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Breaking Down the Wall of Silence

Re-reading; Alice Miller,Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, c. 2009. Published by Basic Books. Originally published 1990.

Alice Miller (1923 – 2010) was a Swiss psychologist, psychoanalyst and philosopher of Polish-Jewish origin, who is noted for her books on parental child abuse. She was also a noted public intellectual. Her views on the consequences of child abuse became highly influential. In her books she departed from psychoanalysis determining that counter transference by the psychoanalyst could be extreme and that many psychoanalysts had severe personal issues and agendas. Miller gained her doctorate in philosophy, psychology and sociology. For seven (7) years she studied psychoanalysis and later practiced it. In 1980 Miller stopped practicing and teaching psychoanalysis in order to explore childhood systematically.

She became critical of both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. By the time of her fourth book she no longer believed that psychoanalysis was viable in any respect.

Miller extended the trauma model to include all forms of child abuse, including those that were commonly accepted (such as spanking).

Drawing upon the work of psycho history, Miller analysed such people as writers Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka and others to find links between their childhood traumas and the course and outcome of their lives.

Breaking Down the Wall of Silence

This book again addresses the issue of child abuse. When Miller wrote it there was still much denial of the impact of child abuse and still a lack of recognition that it even existed. She does not address institutional abuse, in the main she concentrated on inter-familial sexual abuse. She believed there was a construct of Á Wall of Silence’ behind which society sought to protect itself from the cruelty and abuse in childhood. The wall had destructive consequences for the survivors of child abuse. In my experience, a as survivor of incest the Wall of Silence still exists! I will address the issue of my experience in another article. Much of what Alice Miller wrote in 1990 still pertains today!

Miller refers to ‘The Conspiracy of Silence’ and refers to the women’s movement which would not recognize that mothers would often be party to the crimes. Miller insisted that both parents owed a debt of love and protection to the abused child. Feminists found her books problematic. They still often fail to recognize the role of women in child abuse.

Miller wrote ‘it’s an illusion that only men commit acts of violence against children.’

She addresses the repression that is created in victims of inter-familial abuse. This repression can have disastrous consequences because the victims often turn the rage in on themselves and self-destruct or express their rage toward others, for example, rapists who are motivated by revenge for the helplessness and defenselessness that they themselves had once suffered. Frequently these men had been sexually abused by their mothers.

When one is in repression one is living a life which is no life at all.

Miller encountered resistance to the exposure of her work at every level. This was the 1990’s! Newspapers that were approached declined articles on the basis that writing about incest was ‘pathos’. Others said that sort of writing had been ‘done to death’.

Miller stated ‘to make light of the human capacity for empathy in the face of suffering may well discourage other victims of child abuse from raising their voices and telling their truth!

She criticizes Freud who could not confront the truth about his own childhood and so made his students suppress the truth about child sexual abuse wherever it raised its head.

She raises questions about psychoanalysis and its inability to address ‘feelings’. She calls ECT (shock treatment) ‘rape’ because it deletes memory.

Miller addresses the abuse that Hitler and Stalin experienced as children and states, ‘People who completely repress and falsify the mistreatment they once received will be a danger to others. A danger that increases the greater the power they hold. The careers of such tyrants as Hitler or Stalin show how previously suppressed revenge fantasies can lead to destructive actions of near indescribable proportions’. ‘The danger lies also in the ignorance of our entire society which confines these people in the lies that they were obliged to believe in their childhood’.

The result of Hitler’s child abuse (often routine beatings) was that he denied the pain; he denied his feelings of powerlessness and degradation and fashioned himself into the master of violence and inhuman cynicism that he became. He became a primitive human being incapable of empathy. The feelings of hate and revenge latent in him constantly drove him to new acts of destruction.

Miller also psychoanalyses Ceausescu. His maltreatment as a child was at the expense of the entire Romanian people.

Although Miller was writing in the 1990’s, her books remain relevant today. The writings on child abuse are now prolific but no writer has her masterful insight and intellectual capacity. She was well ahead of her time.

Dianne Edwards
Journalist/Editor

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