Book Review - The Truth Will Set You Free: Overcoming Emotional Blindness and Finding Your True Adult Self - Alice Miller, Ph.D., 2001, Basic Books, New York, pps. 203, $24.00

Reviewed by John A. Speyrer

"If you abide in my word, then you are truly disciples of mine;
and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."
-- John 8:31-32

Alice Miller has written another great book and you can read its engaging Prologue for free on her website [See The Forbidden Issue ]. She begins by telling us that as a child she questioned the Bible. Why did God prohibit Adam and Eve from having knowledge by prohibiting their eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge? The acquisition of knowledge should not be accompanied with such huge penalties. Why was God both loving and yet vengeful?

He seemed to be more maladjusted than his human creatures. Why were the first couple punished so severely for disobedience; for showing natural curiosity. It was explained to her that Genesis was symbolic. Symbolic of what, she wanted to know. Alice Miller decided early in life that the Bible was written by man; probably by men who had been mistreated by a parent. That was her explanation of God's sadistic behavior as described throughout the Old Testament.

Well done, Alice Miller! It had taken me over a quarter of a century of primal therapy to arrive at that same conclusion! [See my article My Mother As God; God As My Mother.]

Dr. Miller discusses the prevalent concept that some of us are just born "bad." In spite of overwhelming evidence, this myth, she writes, just refuses to go away. She believes that "The capacity for empathy. . . cannot be developed in the absence of loving care." And the effects of unmet essential needs are not all psychological since neurobiologists have determined that severely traumatized children have "severe lesions affecting 50 percent" of their brains. Psychologically, these adults have a need to react to the violence done to them in their youth. This, Dr. Miller believes, is the origin of the psychopathic individual - the person with few feelings and no conscience.

In spite of the abundant scientific knowledge which explains sociopathy there is almost a built-in avoidance of the implications of these findings. Miller devotes a goodly portion of her book examining the whys of this evasion in certain important areas of society where its professionals seemingly should know better. Each of these areas are examined in detail and contain case histories which support her conclusions. These avoidances, she writes, exist in the fields of medicine, psychotherapy, politics, the penal system, religion and biographical literature.

The Avoidance of Truth In Medicine and the Media

Instead of handling feelings by having an opportunity to talk about them, we are given medication to quieten their effects. Therapies have been around for a long time which allow patients to experience the early repressed feelings driving their symptoms, yet we never hear about them from the media. It is as though these findings are unimportant. Dr. Miller believes that one reason is because of the blame which the publicity would place on parents. Because of this taboo many seeking help are not receiving it.

Even if empathetic physicians had the time to listen to their patients, most lack the understanding of the "language of emotions." Doctors have an unconscious fear of uncovering their own childhood hurts which keeps them from being as useful to their patients as they could be.

She believes that in order to heal what is needed is an inner confrontation of the early repressed abuse and the uncovering of the defenses encasing those memories. Miller believes that if physicians were at least interested in hearing about their patient's personal histories that this could help. Even recognition of one's own limitations and some knowledge of psychosomatic medicine can be of some benefit. The widespread knowledge of the reality of the childhood of most people should be incorporated in medical training. Currently, to the patient's detriment, this information is more or less completely ignored.

How Knowledge of the Reality of Misery In Childhood Is Evaded in Psychotherapy

When one thinks of psychotherapy one thinks of childhood feelings. But it isn't necessarily so, Alice Miller writes. Instead, many schools of therapy tend to avoid those feelings as much as possible. Some therapists feel that such information can be harmful since their patients may then begin to think of themselves as victims. They don't want to encourage the "poor me" syndrome and believe that it is better and nobler to consider themselves as responsible adults in spite of their reality. The least they should expect from therapy is to gain an understaining of why they feel as though they were victims. Too many psychiatrists rush to give medication when instead exploration into their patient's past should be made.

Dr. Miller does not support combining medication with therapy since she believes that the medicine interferes with the patients interest in the reality of their past. Even specialists in post traumatic stress symptoms rely too much on medication. Yet the author insists that not everyone needs to go into profound regressions. Many only need "momentary glimpses of childhood reality" in order to improve. Understanding those early repressed feelings can provide an opportunity for growth, Alice Miller writes.

How Political Ideological Stances Are Affected By Early Chilhood Abuse

In this section Alice Miller examines the childhood and parents of Adolph Hitler. The author believes that the early childhood of many inspire them to seek a political goal from where they might have an opportunity to project the injustices of their home environment on to their subjects. The author believes that "racism, anti-semitism, fundamentalist fanaticism and 'ethnic cleansing.' " can all be traced to early parental neglect and cruelty.

