Alice Miller on Trauma, Repression, Masochism, Repetition Compulsion, and Therapeutic Work

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The following text is from Alice Miller's book "Banished Knowledge."

As time went on it became clear to me that the idea of children inventing traumas is absurd. Anyone is free to check on the natural law that human beings will avoid pain rather than seek it. They seek pleasure, joy, reassurance. Masochism is no exception to this rule: It is a compulsion to inflict new suffering on oneself to keep former suffering repressed. The masochist who at great expense has himself whipped by a prostitute and insists on sitting on a chamber pot during the procedure is obeying a compulsion to reproduce the trauma of his toilet training and to keep the memory repressed at all costs. Another law of life is that the idealization of the parents with the aid of fantasy and repression helps the child to survive; thus to attribute bad things to one's nearest and dearest would run counter to natural defenses and the law of life. It follows that a child will never invent traumas. On the contrary, to survive the child must resort to fantasy to make the pain bearable.
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The remembered and documented facts often reveal only a small part of the fate a child has had to suffer. The larger part consists of the repressed experiences that cannot be told because they were never consciously experienced. And with therapists who shrink from the reality of child abuse, they will never be found. For a therapist to assert, "I always believe my patients," doesn't mean that he can't still fail to perceive their repression and denial. He cannot, of course, know more about his patient's concrete past than the patient is capable of finding out himself. The patient must uncover the facts with the aid of his feelings; he must examine his discoveries, query his own statements, until he arrives at the certainty: Such and such actually happened. But the realm of the possible is infinite, and that is what the therapist must know. There is nothing that could not be inflicted on a child. This knowledge enables the therapist to accompany the patient on his journey, a journey that often leads through hells and torture chambers. These must be returned to, again and again, until every detail of the traumatic scene can be experienced, to allow the effect of the trauma to dissolve and the injury at last to heal.
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The therapist will help him discover the truth of his history so that he doesn't blame the wrong people but blames only those who really deserve it and, moreover, only for those deeds that were actually committed. For nobody achieves freedom by blaming people who in reality never harmed him. By directing diffuse, nonspecific, and unsubstantiated accusations at surrogate persons, the patient will achieve no improvement of his condition but will often remain in a state of disastrous confusion. Liberation comes with the ability to defend oneself where it is necessary and appropriate. The more realistic a person becomes and the more he frees himself of ideological and theoretical trimmings, the better he will succeed.

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