attempts to overstep this natural threshold by resolving repression in a violent manner will, as with every other form of violation, have negative and often dangerous consequences. The results of any traumatic experience, such as abuse, can only be resolved by experiencing, articulating, and judging every facet of the original experience within a process of careful therapeutic disclosure." (p. 1)
The following are quotes from an interview with Alice Miller published in the German magazine Psychologie Heute. The interview is only available in German, but a representative of Psychologie Heute has permitted me to use an existing independent English translation. Dr. Miller was interviewed by Dr. Gerhard Tuschy, a neurologist and psychotherapist in Berlin.
The Psycho-Business and the Patient's Dignity
(Das psycho-geschaeft und die wuerde des patienten)
Psychologie Heute, April 1995
Miller: . . . since August, 1994, I no longer recommend Stettbacher's therapy and today I hold that primary therapy is fundamentally obsolete. In the epilogue to the new "Drama," I besides argue that primal therapy, even more than other forms of therapy, can be used to manipulate patients, because it begins with a several weeks long intensive phase, the so called 'Basis'.
. . . . . . . .
Tuschy: Have you had your own experience with the intensive phase called Basis which is so invasive?
Miller: Unfortunately, yes, not with Stettbacher, but with another primal therapist. I hold that what was expected of me was irresponsible. At the end of these three weeks my feelings were in a turmoil, so that I could not find sleep, that for the first time in my life I thought of suicide, and had anxiety verging on the psychotic. I was already fearful of this therapy that robbed my organism of sleep, but I could nowhere escape it. The ghosts that I called for did not allow themselves to be chased away. Despite this desperation, I wanted no medicine.
. . . . . . . .
Miller: . . . Today I would never more enter such a risk, because one can lose too many worthwhile years of life through such an experiment. I went then into Basis not adequately oriented, which today I describe as a trap. To get out of this trap, I tried to do writing therapy in accordance to the concept recommended by Stettbacher to me, and it helped me to bring some order into the chaos arising from the Basis. At that time I rewrote hundreds of pages. I wrote almost every morning. Writing helped me to save my autonomy. By this my anxiety was reduced and I learned better to live with my now broken up feelings.
Tuschy: And that won you over so much for Stettbacher's variation of primal therapy that you supported him in your publications?
Miller: Yes, the method he stood for appeared for the time being to avoid what in Basis I experienced as life threatening: total regression into earlier anxiety and the being delivered to a man who exploits this dependency of his patient, who uses the patient as a means to disguise his inner insecurity. My initial positive experiences and Stettbacher's assurances that he would be in a position to train therapists brought me to recommend these methods.
. . . . . . . . . .
Tuschy: Have you, in both your primal therapies, been able to lift your childhood amnesia?
Miller: Not really.
. . . . . . . . . .
Miller: . . . Today I see the cathartic road therefore as a wrong track, because in this work more defenses possibly are demolished than is necessary.
. . . . . . . . . .
Miller: . . . It depressed me very much that I have obviously contributed to this avalanche of nearly unfulfillable hopes of therapy. Fortunately today there are more effective and less risky therapy methods.
Dr. Miller's growing reputation led to multiple reprintings of Drama. In 1997, a revised English version was released - with a strong Afterword that stated her new position.
Drama of the Gifted Child (Revised Edition)
From the Afterword, translated by Andrew Jenkins, 1995
"In the last few years we have been able to observe a veritable boom in the number of different approaches used. Body therapy, bioenergetics, gestalt, and primal therapy are only a few of the terms indicative of this new departure. In many cases noticeable successes were achieved merely by enabling patients to experience their own feelings and thus relieving them of the bodily pressures they were previously subject to. In other cases, however, the result was an addictive dependence on feelings of pain. This in its turn reinforced the dependence on the therapist as healer." (p. 121)
"Such things as the darkened-room setting and the intensive phase in primal therapy strongly encourage regression, sometimes to the point of total helplessness on the part of the patient and an attendant uncritical idealization of the therapist. This regression to the status of a small child puts the patient in an extremely vulnerable position where he/she can easily be taken advantage of by an insensitive therapist." (p. 121)
"It is not possible for me today to recommend one method over another or to assume responsibility for a particular therapist. This responsibility must be left entirely to the reader." (p. 122 )
The following is an English translation of an influential article in the Swiss newspaper "DER BUND", 4.7.95, Berne:
KMB. At the time, the proceedings were the first of their kind to be instituted against a psychotherapist in the Canton of Berne and took place in February 1983. As early as August 1977, U. Sch. had made accusations against her therapist, J. Konrad Stettbacher, of indecent assault on various occasions, indecent acts, unlawful coercion and violations of the law on the practice of the medical profession. According to the report in DER BUND at the time, chief presiding judge Hans-Rolf Schweingruber referred to the proceedings in his summing-up as "a rare case that has been difficult for all those participating in it." Although the defendant was acquitted, Schweingruber conceded that a degree of uneasiness remained. Stettbacher, who was only found guilty of some time-barred infringements of the medical laws, was awarded compensation amounting to 20,000 Swiss francs for unwarranted damage to his reputation. The costs of the proceedings (8,000 francs) were borne by the State.