Besides the use of case studies to illustrate her points the book also contains short but excellent insightful observations into the lives and childhoods of Stalin, St Augustine, Gorbachev, Pope John Paul, Milosovec, Equatorial African Familes, Rudolf Höss, Frank McCourt and psychoanalyst Harry Guntrip.

The Penal System As A Container For Detrimental Acting Out Behaviors

The area comprising the penal system is one in which its professionals seem to have an extraordinary need to deny the reality of early childhood suffering. Why people become criminals is a question which is too infrequently asked by those working in this system. Even prison psychotherapists do not use the opportunity they have to really help their charges. Adjustment to the present is the keyword rather than an emphasis on discovering the past . The author believes that a shift of this emphasis could prevent a great deal of recidivism.

Why Are the Churches Silent?

The author believes that the schools of many religious denominations justified the use of sadistic practicies as though they were revelations from God. Alice Miller wrote a letter to Pope John Paul asking him to exhort Catholics worldwide not to physically punish their children. [For a copy of the correspondence to the Pope and to world leaders see her website, The Forbidden Issue.

She wrote in The Truth Will Set You Free about the inadequate reply she received from the Vatican. She was not expecting a proclamation by the church in an attempt to change attitudes of parents in child rearing, but, at minimum was seeking some form of acknowledgment by the church about how serious the problem is. Miller wonders why her appeal was ignored. She asks, "(w)hy do they choose to ignore the sources that have been pointed out to them?" She believes that Catholics ". . . accept the authoritian attitude of the church because it is something they are only too familiar with from their own childhood."

People who are taught to obey without question are the types who "display an astounding willingness to espouse the most abstruse ideologies of religious sects, neo-Nazi groups, or fundamentalist communities, and at the command of others (commands from others are indispensible!) will think nothing of destroying human lives and trampling on human dignity." This was written before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the United States but her statement well explains the ultimate origins of this catastrophic event! We already know the sources of violence. How long will it take to change childrearing practices?

Alice Miller believes that both the churches and government are fearful of bringing up the topic of violence in childrearing because they don't want to disturb their congregations and voters. Perhaps, she writes, it is an unconscious fear of retribution from their parents! She believes that there are individual priests who know and understand the latest scientific truths. Miller wrote how St Augustine is known for his love of God, and that he was able to overcome the beatings he received as a small child. However, it is true that he did encourage child beating and wrote about how children were innately bad. He rejected his only child who was "born out of sin" and some believe that Augustine probably caused his son's early death.

The Myopic Authors of Biographies

Alice Miller bemoans the reality that generally it is only psychohistorians who examine in detail the infancy and childhood of the subjects of their biographies. Thousands of books have been written about the lives of Hitler and Stalin yet their authors have almost completely ignored their subject's childhood. Even when they did mention significantly cruel upbringings they most often ignore its potentially horrendous implications.

Miller contrasts the upbringing of Stalin with that of Gorbachev. Stalin was the child of an alcoholic father who administered daily beatings to his only son. His mother was distant and nonsupportive. She was away from home quite frequently. As head of the Communist government his paranoia directly resulted in the deaths of millions whom he falsely suspected of being traitors and thus enemies to his well being. Miller writes that perhaps if Stalin had known the real origins of his distrust of others, multitudes would have saved from imprisonment, torture and death.

Gorbachev, on the other hand, was from a family which had no tradition of child beating. His career in government was marked by respect for others, relative openness, and the lack of hypocrisy. The author believes that although Gorbachev's family was very poor, his early needs for love and affection had been met. She writes: "(P)overty may have no adverse effect on the character of a child as long as that child's personal integrity is not damaged by hypocrisy, cruelty, abuse, corporal punishment, or psychological humiliation."

In recent autobiographical literature there has been of late less of a tendency to romanticize one's early upbringing. Alice Miller writes that even though realism is expressed in such writings the pain and suffering endured is made to appear less significant than it really was. No rebellion is displayed. Even when humiliation and pain are written about, they are often downplayed. In Angela's Ashes author Frank McCourt describes such injustices in disheartening detail, yet the childhood tragedies he and his siblings suffered are written about in a humorous fashion which denies their significance both to him and his readers. Biographers are thus neglecting an important way of insightfully informing their readers about the true knowledge of the origins of much of the sufferings in the world.

