Book Review: “The Drama of the Gifted Child” by Alice Miller
by Chris TerryNelson
Miller, Alice (2007). The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search For the True Self.
New York, NY: Basic Books. pp. 1-133.
“The Drama of the Gifted Child” is the first book that I feel has described both the blessing and curse of those who have abnormally sensitive emotional radar. The source of this “gift” lay in the history of the child who was asked to perform adult responsibilities and behaviors for his or her primary caregivers. This process is now often described in psychology as “parentification,” which suggests an imposition of the psychological needs of the parents at the cost of the needs of the child. Whether these needs were instrumental (i.e., performing physical care for a sick parent or sibling) or emotional (i.e., performing therapy for a disturbed primary care giver), the child often ends up learning to repress their own needs. Most importantly, as Miller points out, many parentified children seek out healing professions in order to continue performing their parentified role. If the genesis of this role is not understood and accepted, such that one is able to give thanks for the gift and grieve the loss of one’s childhood, the drama of the gifted child will continue to cause great unnecessary suffering into adulthood.
It is precisely with this warning to therapists that Miller opens her book in the first chapter, entitled “How We Became Psychotherapists.” Using a psychodynamic framework, Miller believes that “we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery of the truth about our unique history of our childhood” (p. 1). Her work has exposed a pattern of people who, having achieved so much in life and who appear to exert a strong confidence, actually hide feelings of “emptiness and self-alienation, and a sense that their life has no meaning” (p. 5). Once their grandiosity falters, they are then “plagued by anxiety or deep feelings of guilt and shame.” These patients are unable to detect where their suffering is coming from, and when asked about their childhood, they often believe that their childhood was “happy and protected.” Yet, despite strong introspection and empathy, they are cut off from accessing the emotional world of their own childhood. “Very often, they show disdain and irony, even derision and cynicism, for the child they were” (p. 6).
Miller’s baseline for psychic health of children lies in their need for unconditional love and mirroring at young age. “The child has a primary need from the very beginning of her life to be regarded and respected as the person she really is at any given time,” which includes her “emotions, sensations, and her expression from the first day onward.” In moving towards the stage separation from the mother, the child must be able to accomplish individuation and autonomy. For this to be fostered, the parents often must have grown up with such needs being met. If the parents themselves are deprived, they will seek “the presence of a person who is completely aware of them and takes them seriously” (p. 7). No one fits this substitute position better than a child, but obviously even this attempt to fill a hole in the parent’s past is impossible. Thus, even the failure to be the messianic substitute for the parent is thus internalized by the child. They are never good enough, even though they try so hard to be good.
In Miller’s own work with people in the helping professions, she has confronted childhood histories that include a primary caregiver (mother, father, older sibling, etc.) who “was emotionally insecure and who depended for her equilibrium on her child’s behaving a particular way” (p. 7-8). In turn the child adapted to this need by developing a highly sensitive and intuitive response system that unconsciously created a role-reversal. Since the child became a caretaker for the parent-figure, he or she believed this role secured their parent’s love. These “parentified” children became confidantes, comforters, advisers and supporters of their parents and siblings. Miller notes that such highly attuned capacity for reading the needs of others often led these parentified children to become therapists (hence chapter one’s title: “How We Became Psychotherapists”). While a seemingly good fit for therapy, parentified children who have been gifted with such sensitivity have also been cursed with an emotional disturbance: “As long as the therapist is not aware of his repression, it can compel him to use his patients, who depend on him, to meet his unmet needs with substitutes” (p. 8).
When the child becomes the primary-caregiver, it often means that the child’s needs for “respect, echoing, understanding, sympathy and mirroring have had to be repressed” (p.9). This has several consequences: a heightened capacity to avoid one’s own feelings (such as jealousy, envy, anger, loneliness, helplessness, or anxiety) as a child and as an adult, while also being dominated by the feeling-world of (m)others; a survivalist reliance upon a false ego built upon unrealistic grandiose achievement; depressive phases after an inevitable failure to achieve “love,” no matter how brilliant one’s performance; lingering feelings of self-doubt, perfectionism, and an imposter-syndrome; and a strong backlash of anger and resentment for feeling trapped inside this false self into adulthood.
The book is entitled “The Drama of the Gifted Child” because the child has learned to attach their self-esteem to their gifts and abilities. This is because their parent(s) failed to give them unconditional love, but this truth has been hidden from them. The child is thus stuck in a constant drama of grandiose success and depressive failure.
It is usually after the grandiose false self begins to cave that the depressed false self emerges. For Miller, depression “consists of a denial of one’s own emotional reactions … such as discontent, anger, rage, pain, even hunger – and, of course, enjoyment of their own bodies” (p. 46). The body is attempting to speak a truth that the false self is refusing to hear, and this is what creates depressive suffering. These repressed feelings will continue to emerge over the course of the adult’s life, often creating new depressive phases as signals of distress.
The proper mode of therapy for parentified adult-children lies in helping them experience the deep grief of a lost childhood, which becomes their own personal truth. It allows them to look back on their childhood, which they previously presumed was happy and stable, to ask the question: “Does this mean that it was not really me whom you loved, but only what I pretended to be? The well-behaved, reliable, empathic, understanding and convenient child, who in fact was never a child at all?” (p. 15). The purpose of such interrogations is not to literally confront one’s parents and attempt to blame them for one’s current unhappiness. Rather, the work of grieving one’s loss of childhood and finding the true feelings of the true self is a personal responsibility that leads to forgiveness and freedom from the aches of one’s past.
It goes without saying that this book is not about “gifted children” in the usual sense. Instead, it is an intensive look at the dark truth behind such giftedness, and the quiet and peculiar suffering that so many endure. It names precisely the kind of narcissistic dynamic that can derail the “gifted” psychotherapist, and because of this, I would make it required reading for therapists in training. Miller sometimes elides the distinctions between various types of abuse, and all too easily moves from talking about emotionally disturbed narcissistic mothers to physically abusive parents. Her inclusion of past psychoanalytic-biographical work of figures such as Herman Hesse can often feel like an academic interruption in an otherwise very personal book. The density of this work is most palpable for the parentified reader, perhaps due to the fact that they are being addressed as true selves for the first time.
Table of Contents:
1 THE DRAMA OF THE GIFTED CHILD AND HOW WE BECAME
The Poor Rich Child
The Lost World of Feelings
In Search of the True Self
The Therapist’s History
The Golden Brain
2 DEPRESSION AND GRANDIOSITY: TWO RELATED FORMS OF DENIAL
The Vicissitudes of the Child’s Needs
The Illusion of love
Depression as the Reverse of Grandiosity
Depression as Denial of the Self
Depressive Phases During Therapy
Suppression of Essential Needs
The Accumulation of Strong, Hidden Feelings
The Inner Prison
A Social Aspect of Depression
The Legend of Narcissus
3 THE VICIOUS CIRCLE OF CONTEMPT
Humiliation for the Child, Disrespect for the Weak, & Where It Goes from There
Working With Contempt in Therapy
Damaged Self-Articulation in the Compulsion to Repeat
Perpetuation of Contempt in Perversion and Obsessive Behavior
“Depravity” as “Evil” in Herman Hesse’s Childhood World
The Mother as Society’s Agent During the First Year’s of Life
The Loneliness of the Contemptuous
Achieving Freedom from Contempt and Respecting Life