'The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self' by Alice Miller
Over the years, various colleagues have recommended Alice Miller’s book, ‘The Drama of the Gifted Child’. I kept getting thrown off by the title and wondered how relevant it would be compared to other books on my reading list. Finally, I ordered it from Amazon and after seeing that the book is delightfully thin, I decided to give it a go. I can easily say, that If I could only recommend one book to therapists, this would be the one.
Miller writes about the ways in which people, therapists explicitly included, tend to hide from the painful realities of childhood, namely the ways in which they were hurt or didn’t have their needs met by caregivers. She writes beautifully about the defenses that get used in order to protect oneself. I originally wanted to write a summary of her book, but I realized that I was struggling to do so because she has already captured what she wants to say so well. So, I gave up on that and instead I picked a few of my favourite lines and strung them loosely together below to give you a flavour of the book.
Activity as a Defense Against Feeling
The main theme in the book relates to how feelings of abandonment and pain from past trauma lead to maladaptive coping habits of all sorts. It’s very common for patients to explain that they were highly functioning for a long time, then something happened, or they were forced to slow down, and then their symptoms of trauma erupted. The following quote captures the essence of why someone would utilize 'keeping busy' as a way to avoid feeling. Miller writes, “not even one moment of quiet can be permitted during which the burning loneliness of her childhood experience might be felt, for she fears that feeling more than death.”
Depression and Grandiosity
Depression and grandiosity are themes she returns to a number of times. She explains, “In fact, grandiosity is the defense again depression, and depression is the defense against the deep pain over the loss of the self that results from denial.” Miller expands on this by explaining that, “Both the depressive and the grandiose person completely deny their childhood reality by living as though the availability of the parents could still be salvaged: the grandiose person through the illusion of achievement, and the depressive through his constant fear of losing “love.” Neither can accept the truth that this loss of absence of love has already happened in the past and that no effort whatsoever can change this fact.“
Miller writes about the emergence of a false-self who exists to maintain attachment bonds, but the cost is that one’s true self withers or never gets the chance to fully develop. She illustrates this by saying, “In what is described as depression and experienced as emptiness, futility, fear of impoverishment and loneliness can usually be recognized as the tragic loss of the self in childhood, manifested as the total alienation from the self in the adult.”
Unconditional Love and Mourning
The idea that an adult needs unconditional love is challenged. Miller explains that “As adults, we don’t need unconditional love, not even from our therapists. This is a childhood need, one that can never be fulfilled later in life, and we are playing with illusions if we have never mourned this lost opportunity. But there are other things we can get from good therapists: reliability, honesty, respect, trust, empathy, understanding, and an ability to clarify their emotions so that they need not bother us with them.” She goes on to highlight the importance of mourning in trauma work by saying, “Probably the greatest of wounds – not to have been loved just as one truly was – cannot heal without the work of mourning,”
I hope you enjoyed those quotes and that they excite you enough to read the book if you haven’t already. I know that I’ll probably read this book again multiple times over the course of my life. The insights, on a personal and professional level, are numerous and rich.