Book Review of:
Alice Miller,
"The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self ",
Bollati Boringhieri, Turin 1996

      "I don't remember anything from my childhood"

      "I had a happy childhood"

      "I've always been precocious; as a child I was the apple of my parents' eye, they said I was a gifted child ".

Sentences like these, often gathered during the first meeting with a psychotherapist, describe similar situations: the situation in which, s/he who, as an adult, suffers from severe psychological discomfort, is unable to explain or resolve it at a conscious and rational level.

This person, when telling his/her story to a therapist for the first time, makes a move different from the preceding ones in which s/he would have just been "letting off steam" with family, friends or people with whom s/he had an affectionate relationship; this time, s/he recognizes that there is a problem that can not be resolved on its own, and so an external witness/healer is chosen, someone neutral, a "technician", with whom to question the convictions that had sustained him/her up to that moment.

Analyzing the three comments on childhood, we can say that in the first case "I can't remember anything about my childhood" the so-called removal phenomenon has taken place, meaning that the memories have not been erased- nothing is ever really forgotten- but they have been made inaccessible by the conscious memory.

The reasons for which this happens will come out sooner or later during the therapy when the person begins to tell about some events in their childhood and family life and, almost always, they are bad memories, of events during which the child was ignored, humiliated, misunderstood in his needs, or brutally offended in his/her dignity as a person, when nothing worse comes out, meaning personal identity or sexual trauma.

The memories are removed at a conscious level because they are intolerable for that person; today's adult cannot accept the wounds to the self that have accumulated during the course of his/her personal history and would, once realized, force him/her to take another look at his/her parents for that which they truly were and therefore abandon the false image that had been given by the parents themselves when the patient was little.

Those who state that they had an happy childhood (when it wasn't) and based on this are not able to explain why, they are an unhappy adult, are actually doing something similar to that of removal, only that instead of impeding access to real memories, the patients deny them and dress them up into happy memories.

The person who states that s/he has always been precocious and was the pride and joy of the family, and isn't able to explain the contrast between the abilities of the child and the unhappiness of the adult, is never actually talking in first person, but refers to the image of his/her childhood as told by his/her parents.

Something is not quite right with the story, however; this image is referred to in an uncritical fashion, or, in certain cases, it is told indifferently without true participation, with irony, and sometimes sarcasm, as if it were someone else's life.

 

During their early childhood (from a year and a half to five years old) these people we often defined as "good" and "gifted" children, because they had precocious behavior regarding independence (feeding, potty training, walking, behavior in pre-school, managing themselves, and accepting responsibilities towards the younger siblings).

According to common opinion, this should lead to a happy and successful adult; those who have such a childhood at their backs, should, as an adult, have a strong conscience of their personal value; actually, behind the facade of empty grandeur or efficiency, behind an unreal ideal image of the self and of the family, there are always feelings of emptiness, depression, self-alienation, absurdity of life; there are also excessive feelings of duty, anxiety, stiffness, guilt and shame, as well as psychological or even psychiatric problems.

In all of these cases, in front of the removal of past events, denial of memories, adhering to ideals which are not one's own, we find ourselves in front of a person that, not wanting to know anything about their own personal history, doesn't know that s/he is actually, for good or for evil, in health or sickness, constantly influenced by it.

These people, in many fields of their lives, act as though they haven't updated their archives and the instruments needed to confront life: they are still afraid of dangers that were once real, but have not been so for a long time; they act upon unconscious memories, feelings and needs that have been removed, and which, for as long as they remain buried, often determine, in a perverse way, everything that these people do or do not do. An unresolved childhood conflict often, as an adult, is cemented, in a repeating compulsion to which the key has been lost.

To describe the psychological climate of such a childhood, different phases can be described:

  • A fundamental need of the child is that of being taken into consideration and taken seriously, for what s/he really is, and not for what the parents would like him/her to be;
  • This means respecting feelings, sensations, emotions and their expressions albeit with a child's way of expressing them;
  • In an atmosphere of appreciation and respect for his/her feelings, the child can begin to give up the symbiosis with the mother and begin to take the path to autonomy;
  • So that this can happen, it is important that the parents have been raised in a climate of love and respect; parents who have been raised in this way, are able to transmit to their child that feeling of security and protection that favors the development of self trust and the search for self sufficiency, that is healthy growth.;
  • Parents who have been raised in a family that did not respect them as individuals, as adults also live in a state of lack of affection, which means that they will strive, for their whole lives, for that which their parents hadn't been able to give them at the right time, and that is someone who is interested in them, who understands them, loves and respects them;
  • This search will never be successful, because it regards an unchangeable past situation that has passed and cannot be repeated;
  • Those who (like those who deny or remove their own past), do not face their personal history, will continue to be the victims of an unconscious and unsatisfied desire; they will often try and satisfy it through substitutes until they are able to face it and see the events of their lives with different eyes.