* * *

In answering the question of what is the most important issue of psychotherapy today, the author responds that it is "the emotional and cognitive recognition of the truth" as it relates to our present sufferings and the importance of the presence of an "enlightened witness" to help us reduce these sufferings.

Miller defines "enlightened witness" as "therapists with the courage to face up to their own histories and thereby to gain their autonomy rather than seeking to offset their own repressed feelings of ineffectuality by exercising power over their patients." Therapists should not be neutral, she insists, but instead be on the side of their client in championing their child who once was.

So how do we discover who we once were? How do we uncover our histories? Even without psychotherapy some are able to extricate themselves from their repressions and projections. In the Chapter entitled Talking It Through, she examines how others have shuckled off their childhood pains in therapy, simply by coming to understand the origin of their unhappiness. If only it were that easy! Perhaps, for some with mild neuroses - those who were not seriously damaged - behavioral changed can be made relatively easy.

In her many books Alice Miller has often talked the talk of primal therapy, but her attempt at walking the walk had been disastrous. In The Truth Will Set You Free, after mentioning that she had three uneventful classical psychoanalyses, she writes,

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 feeling in their patients without assisting them in extricating themselves from their personal chaos." -- pp. 132-133 [ For further information see her interview in Psychologie Heute, Das Psycho-Geschäft und die Würde des Patienten, April, 1995 ] .
What Miller writes is certainly true. Going into primal therapy is occasionally not an inconsequential decision. Canadian Paul Vereshack, M.D., suggests that if your life is going well and you are reasonably happy then it might be advisable to leave well enough alone. He writes that about half of patients will succeed in the therapy. He recommends that some of those have access to deep levels of feeling and perhaps should pass-up the therapy. "Others who can reach these levels should not attempt to do so. Their pain may be too great, their ego structures too weakened by childhood experience. This dangerous combination can give rise to severe acting-out or other kinds of breakdowns." -- p. 68, The Psychology of the Deepest Self. Here is a link to the web based version of this book which is entitled, Help Me - I'm Tired of Feeling Bad.

In Chapter 12 of his book Dr. Vereshack asks, Who Should Take the Journey? His reply:

I have always said to incoming patients who wonder if they should be in psychotherapy, 'If your brain works, leave it alone.' If you are reasonably functional in your thinking, feeling, and behaviour, If your work, your play, and your intimacy are going well, if you are reasonably content and feel good most of the time, for God's sake don't try to undo the anchorings of your mind.

If, however, you hurt too much of the time, if things aren't going well in too many areas of your life, or, if you are the kind of person who feels compelled to understand your deepest self, and if you are prepared to be in emotional pain for an undetermined period of time in order to obtain the gifts of Holistic Insight and improved function, then welcome aboard. -- p. 75

Alice Miller ends her book with an Epilogue, continuing her dialogue with the problem posed by the tree of knowledge of Genesis. We must make a decision, she writes, in favor of knowledge. We must be able to recognize the evil both done to us and evil we do to our children.

Miller draws on the image of the family of Jesus as ideal. Loved even before his birth, Mary and Joseph viewed themselves as his servants. The result was not an unruly selfish child. To the contrary, he became obedient, aware, and empathic. She writes, "The image of God entertained by children who have received love is a mirror of their very first experiences. Their God will understand, encourage, explain, pass on knowledge and be tolerant of mistakes. He will never punish them for their curiosity, suffocate their creativity, seduce them, give them incomprehensible commands, or strike fear into their hearts."

Unfortunately, the churchmen, themselves being deprived of a happy childhood could not follow these values as the Crusades and the Inquisition were later to clearly show. "Two thousand years after Christ, we can in fact say that his teachings have yet to find their way into the church."

Children brought up in love "will be immune to the teachings of those biblical authors representing the father as a jealous God, unpredictable and unjust, even downright cruel."
But children forced to overlook the cruelty born of irresponsibility and indifference on the part of their parents are in danger of blindly adopting this attitude themselves and staying bogged down in the fatalistic ideology that declares evil to be the way of the world. As adults they will retain the perspective of the helpless child with no alternative but to come to terms with its fate. They will not know that, paradoxically, they can only grow out of this childlike attitude if they lose the fear of the wrath of God (their parents) and are willing to inform themselves about the destructive consequences of repressed childhood traumas. But if they do become alive to this truth, they will regain their lost sensibility for the suffering of children and free themselves of their emotional blindness. -- p. 190

Alice Miller, who lives in Europe, is a world-famous author of nine books about the causes and effects of early childhood trauma.