A review of Alice Miller's The Body Never Lies: The Lingering
Effect of Cruel Parenting. New York: Norton. (2005)
by Stephen Khamsi, Ph.D.
May 11, 2005
|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.
Dr. Miller's chief concern has always been childhood suffering,
its denial, and the lasting effects on individuals and on
societies. The focus of her current book? The denial of real
emotions--the tension between what we really feel and what we
"should" feel--and the enduring effects 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 an attempt 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 medical preparations to provoke
illness 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.
What betrayal? We know that child abuse and child neglect are
pervasive and destructive. And we know that violence toward
children is stored within them and, later in life, they will turn
the violence on themselves--in depression, drug addiction,
illness, suicide, or some other form of early death. And,
according to Tears for Fears, "when life begins with needles
and pins, it ends with swords and knives." Sometimes these
swords and knives are directed at other people--sometimes at whole
In The Body Never Lies, Miller pays particular attention to the
Fourth Commandment--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, suggests the author, 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
What do these writers, dictators, serial killers and others have
in common? They all lived their lives in accord with 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
each 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--they are reactions to neglect, abuse, or a lack of
nourishing communications. "Negative emotions" are
important signals emitted by the body in attempts to make itself
heard. The banished emotions reassert themselves--real needs and
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, is indispensable in this process of
psychological integration and personal liberation.
Techniques of converting "negative" emotions into
"positive" emotions will fail. Why? Because these
manipulations reinforce denial, rather than leading to honest
confrontations with one's authentic emotions. And forgiveness,
Miller reminds us, has never had a healing effect. Preaching
forgiveness is hypocritical, futile, and actively harmful. Harmful
because the body doesn't understand moral precepts. One may
rightly forgive their parents if they realize what they've done,
though, if they apologize for the pain they've caused.
Still, Miller retains a hopeful view of the future. While society
at present always sides with the parents, individual bodies are
fighting against the 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 needs to move through infantile fears and
reject the illusion that our parents will save us. When we finally
experience our real truths of being unloved, neglected and beaten;
when we internally separate from our parents; when we experience
love for the worthy child we once were...only then our bodies can
experience rest and relief, and only then can we get on with the
important business of real life.
The Body Never Lies: The Lingering
Effects of Cruel Parenting
|Stephen Khamsi, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist in private
practice in San Francisco. See Dr. Khamsi's Web pages at www.skhamsi.cjb.net
for further information.
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