The child raised in this manner, once s/he has become an adult, will continue to deny his/her unconscious feelings and will try to reach, without ever really satisfying them, the satisfaction of those removed needs that have in the meantime become perverse and pathological; in order to do this, s/he will often use symbols s/he doesn't understand and that lead to dependence: alcohol, drugs, sexual perversions, repeated compulsions, belonging to political groups, religious sects, etc.....

In addition to this behavior, is the creation of true family and personal myths, developed in order to protect the removed truths, and this can have lethal effects, if the pathology has set off mechanisms of serious disturbances or somatization; these mechanisms, with the passing of time tend to become autonomous and no longer controllable;

One of the substitutional systems to try and resolve personal problems and try to satisfy the subconscious desires of love, is in the raising of children, taking advantage of the fact that for better or worse, newborns and small children are completely dependant on their parents.

This scheme allows us to understand another, which repeats almost constantly in the personal history of those who as adult have psychological problems:

  • The mother was almost always insecure of herself on the emotional and affectionate plane: her psychological balance often depended on the child, or on the behavior and the way the child was: this insecurity was often hidden behind a facade of security and authoritativeness which created an icy family environment, especially for the weaker members, meaning the child.;
  • In addition to the mother's, or both parents' need, is the surprising ability of the "gifted and precocious" child. The gifted child is an intelligent child, who has that special sensitivity that allows him/her to feel and often prevent, that which the parents ask in order to maintain the family balance;
  • In this way, the child guaranteed his/her parents' "love", s/he felt that s/he was needed, and spent his/her life satisfying the needs of his/her parents.

This "good and obedient" child, doesn't realize that s/has has committed three serious mistakes:

  • s/he had mistaken the love given as love for her/himself; but s/he was not loved for being her/himself, but only for what s/he did or worse, as a game piece in the battle for family dominance, between mother and father: the child is the mother's ally against the father, or vice versa;
  • s/he learned from the beginning to suffocate and lose his/her true self, for fear of losing the mother's "love", and has therefore created a false image of her/himself, a "false self" which does not correspond to the true individual, and, like an overly tight mask, is suffocating;
  • s/he has lost or never acquired the ability to feel autonomous emotions and therefore the ability to truly communicate.

In fact, this ability, in a normal and stable family, develops in early childhood, when the parents allow the child to express his/her emotions and feelings, reassuring him/her that, whatever s/he says, s/he will not lose the love and support the s/he needs.

When the parents, on the other hand, had to withstand an absent or unavailable mother or father, they use the fact that the child is available and raise him/her to become what they want, ignoring, in turn the child's personality and needs and repeating the original family pathology.

For a child raised in this way, breaking the psychological tie with his/her parents is nearly impossible; even as an adult s/he will always depend on the confirmation of his/her parents or of people who represent the parents like partners, groups, or the community.

Psychotherapy helps those who have suffered similar childhood experiences to not only intellectually understand their personal history, but to also feel emotions through the recreation of memories. All of this is not easy, because it implies giving up the "cover memories" and the false images of the self, which have been part of, up to that moment, the patient's personal structure.

Analysis of resistance that comes out during therapy, allows the patient to give up the image of the self used up to that moment, of having only been good, comprehensive, generous, controlled, and never having personal needs.

With this, a series of psychological mechanisms click into place and allow the patient to find his/her way to personal growth:

  • Recovery of authentic feeling and personal authenticity;
  • Legitimacy in trying to express personal opinions and feelings even if they are in contrast to those of a loved one;
  • Understanding that to love someone means to understand him/her for what they truly are, good and bad;
  • Acceptance that they can have contrasting and ambivalent feelings towards a loved one with out having to be afraid of losing them;
  • Creation of an independent and adult relationship with the parents;
  • Respect for the self and others.