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The Drama of the Gifted Child: Part 2

Childhood trauma has an effect on adult mental illness.

In The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller argues that mental illness is rooted not in one's genes, nor in a defective brain. It springs from the emotional suffering that comes when a child has narcissistic parents.

“We have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery of the truth about the unique history of our childhood,” Miller writes.

In a previous blog post, I discussed how the emotionally sensitive child attunes to the needs and expectations of a narcissistic parent. The child’s over-attuning to her parent’s needs comes at a steep price. The child loses her own self.

The child’s true self — her feelings and wishes apart from what she perceives her parents want from her — is locked away in a kind of glass cellar inaccessible to the child’s conscious mind. Miller's book was first published in the United States with the title Prisoners of Childhood. I think this title is more fitting because it describes the emotional prison in which the child lives throughout childhood.

One issue that I often encounter with adults who have experienced trauma as children is that they need constant validation of their childhood suffering. They need to know that the emotional pain they experienced while growing up — which only emerges to awareness in therapy years later — was real. Because their true selves were locked away in the prison of the glass cellar, they are never sure that the traumas and suffering they experienced were real. They doubt their own thoughts and feelings and need constant confirmation. This is especially so when their families are affluent and seemingly picture-perfect.

In therapy, the painful locked-away feelings begin to emerge to awareness, most often as anger. Therapy is, as Miller says, “the only route by which we can leave behind the cruel, invisible prison of our childhood. We become free by transforming ourselves from unaware victims of the past into responsible individuals in the present, who are aware of our past and thus able to live with it.”

At the beginning of therapy, self-doubt and denial are ever-present foes. Survivors of narcissistic or abusive parents constantly doubt their own recollections. “Were my parents really abusive?” they ask in every session. “Was I an abused child when everyone in my family tells me that I had a happy childhood and nobody wants to hear about my memories of being abused?"

There is, of course, a spectrum of childhood wounds. Children who are victims of molestation or physical abuse suffer most profoundly. Children who were abused or molested by parents, older siblings, other family members, or even family friends suffer deeply. They protect themselves from these painful experiences by the defensive mechanism of dissociation. Their consciousness splits. They are there in the experience of the abuse and also not there. The actual experience of abuse becomes repressed, dissociated, locked away in order for the child to keep on living. Dissociation is the process by which the child survives.

There are milder forms of childhood trauma as well. Hearing parents argue constantly can be traumatic to the sensitive intelligent child who is overly attuned to her parents’ emotions. Witnessing domestic violence is another source of trauma for the child.

Whatever the genetic predispositions people may have toward mental illness, facing the painful truth about our childhood traumas is the way out of the labyrinth of despair experienced by survivors of abusive childhoods. This is a tough truth to face because it makes many people, especially the families of trauma survivors, uncomfortable. They prefer to deny the abuse rather than believe family members capable of such destructive behavior. But the victim knows the truth, consciously or unconsciously, though he wipes away his tears and pretends otherwise.

This doubting — whether the abuse took place or not — can itself be a source of emotional anguish. In another book, The Body Never Lies, Miller describes the abuse of the famous author Virginia Woolf, who was sexually abused by her two half-brothers in childhood and adolescence. In Woolf’s diary, she referred to the abuse, though she didn’t dare tell her parents because she could not expect support from them.

When Woolf read Freud, she began to think that what she had experienced was the mere fantasies of abuse. Earlier, Freud argued that all mental disorders sprang from abuse in childhood. Facing ostracism by his colleagues in the medical community, Freud then changed his views. Instead of real abuse, his patients suffered because they merely had fantasies of abuse: the famous Oedipal and Electra complexes.

According to one of Woolf’s biographers, when Woolf read Freud’s views that mere fantasies of abuse were the cause of emotional pain in adulthood, Woolf began to doubt her own experience. Moreover, sexual exploitation was kept well-hidden by families at the time. She could not confide in her family or friends. Woolf knew exactly what had happened to her, yet she wished it had not happened. She became confused, uncertain of herself, and finally came to believe that she was insane. At the age of 51, she committed suicide.

According to Miller, Woolf’s suicide could have been prevented if she had a therapist who believed her. Unfortunately, during the era in which Woolf lived, Freud was the great expert on mental illness. And even Freud had to deny the fact of sexual abuse in order to be accepted by his medical peers and by society.

Miller courageously returns to Freud’s earlier insight about childhood trauma and mental illness. With the help of the right therapist who acknowledges the reality of the patient’s abuse, the healing process can proceed. The trauma victim must experience the pain that was repressed at an early age. For Miller, this is the only way that emotional blockages can be resolved. I can only think that Miller would have been horrified at today's solution to mental suffering — more repression of these feelings by giving the victim psychiatric drugs to Band-Aid the pain and push it even further from awareness.