In 1996, Miller wrote the foreword to another book:
Reclaiming Your Life: A step-by-step guide to using regression therapy to overcome the effects of childhood abuse
Jean Jenson, 1995, Foreword by Alice Miller, 1996
"Regression to the stage of early infancy is not a suitable method in and of itself. Such a regression can only be effective if it happens in the natural course of therapy and if the client is able to maintain adult consciousness at the same time." (p. ix)
"Jean Jenson's approach reflects her obvious awareness of this fact. It helps the adult to mourn the losses of childhood without at the same time losing himself in the chaos of his own feelings. In the seventies Jean Jenson experienced primal therapy in operation at Arthur Janov's Institute. Later, however, she went on to develop a therapy design that, in the all-important question of regression and the understanding of what actually happens in the therapeutic process, represents a notable advance on that particular method." (pp. ix-x)
"Today I know that a method that is successful for one person will not necessarily be successful for another. This applies to all methods, and primal therapy is no exception. Some people insist that it saved their lives; others say that they got nothing out of it, that in fact it did them considerable harm. Then again there are people who have benefited from therapy without being confronted with the past at all." (pp. x-xi)
Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, (Revised)
May 1996, translated by Andrew Jenkins
". . . In the last few years I have come to the conclusion that primal therapy is not always free of dangers, that it is imperative for it to be embarked upon under expert guidance and not as a form of self-therapy. This conclusion is tantamount to a retraction of my earlier ideas on this subject.
. . . Numerous studies on cult groups have enlightened us on the latest methods of human manipulation. It transpires that these groups frequently use primal therapy techniques to brainwash the members they have recruited into a state of regression and thus make them completely docile and malleable. Thus primal therapy runs the risk of being misused for commercial purposes and reinforcing the individual's dependency on the group rather than encouraging his autonomy, as I had originally hoped. Today, however, therapists are using new approaches with awareness both of the advantages of primal therapy (its closeness to feelings) and of its dangers (manipulation and addictive dependency on pain), and they attempt to use this awareness to the benefit of their patients." (p. ix)
The following are excerpts from a special communication published on the World Wide Web 10.9.1996.
Alice Miller - Communication To My Readers
"I should like to inform my readers that I no longer, in any way, support or recommend the therapy developed and practiced by Mr. J. Konrad Stettbacher."
"Only in 1994 did I learn that he had no formal qualifications in psychology. . . and as of June 1995 he has been formally prohibited from conducting a psychotherapeutic practice in Berne, Switzerland, his place of residence."
"I tried Stettbacher's method out on myself. At first I was impressed, and when I gave it my recommendation, I saw no reason to doubt that it might be helpful in other cases as well, as was apparently confirmed by case studies reporting major initial successes using this method."
"In the meantime a number of years have passed and I now have access to further information that has made me more skeptical about primal therapy as a form of self-help. The quick successes have not always had a lasting effect, and in many cases massive anxieties set in, so strong that clients found it impossible to cope with them without therapeutic support."
"My misgivings about the intensive phase were strengthened when I was confronted in 1995 by articles and interviews (cf.FACTS 26/95, Zurich and DER BUND, 4.7.95, Berne) reporting on accusations of sexual interference with patients."
"The main reason for my interest in a safe and effective self-help concept was the large number of readers' letters that I had been receiving daily since the appearance of Drama in 1979, many of them revolving around the abuse of patients during therapies of various kinds. I hoped that an effective form of self-help would be a way of counteracting this abuse."
Paths of Life: Seven Scenarios
Translation copyright 1998
"Both Sigmund Freud, in his early years, and Arthur Janov were inspired by the hope that remembering and consciously re-experiencing a traumatic situation could bring about lasting relief from its consequences. This hope has not been entirely fulfilled. I know of cases where improvement has been achieved without recourse to the reactivation of memories, and others where the reenactment of the past and years of therapy has done nothing to alleviate the patient's condition." (p. 147)
"At all events, the primal therapists who have been trained more recently have increasingly moved away from the initial absolutism. Many of them combine primal therapy techniques with other methods. The techniques developed over twenty years ago are used less often today; many therapists have jettisoned both the "intensive phase" and the darkened room. Most of them have discovered that they have no need of such things in order to enable their patients to get in touch with their feelings." (pp. 147-148)
The following is an official announcement posted to the Primal Support Group email list at Alice Miller's request:
Primal Support Group
Saturday, May 5, 2001 7:22 pm
"Dear Visitors: Today I should not be identified with any kind of regressive therapy. Since 1994, I don't support Stettbacher and since 1999 I have been trying to remove my preface from the book published by Jean Jenson. People who wish to know more about my reasons and my current opinions on therapy can visit my website www.alice-miller.com on page ARTICLES, or my letters to my forum."
The Truth Will Set You Free: Overcoming Emotional Blindness and Finding Your True Adult Self, 2001
"I tried next to get on the track of it with the help of primal therapy. I succeeded in discovering many of the feelings I had had in early infancy but failed to understand the entire context of early childhood reality and to allow the truth to surface because I had no enlightened witness to stand by me in this endeavor. Today I would not readily advise anyone to pursue this course (unless they are very certain of the therapist's qualifications and expertise) because many apparently enlightened witnesses may arouse intense feelings in their patients without assisting them in extricating themselves from their personal chaos." (pp. 132-133)
For Alice Miller, "Truth" has always been a key word, and this article is an attempt to summarize her truth. One person's truth, however, is not another's - we must attempt to find out the truth for ourselves. From reading Miller's words, each of us can come to our own conclusions. Feel free to send me yours. Mine will be published in the next IPA Newsletter.
Sam Turton practices Primal Integration in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, and co-leads therapist training programs at the Primal Integration Center of Michigan. His extensive writings on primal can be viewed at www.primalworks.com.
This article appeared in the Spring 2002 IPA Newsletter.
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